Criterion Sunday 20: Sid and Nancy (1986)

Whatever other angle one might wish to approach this film from — whether its characters’ participation at the vanguard of the late-1970s punk scene in England, or their descent into heroin addiction — Sid and Nancy is at its heart a romance. The two characters are utterly self-absorbed, dangerously self-destructive, and (arguably) of questionable artistic talent, but their commitment to one another endures in a way that’s almost sweet, even when they’re abusing one another — well, up until a point, at least. One thing you certainly shouldn’t look for in this portrait of the Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his romance with Nancy Spungen is for restrained acting: there’s a palpably gleeful embrace of over-acting by all the actors. This doesn’t always pay dividends, but it does create an atmosphere in which any kind of behaviour seems possible, and in which all too much does indeed happen. As the protagonists slide at length into drug addiction, the film starts to take on a sort of hypnotically repetitive quality (there’s a particularly amusing scene where Sid muses that things will be better when they get to New York, to which Nancy replies that they are there already, prompting him to open the window and look out), such that its concluding act of violence seems indistinguishable from the rest of the pair’s grim existence. It’s difficult to say how much of this is true to the actual events, but the film seems to be suggesting that the two were made for each other. Certainly, if they weren’t, it’s difficult to tell for whom they could have been made.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alex Cox; Writers Cox and Abbe Wool; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb; Length 112 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (streaming online), London, Sunday 18 January 2015.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

I am unfamiliar enough with the Harry Potter saga that I miss plenty of references. For example, the pseudonym “Padfoot” is used a few times in this film to refer to Gary Oldman’s character Sirius Black, and harks back to the names on the magical map seen in the third film, but none of this is explained and I had to ask my wife to fill me in (for others in my position, the names refer to the four friends who created the map — “Padfoot” being Black, “Moony” being David Thewlis’s Lupin, “Wormtail” Timothy Spall’s Peter, and “Prongs” Harry’s now-dead father, the first two of whom return here as the core of a sort of wizarding resistance movement). Likewise, I wonder if this film is remembered for being the one in which Harry gets his first kiss (an incident very quickly brushed past), or maybe for its strong undertones of teenage ennui and moodiness? However, if it’s remembered for anything, it’s surely for the way it links in the developing story of Lord Voldemort’s return with the wider universe within which Potter resides. As such, it’s also the film where author J.K. Rowling’s political allegorising starts becoming particularly evident.

If it wasn’t yet clear what register the Potter universe works in, the opening few moments make it clear, starting as they do in bright, garish sunshine. It’s almost shocking, but it doesn’t take long for the grey lowering clouds to roll in, and we’re set for another few hours of gothic-tinged teenaged sorcery. If we hadn’t been following the series (and its actors) from the outset, we would still know right away how old they were from the hormonally self-inflated sense of angst that the first act of this film indulges in, as Harry mopes about filled with (terribly adolescent) ennui about his nascent life’s twists and turns that even Hermione and Ron are unable to snap him out of. To be fair, he’s been expelled from Hogwarts (though that’s revoked fairly swiftly), but the doubts about his character remain throughout the film, as the rest of his class are divided as to whether he is telling the truth about Cedric’s death and Voldemort’s return at the end of the previous film. What’s interesting is that Rowling’s plot links in Harry’s emotional turbulence not with adolescence but with the effect of his encounter with Voldemort, whose presence looms throughout like Harry’s shadowy alter ego. There are some new characters here too, against whom Harry’s ennui is played off, mostly notably the serenely detached Luna, who shares with him a certain morbidity. On the side of the good guys is the titular Order arrayed around Michael Gambon’s wizened Dumbledore (even in a photo of them in their youth, he sports a long white beard), a revolutionary cell operating from a magically-hidden home on a well-to-do London street.

Indeed, as I mentioned above, what’s most interesting is the wider political ramifications that are opened up by Harry’s dalliance with Voldemort. Finally we begin to see what’s at stake for the entire society, as the Ministry of Magic takes on a more central role (with the Order of the Phoenix in opposition). At one level, it’s clearly dominated by Conservative ideology, and if the film’s set design and costumes hark to the wartime era of the 1930s and 1940s, then that makes the Minister something of a Neville Chamberlain figure, (unwittingly perhaps) appeasing the dark forces of Voldemort’s Hitler. Indeed, as my wife has suggested, Sirius Black and his family are somewhat analogous to the aristocratic Mitfords, with Sirius as the revolutionary left-wing Jessica to his unhinged newly-introduced sister Bellatrix’s Nazi/Voldemort-sympathising Unity. (The latter is played by Helena Bonham Carter, putting in as restrained a performance as ever, i.e. not even a bit.) Even the Potter world’s newspaper, the Daily Prophet, has more than a little of the bitter tabloid muck-raking of the Daily Mail. Then again, the government’s self-important representative at Hogwarts, Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton), has more in common with Margaret Thatcher, so the historical parallels aren’t precise. Certainly, though, you don’t get the sense that Rowling has much love for the Tories.

None of this would matter a whole lot if the film were badly made, but I think the producers have got everything down to an art by this point, and even a change of screenwriter doesn’t seem to have dented its forward momentum. (The director and cinematographer have also changed once again, but that’s been a regular occurrence up to now, though as it happens David Yates helms all the remaining films.) There’s still a lot of plot to get through, but things are rather less convoluted now that we have a proper evil antagonist to deal with, even if he still seems to be more of an oneiric than a corporeal presence at this point. Many of the character actors we’ve been introduced to up until now show up, though some (like David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, and Emma Thompson’s divination teacher Sybill) are little more than walk-on cameos. Still, it’s a solid lead in to the surely cataclysmic denouement to the series.

Next: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film posterCREDITS
Director David Yates; Writer Michael Goldenberg (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Sławomir Idziak; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Imelda Staunton, Gary Oldman; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 30 December 2013.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

I’d been told in advance that the third film is where the series gets good, and indeed the attachment of director Alfonso Cuarón should surely have been a good hint of this — even if I still at heart feel that this year’s Gravity was overpraised, it’s undoubtedly a visual tour de force, though even of his contemporary work, I recall enjoying his Great Expectations (1998) a great deal upon its cinematic release, primarily for its stylish visuals (if not its Gwyneth Paltrow turn). Something of the same trick has been conjured up here. In just about every respect, this is a far stronger film than the previous two, and it’s the first I can even imagine wanting to revisit.

I don’t want to get carried away with praise for Cuarón’s visual sense, as some of the credit must go to the trio of actors at the film’s heart. More time has passed between this film and the previous one, as between that and the first, and the three actors are both visibly more mature and just better at acting. There’s less childish screechiness and more nuance, and finally Emma Watson’s swotty know-it-all persona seems grounded in a genuine sense of self-confidence and learning, and she is thus rewarded with a more significant role than she had in the previous film. Nuance is something that can also be observed in the guest roles, and in fact Gary Oldman’s escaped criminal Sirius Black (the Azkaban prisoner of the title) and David Thewlis’s teacher Remus Lupin both effectively play on an expectation of one-dimensionality that comes from earlier guest acting turns (from say Branagh and Isaacs, both of whom were enjoyable but hardly suggested any depth of character), and lead to genuinely memorable surprise twists to their characters.

The script too seems tighter and more controlled, relying less on its characters rehashing events in exaggerated exclamations (except perhaps in one late scene when Harry exclaims “You were right Hermione!” and then describes exactly what we’ve just seen, though perhaps that was a self-aware joke at this very propensity in the first two films). Important plot devices are effectively foreshadowed without too much clunky exposition, and the physics of the film seems more believable (albeit yes, it’s still predicated on magic, after all). That said, there’s still plenty of plot — almost too much at times — which leads to occasional stretches where it’s easy to lose track of exactly what’s going on, such as when one of those aforementioned character twists takes place and suddenly you’re wondering who this Peter chap is after all. Undoubtedly a lot of this must make far more sense to readers of the books.

But as I suggested earlier, ultimately it’s the film’s visual sense which has most improved, and for this it must surely be the director who can take the credit. The first two films made far too much use of very ostentatious crane shots, all swooping and gliding in dramatic show-offy ways, and although the camera here is hardly at any point still, it nevertheless feels more organic to the action. There are some really very well-handled transitions, such as one glorious shot following Harry’s pet owl that takes us swiftly from summer into winter, though that’s just one example. Elsewhere the set design has an inventiveness that recalls similarly fantastic films by Cuarón’s Mexican compatriot Guillermo del Toro, like the Monstrous Book of Monsters, itself a monster, or the wraith-like demons who stalk the castle grounds (these Dementors also allow for some tentative social critique, providing a strange little hint into the existence of an autocratic police state, as despite their professed task of hunting down the criminal Sirius, the students are warned that the Dementors can still pose a danger even to those who are not lawbreakers). Finally, there’s even some genuine levity amongst the darkly-tinged drama, such as the jaunty Knight Bus ride, the broad comedy of Emma Thompson’s Divination teacher, or the sight of Alan Rickman dressed as a fashionable old lady.

This, then, is a film that brings the Potter world alive in a way that finally makes some cinematic sense. The series is opened out with a sense of wonder that hints at a darker, more adult world to come, appropriate to its ageing (though still adolescent) stars. It’s also the first of the films to make me genuinely want to know more of the story and the characters, and that’s not something I’d have considered saying ten years ago.

Next: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban film posterCREDITS
Director Alfonso Cuarón; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Michael Seresin; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon; Length 136 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 December 2013.