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.
There are an increasing number of women directing films in all genres within British cinema, which are getting ever wider releases across the country, and indeed at the end of this week (30 August) there appear to be three British films directed by women getting a cinematic release. Been So Long was made for Netflix (albeit premiered at the London Film Festival last year), who have a quite different model of film distribution, gaining in popularity — though the nature of Netflix’s business means they don’t release the viewer numbers on its films. The musical is a somewhat less travelled genre in British filmmaking, and it’s unlikely that this film will change that, but it’s an interesting exercise all the same.
In many ways this does seem like a good fit for Netflix: it is filled with big, brashly enjoyable performances by actors who manage to command the screen and make everything seem sweet, even as their characters are doing utterly idiotic things that beggar belief. Even George MacKay manages to make likeable a tangential character (a street drinker with some borderline mental health issues that manifest in misplaced aggression) who could easily be excised from the film altogether. I mean, if you like musicals then you know that a bit of heightened emotion expressed via song, choreographed dance and carefully-chosen colour palettes can paper over a myriad of contrivances at a plot level — whether it’s overly knowing and precocious child actors, love stories that take strange turns in kebab shops, interracial hook-ups on buses and park benches, and inexplicably popular estate pubs. But whatever else happens, there are those actors, all of whom are so very likeable — and seem so grounded in identifiably London types — that I’m inclined to forgive everything.
Director Tinge Krishnan; Writer Ché Walker (based on his musical and play); Cinematographer Catherine Derry; Starring Michaela Coel, Arinze Kene, George MacKay; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Rich Mix, London, Monday 15 October 2018.
It’s easy to be dismissive of a certain strand of emotionally-manipulative feel-good films about small communities resisting state oppression, or maybe it’s just easy for me. I can be cynical. Pride recalls similar British films of the recent past, set in the same milieu (miners fighting for their lives and livelihood against the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party), like Brassed Off (1996) and to a certain extent The Full Monty (1998). Still, it does the whole thing every bit as well as those films did, and further frames it within the (largely metropolitan) struggles for gay rights during the same era, a struggle marked in some measure by the scourge of AIDS and the Thatcher government’s almost dismissive response to it. (I was but a young lad in the 1980s, but I still remember the bleak finality of their TV ads about AIDS.) You could argue there’s a bit of rose tinting involved in taking two narratives permeated with real pain, death and indignity, and crafting something heartwarming and feel-good out of it. Sure, there’s a nod at the beginning to the unlikeliness of the (drawn from real-life) conjunction of two struggles in the form of Mark Ashton’s Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) activist group, who collect money to help the embattled mining community. When they have their first meeting in London’s Gay’s the Word bookshop (still there, pleasingly), one man angrily denounces the way he’d been beaten up by miners when he was younger, stalking out of the shop and taking most of the rest with him. However, such unease is quickly smoothed over as Ashton (played likeably by Ben Schnetzer) finds a Welsh mining community who are willing to accept donations from the LGSM, and there follows a wary yet rather delightful rapprochement between the two very different camps, ably helped by wiser heads amongst the Welsh (including the very much not-Welsh actors Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy). And yet, whatever reservations one may have about the way things unfold, it has an irresistible charm, by turns funny, sweet and heartbreakingly poignant. It’s also an unapologetic flag-waver for the union movement, bookending the film with rousing pro-union anthems. Most surprisingly, the events of the film are all drawn from real life, so the film’s title is quite apt: it makes one proud, and not a little bit teary.
Director Matthew Warchus; Writer Stephen Beresford; Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe; Starring Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Rio, London, Friday 12 September 2014.
I was born in Edinburgh and spent the first ten years of my life there, which means I’m left with peculiarly rose-tinted memories of the place, untouched by the kinds of behaviour essayed in films like Shallow Grave or Trainspotting (the latter of which is cutely referenced here). And much though I applaud the attempt to make this musical resonate with real working-class lives, I’m left feeling it has the same PG-rated optimistic glow of childhood memories running through it as I do.
You can see that sensibility right from the start in the cheesy font of the title, which pops up over a touristy view of Edinburgh’s Old Town. And likeble though the film undeniably is, in truth it lost me pretty early on, when it cut from a view of Edinburgh Castle out the protagonist’s window, to the ‘local’ bus stop many miles away on the Leith waterfront. Leith has always traditionally been the poorer cousin of Scotland’s capital city, and functioned as its port with all the historical baggage that implies. Of course, now it’s far brighter, smarter and more upmarket, fully integrated as part of the city with only hints of its industrial past.
Sunshine on Leith is based on the pop songs of the Proclaimers, via a popular stage musical, and, as its title and provenance suggest, it’s pretty cheerful about everything. The drawbacks are that the characters’ emotional arcs are largely defined by these pop songs and the film’s PG classification, so they never get far beyond simplistic conflicts, or move into the greyer, more irresolvable territory you sometimes feel they need to. On the other hand, I cannot deny those songs their own emotional core, which is sometimes more nuanced than the film can admit. Then again, hearing characters in any film just spontaneously break into song is always a delight, so I imagine many will be able to appreciate and enjoy it on that level alone.
It’s just that the nuances are never really followed through. For example, the English nurse Yvonne (Antonia Thomas), who’s in love with our ex-squaddie protagonist Davy (George MacKay), gets a verse of a song hinting at some dark past, but it’s soon swept away. Sure, “it’s over and done with” (as the song’s chorus goes), but it would still be nice to know more about this darkness that apparently still preys on a largely sunny and optimistic cahracter. The leading men, too — Davy and his mate Ally — are returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, but their only link to the brutalising implications of wartime combat is their legless friend seen recuperating at a local hospital. So we get a hint of the bittersweet ramifications of, say, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) and its wartime setting, but the bitter implications in Leith are quickly brushed away in favour of the sweet, replaced by stock characters and clichés.
I don’t doubt I’m overthinking this. It’s a pop confection, and even the craggy Peter Mullan cannot help but be glowingly forward-thinking. When the Proclaimers’ songs aren’t being sung, the score is reliably clunky, guiding our emotional responses with a heavy hand, and you get the sense from the picture postcard views and locations that one eye is constantly on the film’s saleability abroad. For me, it also doesn’t help that the film frequently turns to sheer corny sentimentality, but then I also want to imagine my own childhood memories of Edinburgh are not irreconcilably disconnected from reality in the same way that the film is. Sunshine on Leith deserves to do well — Scottish cinema should be about more than feckless junkies — and I predict it may do well in singalong screenings, but I wanted a bit more darkness intermingled with the light.
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Stephen Greenhorn (based on his stage musical); Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Peter Mullan, Jane Horrocks, George MacKay, Antonia Thomas, Freya Mavor; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 7 October 2013.
I like going to see films for which I have precisely no expectations nor any idea even what they’re about except in the barest terms, so long as I can be confident they are crafted by good hands. In director Kevin Macdonald and, especially, star Saoirse Ronan, I have no qualms about the talent behind the film, and therefore the film was rather a delight, an almost bucolic story of young love set against the improbable backdrop (for its lush setting) of World War III.
In a week which sees the release in the UK of two quite different but both very Scottish films (Sunshine on Leith and Filth), How I Live Now stands out by seeming rather very English. Part of that is its setting in the English countryside, and the film has a real sense for the shambolic rural farmstead, with its cosy homeliness, which makes it all quite alien for newcomer Daisy, played by Saoirse Ronan as a brightly-clothed yet sullen Californian teenager. It takes her time to get used to this earthier, messier pastoral existence with its lack of internet connection replaced by walks in the woods and impromptu swimming trips in nearby ponds (rather than immaculately kept azure-blue pools). Director Macdonald and his cinematographer Franz Lustig linger over the autumnal colours and golden setting sun, interspersing extreme close-ups of faces and flora, glinting and shimmering attractively as a sort of natural analogue to the first blush of Daisy’s feelings towards her cousin Edmond (George MacKay). It’s clear that Daisy has never visited her English family before, and while it’s not evident why she’s come now, nevertheless she makes her displeasure known.
The backdrop to what one presumes is World War III (though perhaps it’s just a civil war) is very much that: a backdrop. The feelings between the lead characters is the thing, while the war is glimpsed only through the teenagers’ eyes, so we see hints of militaristic build-up around the airport when Daisy arrives, flashes of news reports hinting at major world events, and the only adult figure — Daisy’s aunt, a high-level civil servant — is only fleetingly seen and she disappears almost as soon as she shows up. For this is a film primarily constructed around the way its teenage protagonists relate to one another and the world. This means it never really becomes clear who the antagonists in the war are, though it would appear they are home-grown anti-government revolutionaries or anarchists. When Daisy is separated from the farm and her male cousins, this kicks off a process whereby she struggles to return to the farm and the comforts of home — and of course, the love of Edmond.
For me it’s the first half of the film, which details Daisy’s gradual adjustment to the English rural lifestyle, that is the film’s strongest. Her antagonistic relationship to her new setting is detailed rather acutely, and her cousins (particularly the middle brother Isaac) remain fairly chirpy in the face of this initial rejection of their lives. Once the war properly breaks out, we’re thrust into a world of internment camps and survivalist instict, in which Daisy gets to go all Hunger Games, by leading and protecting her youngest cousin Piper (Harley Bird) through a newly-threatening countryside. This leads to lessons and hard truths — not to mention a notable hardening of her emotions in the face of war’s brutality — but it’s never quite so boldly stated, and there remains plenty of subtlety in Ronan’s controlled performance. And although it is hinted that Edmond shares some deeper understanding with Daisy (his recognition of the noise she must tune out seems to hint at the densely overlapping sonic textures that occasionally flare up as she looks at herself in the mirror), it never overtly moves into the mystical or supernatural: this remains a world grounded in reality, unlike certain other teen-focused love stories of recent memory.
It seems that How I Live Now is destined to be underappreciated, for its charms are very much the unflashy ones of strong acting performances supporting complex characters in the absence of any big effects-driven momentum. I wonder too how it will play outside the UK, where the pastoral setting is a very specific and acutely-felt vision of England, supported by such artists as Fairport Convention and Nick Drake on the soundtrack. However, it deserves to be widely-known not just for its performances but for its narrow focus on just this core of young characters. It’s certainly one of the most appealing narratives of wartime dislocation I can remember.
Director Kevin Macdonald; Writers Tony Grisoni, Jeremy Brock and Penelope Skinner; Cinematographer Franz Lustig; Starring Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Harley Bird; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 5 October 2013.