I feel it’s fairly easy to be sniffy about the period costume drama of much British cinematic and TV production. After all, the heritage industry is omnipresent in the UK and does seem to contribute a lot to the economy, though it contributes less that’s valuable to Britain’s perception of itself and its history, as most of these productions are focused on something glorious and golden about the past. I certainly lapse into an easy disdain for the costume drama, even as I love to go and see each new one and see how it tries to extend or adapt or even maybe undermine that (now tedious, to me) cultural narrative. As far as these productions go, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, were among the most adept, and I think in some ways this adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel — one of their later productions — maybe also be their finest.
It’s a handsomely mounted Edwardian period production, replete with all the fashions and details of the era, but it tells a story about class and wealth, which touches slightly on colonialism even — as when we see Anthony Hopkins’s rubber trader Henry Wilcox in his office named for Africa, but which Emma Thompson’s Margaret Schlegel notes has nothing that might suggest that continent. The two of them fall in love after the death of his wife Ruth (Vanessa Redgrave), who had become friends with Margaret, and even between these two families, the class divides are strong, roughly Tory vs Labour politically, bankers vs artisans. Into that mix, the story also throws the working class Leonard Bast (Samuel West), eagerly trying to better himself, but the way all these three families intersect creates tension, conflict, a bit of tragedy and a lot of shifting ethical dynamics. The film cannily compares the interaction between Leonard and Margaret’s younger flighty sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) with that between Henry and Margaret, and shows the hypocrisy of classism. But all the while, those who long for bucolic countryside, period dresses and the trappings of English heritage cinema will find plenty to their taste also.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director James Ivory; Writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (based on the novel by E. M. Forster); Cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts; Starring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham Carter, Samuel West, Vanessa Redgrave; Length 142 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Friday 17 December 2021 (and a long time ago, probably on VHS at home in Wellington in the 1990s).
This very much feels like a film from 1941. Almost every account of the film seems to want to mention that it was Winston Churchill’s favourite film (even that maybe he wrote one or two of Nelson’s speeches), but that’s the kind of thing that feels apocryphal: it’s a film that is engineered to feed into the war effort, and is thus part of a propaganda machine. If Nelson’s speeches feel Churchillian that’s because they are designed to be a rousing call to arms against a foreign despot hellbent on European domination. Still, for all that, this cannily remains focused on Vivien Leigh’s title character, Emma Hamilton, a Lady but one of dubious morals, it seems. Or perhaps not dubious, but certainly a woman who remains hampered throughout her life by the taint of her class background. You can see it in the aristocratic men who fall for her, falling for an image or idea of her (as a teenager she was the model for a number of paintings, particularly by Romney), but who keep her at arm’s length, never quite admitting her to the centre of society, and thus it’s framed by the story of her sad demise. It also feels a little wayward in its plotting at times, taking us down side roads that don’t seem to add to the drama at the heart, which is about her affair with (real-life husband) Laurence Olivier’s Lord Nelson. It ends up feeling like a missed opportunity with the strong undertow of wartime propaganda, albeit a much more palatable way to spin that.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alexander Korda; Writers Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff; Cinematographer Rudolph Maté; Starring Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Alan Mowbray, Gladys Cooper; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 11 December 2021.
Not sure why I should be suspicious every time I start a David Lean film, but he knew how to craft a movie and most that I’ve seen have been exceptionally well crafted, and not all of them have attained the renown of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Brief Encounter. The cannily observed The Passionate Friends is a personal highlight, for example, and while this particular film looks to be a rather knockabout comedy — it casts Charles Laughton as a drunken bootmaker in late-19th century Salford (just outside Manchester), and that’s a recipe for comic disaster — it turns out to be, if not social realism, still a fairly incisive work about the English working classes. The title comes from a phrase referring to having no effective control over a situation, and his daughter Maggie (Brenda De Banzie) is the one offering Henry Hobson that particular ‘choice’, as she takes control of her own future within the (fairly mean) terms that society is offering her. I wouldn’t call it a progressive film, but it feels moreso than some of what would come out of English society in the decades after this, and at its heart is a delightful romantic fantasy about getting one up on the small-minded mean-spirited small town forces of conformity.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director David Lean; Writers Wynyard Browne, Lean and Norman Spencer (based on the play by Harold Brighouse); Cinematographer Jack Hildyard; Starring Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 10 September 2021.
Appropriately, it’s Hallowe’en when I watched this horror film, the last film in Criterion’s “Monsters and Madmen” boxset, which has been a trove of mediocre late-50s genre pieces but just for that has made it somewhat interesting by comparison to their usual fare. This I think is probably one of the best, but it’s also the only one that doesn’t take the horror much beyond the actual period into aliens and monsters, because the real monster here (as in a lot of the best horror) is a very human hubris. Boris Karloff plays a doctor in 1840s London experimenting with various chemicals to create a viable anaesthetic, which inevitably drives him to darker and more morally dubious alleys as he needs access to the drugs. There’s a small role for a young rakish Christopher Lee as a resurrection man and a cabal of shady criminals who are more or less at war with the police. The film is filled with dark shadows and atmospheric sets, and if it never really takes off, it’s more than creditable as a period piece, I think.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writer Jean Scott Rogers; Cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull; Starring Boris Karloff, Betta St. John, Christopher Lee, Adrienne Corri, Francis de Wolff; Length 86 minutes.
Seen in hotel room (DVD), Hastings, Saturday 31 October 2020.
This late-50s monster movie starts out pretty straight, as a Victorian-set police thriller (it appears the original British title was Grip of the Strangler, but it’s more famous under the American title). James Rankin, a private investigator played by Boris Karloff (the casting of whom already tips you off as to the future direction the film might take), looks into the case of the ‘Haymarket Strangler’ 20 years earlier, whom he believes to have been wrongly executed. It’s all fairly clunky in the way it’s put together, as Rankin quickly figures out the whereabouts of the missing murder weapon that’s the key to the case, but you realise when he finds it that this screenwriterly haste is because this is where the film properly starts. Once that happens, there’s plenty of fun in Karloff’s gurning performance, even if it all feels fairly unadventurous. Still, it’s silly fun.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Robert Day; Writers John Croydon [as “John C. Cooper”] and Jan Read (based on Read’s story “Stranglehold”); Cinematographer Lionel Banes; Starring Boris Karloff, Jean Kent, Elizabeth Allan; Length 79 minutes.
Seen in hotel room (DVD), Auckland, Wednesday 28 October 2020.
There’s a new American film out in cinemas that’s catching acclaim right now, Miss Juneteenth, but last week saw the belated UK release of Rocks, one of the stand-out films which premiered at last year’s London Film Festival (and Toronto too), and was originally slated for an April release. It’s great to finally have seen it, one of the recent highlights of a new crop of great British films that deal with real lives.
Watching this new and acclaimed British film, I find myself surprised because I sort of had director Sarah Gavron (unfairly no doubt!) pegged in my mind as a fairly bland middlebrow director, though perhaps I was just feeling uncharitable towards the very heritage-film-adjacent Suffragette (2015). However, this project is an entirely different story of quite different people in a different era (well, it’s set in the present). It’s clear, as the filmmakers discuss in a brief video intro that screens before the film, that this was very much a collaboration not just between the two writers but between them and the young first-time actors they found to play most of the roles. And it’s very persuasive (though co-writer Theresa Ikoko is right to question the meaning of the phrase “authentic”), if only — but not only, let me be clear — because it tells a story of characters who aren’t often foregrounded in British films.
Specifically it’s about a Black British girl of Nigerian descent, Olu, but nicknamed “Rocks” (Bukky Bakray), her small brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) and her entirely believable set of friends, most notably the slightly gawky Sumaya (Kosar Ali). Rocks finds herself abandoned by her mother and takes a picaresque tour of all these friends’ lives and their disparate living situations. The film is shot by Hélène Louvart as a constant jumble of movement and faces against its East London backdrops (somewhat more close-in than perhaps intended for me, because the cinema I was in showed it in the wrong aspect ratio). Anyway, it’s a great film that deals believably with young British kids navigating their lives, played very much as teenagers with all the awkwardness with words and difficulty around emotions as is too little seen, and makes it into a moving drama.
Director Sarah Gavron; Writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 19 September 2020.
I can see from reading others’ reviews that there are a lot of big fans of this Powell and Pressburger film, made in black-and-white and telling a wartime story of three people (pilgrims if you will) in Kent, a Women’s Land Army volunteer (Sheila Sim), and two sergeants (the British one played by Dennis Sim, the American by a real Sgt John Sweet). And to be fair by the end there were plenty of positive things to be said about it, but perhaps my own impressions were negatively affected by my first impressions, which are of the kind of British officers you get in contemporary films (and certainly in P&P productions) of clipped RP accents delivered peremptorily and with a fair dollop of condescension, competing for annoyance only with the (non-actor) American sergeant’s incomprehension at all the very British people around him treating him like dirt, until of course they finally relent and show some compassion. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a mysterious local putting glue in women’s hair, though this doesn’t remain a mystery for too long and is all resolved in a jolly and very English sort of understanding way (despite the unexamined underlying weird sexism of the whole thing). But this is a wartime film about people of different backgrounds coming together to learn something about what they are really united for, and if you’re willing to go along with that broadly patriotic premise (albeit executed without too much grandstanding insistence), then it’s a good film. It’s also — and this is perhaps key to my ultimate feeling of positivity towards the film in the end — absolutely gorgeously lit and photographed, with a deep focus and deep shadows, alongside shards of beautiful light punctuating each frame.
- When it was a box office failure in the UK, Powell re-edited the film heavily for the American market, dropping a lot of it, but also adding a prologue and epilogue with its American protagonist (Sgt Sweet) and his wife in NYC as he talks about Canterbury, then at the end, with her there, impressing upon her the closure he achieved in visiting. It’s a little heavy-handed, of course, rather eagerly over-explaining using stats why there was an American GI in England in the first place, which is probably why the distributor wanted it added.
- It’s a packed double-disc edition, with a number of featurettes about the film, but one of the key extras that contextualises the feature film within its era is Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister’s short film Listen to Britain (1942), a poetic propaganda film, bold in its use of sound to evoke a sense of a country united in wartime. Of course, it’s a very particular sense of nationality (and watching this on Mubi, I get the sense in their programming that putting this the day after a more recent British short film in which British Pakistani identities are examined is a pointed move), but that doesn’t detract from the artistry. The sound comes from fragments of speech in social settings, from news broadcasts, songs, the sounds of nature and of course the background drone of the warplanes and of industry. It’s all very compelling and beautiful, in its way.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Erwin Hillier; Starring Sheila Sim, Dennis Price, John Sweet, Eric Portman; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 28 July 2020.
This film is a bit of an oddity, a Bollywood film which takes the form of a sci-fi romance. It’s also the debut film from a woman director, Nitya Mehra, and though it wasn’t a big success, it still has plenty of its own distinct charms I think.
It seems it’s hardly been a critical hit, and to be fair it has plenty of silliness to its premise: that a man with doubts about his future (Sidharth Malhotra) gets to see a version of that future and thereby change his selfish behaviour (all a bit Groundhog Day I guess). However, it’s a multi-generational romance, so I think it’s fair to judge it by what it sets out to be, and I found it to be likeable and charming, even for lapses into occasional sentimentality (the film had earned it). There are sci-fi elements to some of the future settings which are nicely integrated, along with fetching touches (like a bus map suggesting Cambridge is just an outer suburb of London by the mid-21st century). The film uses — if I’m not mistaken — Glasgow for Cambridge, which doesn’t quite work but it’s less egregious than some British location work I’ve seen in other Bollywood films. It also goes through fewer tortuous tonal changes, sticking to its romantic central premise faithfully. All in all, it was sweet.
Director Nitya Mehra नित्या मेहरा; Writers Mehra and Sri Rao श्री राव; Cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran रवि के चन्द्रन; Starring Sidharth Malhotra ਸਿਧਾਰਥ ਮਲਹੋਤਰਾ, Katrina Kaif, Sayani Gupta সায়ানী গুপ্তা; Length 141 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 12 September 2016.
Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.
Continue reading “Two Netflix Films about Mediæval Kings in the British Isles: Outlaw/King (2018) and The King (2019)”
One filmmaker who has consistently engaged with (usually revolutionary) history is the Haitian Raoul Peck. Many of his films deal with the turbulent times of his home country, a country which has suffered no small amount of turbulence over the last fifty years, as testified by the five-film French DVD box set of his Haitian films (one of which is The Man by the Shore reviewed below). Elsewhere he has turned his attention to thinkers like the American James Baldwin (in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro), to leader Patrice Lumumba (of what was then called the Republic of the Congo, later Zaire and now the DRC, subject of a 1992 documentary as well as the biopic below), and of course to a formative period in the life of Karl Marx.
Continue reading “Three Historical Dramas by Raoul Peck: The Man by the Shore (1993), Lumumba (2000) and The Young Karl Marx (2017)”