Summerland (2020)

I’ve now seen five films in an actual cinema, which isn’t going to threaten the amount I’ve been watching at home, but it makes a nice change after the past six months. However slightly uncomfortable it may be returning to the cinema (and I think we all have to make our own decisions about such things, regardless of what the official guidance may allow — for my part, I leave my mask on at all times, unlike most people it seems), it was difficult for me not to take up this opportunity. Therefore this week’s theme is going to be the films I’ve now seen at the cinema since they were allowed to reopen.


Director Jessica Swale has made her name in the theatre, and I can see that her talents haven’t quite been matched to film form here. A lot of the way that the themes and characters are developed, while not inherently unsatisfying, just seem overdetermined. Combining the (1940s) past and (1970s) present is done elegantly enough — albeit every time I see Gugu I wish for more of her — but the points in the script where the revelations land just feel so thudding, as we come to understand that the curmudgeonly Alice (Gemma Arterton) has her heart warmed by the love of a child (Lucas Bond), and then later on as multiple different strands are brought together. I probably wouldn’t have minded so much if the setting weren’t so overly familiar from other British period films (include ones starring Arterton), and if the score hadn’t swelled at the expected appropriate moments. For all the ways that the casting and themes tried to expand the range of references for ‘World War II romantic drama’ the drama as a whole didn’t work, and things devolved rather too far into unsubtle melodrama. Still, there are things I like about it, whether the cinematography (by Laurie Rose) or the fine performances, and indeed some of the character details, particularly the early characterisation of Alice, are amusing and I still always enjoy seeing Gemma Arterton on screen.

Summerland film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jessica Swale; Cinematographer Laurie Rose; Starring Gemma Arterton, Lucas Bond, Dixie Egerickx, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Courtenay; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Sunday 9 August 2020.

Their Finest (2016)

I hardly expected to like this. It looks like the kind of unadventurous, softly patriotic nonsense that leads to dull dirges like that Vera Brittain adaptation with Alicia Vikander in it whose title I’ve already forgotten (it’s Testament of Youth now that I look it up), or thin jaunts like that one with Bel Powley as Princess Margaret and a bunch of other less enjoyable people that I sort of half-remember the title of (A Royal Night Out, it turns out). Well anyway, I might actually remember the title of Their Finest because I generally found it to be superior, and though it’s hardly a film for the ages, it does have a spirited Gemma Arterton playing Catrin, a Welsh screenwriter, with a scene-stealing Bill Nighy as, um… Bill Nighy, I guess (he plays an actor). A love story is present (not with Nighy, I should point out), but it feels to me that this film is about more than the romance, even if there is a certain romanticism to the idea of wartime England. I was manipulated duly by the film, overlong as it was (and that despite an actual line in the film about movies ideally being an hour and a half long!), and I feel fine about it, for it was all very jolly.

Their Finest film posterCREDITS
Director Lone Scherfig; Writer Gaby Chiappe (based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans); Cinematographer Sebastian Blenkov; Starring Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Sam Claflin; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Sunday 7 May 2017.

Gemma Bovery (2014)

You could make a case — and I wouldn’t be entirely unreceptive to your viewpoint — that this film is a regressive form of faux-naïf haute bourgeoise naffery. I’m pretty sure New Waves have formed in opposition to less provocation, and even if it isn’t quite the desultory cinéma de papa of the past (it has a female writer and director, for a start), it’s hardly challenging in the laidback literary allusions of the screenplay and its bucolic country town setting. There’s also a self-aware subtext revolving around the fitting of literary archetypes to (overtly constructed) characters that reminds me of another French film starring Fabrice Luchini, Dans la maison directed by François Ozon — though that film was more aggressive in pushing its meta-narrative, so if forced I’d generally prefer Anne Fontaine’s filmmaking to that of Ozon.

But already I feel I’m pushing back too strongly against a film which, broadly, I rather enjoyed. If it has that self-aware constructedness that may perhaps be traced to the involvement on the screenplay of former film critic (and Jacques Rivette collaborator) Pascal Bonitzer, it could also be said to critique a masculinist construction of feminine identity by having our central character Martin (Luchini) — and despite the film’s title, his is the point of view around which the film revolves — carefully watch and steer the narrative path of Gemma Arterton’s title character. Arterton is a fine actor who does great work with what is ultimately a purposely thin character, existing in that sort of Daisy Buchanan mould as an object of male lust and projected fantasies of femininity. That said, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it particularly challenging: Gemma is still largely a pawn to the (male-centred) narrative, and some of the comedy at the expense of Anglo-French relations can get a little strained (although there’s a very amusing smaller role for Elsa Zylberstein as a status-obsessed socialite). But as a testament to Arterton and Luchini’s excellent and subtle acting skills, Gemma Bovery does provide a pleasant divertissement.

Gemma Bovery film poster CREDITS
Director Anne Fontaine; Writers Pascal Bonitzer and Fontaine (based on the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds); Cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne; Starring Gemma Arterton, Fabrice Luchini, Jason Flemyng; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 26 August 2015.

The Voices (2014)

This is a very strange film, but watching it I am reminded of Compliance. In many ways The Voices is totally unlike that film — for a start, it’s pitched as a black comedy set in a small town with a hyper-stylised saturated colour aesthetic — but that’s the film I find myself thinking about (and not just because I confused Jacki Weaver and Ann Dowd playing similar authority roles in each). In both cases, I feel like the filmmakers are trying to make serious points about alienation and modern society, but in both my personal reaction has been closer to one of revulsion at a level of exploitation of delicate issues (however intentionally and meaningfully these might be deployed). Here, we have Jerry (Ryan Reynolds), a workman in a bathroom factory, who hears voices and is seeing Dr Warren (Weaver) to deal with these issues. The voices manifest in the form of his (sweary Scottish) cat and (affectionate drawling) dog, and that domestic madness aspect of the film is indeed very funny. It’s just that the film starts to walk a very fine balancing line between psychological drama and stylised black comedy when it shows him killing off the secretarial staff at his factory (among whom number a feisty Gemma Arterton as Fiona, and a winsome Anna Kendrick as Lisa). I suppose different viewers will have their own take on this — there are quite a few fairly positive reviews out there — but my own is that it is a misjudgement, and that the film’s tone (its horror-comedy balance) goes seriously awry, especially with the first murder and subsequent dismembering of Fiona. The thing is, there’s a delightful, luridly coloured and light-hearted dance sequence in the end credits featuring all the film’s by-this-point dead characters (I shan’t say which ones here), and I just wish the rest of the film had been closer to the tone of that.

The Voices film posterCREDITS
Director Marjane Satrapi مرجان ساتراپی; Writer Michael R. Perry; Cinematographer Maxime Alexandre; Starring Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Saturday 21 March 2015.

Byzantium (2012)

It’s become obvious to me since starting this blog quite recently, that it’s important to engage with film at a wider level than just going to check out the latest multiplex offerings (though I shall continue doing that of course). One of the most vibrant expressions of film culture is the film festival, of which London, like all large cities, boasts a great variety.

Sci-Fi-London 12 This is now the 12th year of London’s Annual International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film, though they prefer to be known as the hyphen-happy Sci-Fi-London for short, not least because the annual festival is just one aspect of their ongoing engagement with this niche of film culture. However, the festival is the highlight of their calendar, and every year brings a diverse new crop of films that bear some relationship to the stated subject, though in a range of genres and styles, with quality ranging from the amateur to auteurist. It’s all enthusiastically brought together by possibly the most idiosyncratic and charismatic of festival directors, Louis Savy.

This year is no exception, and this opening night film was given an engaging intro by Louis, followed by a Q&A with the film’s producer Stephen Woolley, as well as its charming and eloquent writer Moira Buffini, and cast member Daniel Mays. Many of the other screenings also feature special guests. The festival runs until 6 May this year, split between the (very comfortable and pleasant) Stratford Picturehouse and the BFI Southbank.


Before I even start this review, can I just state, if it wasn’t already obvious to you, how spectacular the film poster is. It’s a gloriously eyecatching image featuring the titular hotel, which is ostensibly located on the Hastings seafront where most of the film is set. If the movie itself can’t possibly compete with this singular, gorgeously baroque vision, its images are still wonderfully striking, thanks to the work of Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt, who also recently worked on The Place Beyond the Pines (2013).

The two films share more similarity than just the cinematographer, though. They both have a certain epic grandeur to their storytelling; after all, in its title Byzantium references the ancient Greek city (now Istanbul) and its empire, just as the other film’s title references the rich traditions of Native American storytelling. Such epic qualities in this film are only enhanced by the settings, from the crumbling, decadent hotel of the poster with its striking wrought-iron lift, to the dilapidated pier grimly overpowering the concrete seafront walkway, and ultimately the wild and crashing seas of the primaeval island setting (this last filmed not in Hastings, but on the western coast of Ireland).

At its most reductive, it’s a vampire film, but like any of these, the mythology is just an opening to deal with other issues: dislocation from society and relationships, mortality and morality, and, peculiar perhaps to this interpretation, gender relations. For here the two lead characters are a 200-year-old mother and daughter (played by Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan respectively), whose peripatetic lives are intertwined with a mysterious Brotherhood, an ancient (and dare I say, Byzantine) organisation dedicated at once to a mysterious ‘Code’ and, perhaps more urgently, to being a bunch of nasty misogynists desperate to cling to their patriarchal entitlement. The story follows the two leads as they flee one of the Brotherhood to the English seaside, where past and present are intermingled in the reminiscences of Ronan’s character Eleanor Webb.

For the most part, the acting is superb, particularly the uncanny gaze and tightly-coiled enigmatic silence of Saoirse Ronan. Supporting her, the rest of the cast do well within the setting, including some early-19th century period-costume turns by Jonny Lee Miller and Sam Riley, with equally period-appropriate names Ruthven and Darvell calling to mind the earliest vampiric writings. There’s also a nice uncredited appearance from Tom Hollander as a well-meaning teacher.

Along with the above-mentioned epic quality to the narrative, it also shares with Pines the sometimes aggravating habit of constructing neatly convenient situations, characters and traits in order to move forward the plot and develop salient themes. To take some examples from the start, we have the lead character’s habit of writing down her secret story and throwing it to the wind, an old man who discovers her truth and motivates the first engagement with the morality of vampirism, encounters with Caleb Landry Jones’ dying teenager, and the arrival of Daniel Mays’s john with his opulent and recently-vacated seafront property. However, when placed in the context of the whole film, these interventions seem of a piece with its grandiose mythologising; a scene like that of Arterton writhing half-naked under a waterfall of blood would certainly seem ridiculously camp on its own, but by the time it occurs in the film, it hardly seems too out of place.

Certainly, it’s a fine line the film walks, at points recalling the somber atmospherics of Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In, 2008), yet at others attaining more of a grand Guignol melodrama. If it does show anything though, it’s that vampirism is not just for the boys.


CREDITS
Director Neil Jordan; Writer Moira Buffini (based on her play A Vampire Story); Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt; Starring Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley, Gemma Arterton, Jonny Lee Miller; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at Stratford Picturehouse, London, Tuesday 30 April 2013.