The Souvenir (2019)

The big release to UK cinemas this week — at least to the cinephiles amongst us — is Joanna Hogg’s latest film (though the ornery black-and-white Bait by Mark Jenkin is certainly also worth checking out). She’s been directing feature films for only around 10 years now, since 2008’s Unrelated, starring a young Tom Hiddleston, but already they’ve fairly comprehensively dealt with a certain strain of upper-middle-class English life, which is only extended in this latest film. I’ve also been familiar with her work in the À Nos Amours collective, whose programming has focused on interesting filmmakers, not least in the complete retrospective they gave to the work of Chantal Akerman shortly before the latter’s death.


If Joanna Hogg makes films about frightfully upper-middle-class people, I’m supposing it must be her own background:* one of the production companies on the film is “JWH Films” (presumably her initials), which also appear on monogrammed suitcases for our heroine Julie, so I’m assuming an auto-biographical resonance to this tale (Tilda Swinton was in Hogg’s student graduation film in 1986, while Julie here is played by Swinton’s daughter Honor). For the first stretch of The Souvenir, indeed, I was unclear if this was a period film or if everyone was just a pretentious hipster with their non-digital cameras and rotary home phones, but it becomes clear soon enough that it’s set in the mid-1980s, with Julie attending film school. She cuts a frustratingly diffident figure, and at a party hooks up with a dandyish cad called Anthony (Tom Burke); their subsequent meetings seem most often to be accompanied by a bottle of champagne on ice in private members’ club dining rooms, so it’s clear both of them are born into privilege.

In fact, they are both fairly terrible people, though he is (in several senses) the abusive one that’s no good for her, and the remainder of the film is both about the way he helps her to define herself, but also how she struggles to get free of his sometimes malign influence. It’s told in a captivatingly elliptical way, these sort of interlocking fragments of stories with a poetically cavalier sense of space and continuity, even as it has a very precise way of locating its characters. He’s the kind of person who’s identified not just as an Oxbridge man (for what else could he possibly be), but to the very detail of his college — King’s College, Cambridge if I recall correctly — while she lives in a flat very close to Peter Jones department store on the King’s Road in London.

It is, at times, very difficult to warm to either of the characters, yet somehow that’s not a problem to enjoying the film (at least, not to me, though the more Tory-phobic may well disagree), not least because it seems to be told with a strong sense of both wistful regret and empathy for these young characters and their foolishness. There’s the way Julie manages not to be aware of Anthony’s addictive personality until long after the audience has sussed, and thereafter seems to put it aside or make apologies for it. There’s the way she earnestly wishes to make a film about dockworkers in Sunderland living in poverty and how this is (very gently) questioned by her tutors, which leads to an amusing cut to her listening to Robert Wyatt’s cover of “Shipbuilding” while storyboarding this student project, the keen implication being that it was indeed a youthful overextension of her sense of empathy (and certainly Hogg is now very much drawing from her own experience). There are all kinds of hints by the film that these characters are now sufficiently removed  from the present day to warrant judgement, and that makes their actions easier to understand, if not always condone, and ultimately that’s part of what makes me admire this film.

* Indeed, subsequent reading I’ve done about the film, along with interviews with the director, makes it clear that this film is indeed drawn very deeply from Hogg’s own life.

The Souvenir film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joanna Hogg; Cinematographer David Raedeker; Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 31 August 2019.

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Dirty God (2019)

Although set amongst British characters, and with a very strong sense of the operation of class in particular, this film was made by a Dutch director. However, it feels very much anchored by the performance of Vicky Knight, the woman at the centre of the story.


A film about trauma — about Jade (Vicky Knight), a woman who has been left scarred by an acid attack — which has the benefit of having as its lead actor someone who has herself survived serious burns. Knight is fantastic in the role, and is really pushed into some dark places, and the film itself is all very solid, even as it keeps leading her (and us) down these painful paths, fuelled equally by desperation and depression over her fate. Into the mix is wrapped a story about class and race in modern England (the film is set in East London), about the underpaid and dispiriting jobs available to those with few means, and about the exploitation that takes place of those who are in a desperate place. The sequence set in Morocco feels like a stretch, and while it opens the film out from its grim council estate focus of the early parts of the film, in the end it feels just as claustrophobic, because we remain inside the lead character’s point-of-view for so much of the film.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Sacha Polak; Writers Susie Farrell and Polak; Cinematographer Ruben Impens; Starring Vicky Knight; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Castle Cinema, London, Friday 14 June 2019.

Five Men and a Caravaggio (2018)

Expatriate Chinese director Xiaolu Guo is another key figure in British (and indeed wider European) arts scene, who has made a number of films which bridge documentary and drama and don’t really sit very comfortably within British filmmaking, preferring a rather more avant-garde praxis and perhaps better suited to gallery spaces.


One of Xiaolu Guo’s growing body of films clearly made on a shoestring budget, pitched somewhere in between documentary and fiction. Perhaps this is because of the way they’re filmed, or because they deal with real people in fictionalised scenarios, but it’s interesting to see these five disparate people enact a drama around the reproduction of a Caravaggio painting. Four of these men live in London (none of them English, it would seem, and Brexit inevitably plays a background role), while the artist of the painting is in China, one of a village community entirely filled with artists. One of the four London-based men, a photographer, strips off to pose on trees for his own photos, a hairy counterpoint to the smooth features and perfect light of the young man in Caravaggio’s painting. Another of them is a philosopher, but dabbles in art himself, endlessly trying to reconfigure and improve the reproduction painting, a philosophical exercise perhaps. The third is a writer, displaced from Ethiopia via the Sudan, who has a shelf full of books by Deleuze that he barely understands, but reads obsessively and quotes from, and here we have this idea of the time-image (his are key texts for theorists of cinema), which is I guess what the Caravaggio reproduction functions as for the fourth man, a poet. There’s a lot to unpack, and Guo’s films aren’t always the most accessible, but she’s an artist and this is another of her reproducible works.

CREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Xiaolu Guo 郭小橹; Length 74 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Saturday 20 October 2018.

Been So Long (2018)

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.

Film posterCREDITS
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.

Criterion Sunday 191: Jubilee (1978)

I don’t know what aspect of the punk spirit this speaks to — the messy avant-gardism and unpolished amateurishness, the gleefully garish colours (Toyah Willcox’s character Mad has hair which is a constant delight), the casual nudity, sex and violence — but it has a pleasingly anarchic, almost joyfully queer (although I suppose that’s not a word that would have been welcomed at the time), aesthetic that makes it still very compelling and watchable even as it must be now almost 40 years since its premiere. That said, it’s all very much of its time, a vision of post-apocalyptic England in a time of deprivation and uncertainty for which one can draw certain parallels, but a lot of which seems very much bound up in an era of political change. Jarman’s spirit is art school to the core, which made his film unpopular with the art school-bred punks (as Tony Rayns points out in a bonus feature documentary on its making), who preferred trying to come across as something more akin to brazen oiks. However, whatever Jarman’s own political take on things was, this is a still a bright, playful and inclusive vision of the end of days.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Derek Jarman; Writers Jarman and Christopher Hobbs; Cinematographer Peter Middleton; Starring Jenny Runacre, Jordan, Nell Campbell, Toyah Willcox; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 14 January 2018.

Criterion Sunday 158: The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)

There’s a certain strain in English filmmaking — and I think it’s the best kind — that is very much upfront about the theatricality of their sources. This one starts with a proscenium framing, and never lets up reminding us about quite how staged it all is, in the manner of the best farces. Wilde’s lines are given weight — enunciated with an archness that seems to be playing to the back of a very large room — even if not always fully respected (or so I gather from the gasps of my wife at bits having been needlessly cut and rephrased), but it’s not really until the entrance of Edith Evans’ Lady Bracknell that the film starts to really work. The male leads (Redgrave and Denison), after all, seem far too old, even for the staid era the film is trying to portray. Still, those line readings are for the most part marvellous, and the director has small flourishes (a match-cut to a gardenia near the beginning) that betray some thought about staging.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Anthony Asquith (based on the play by Oscar Wilde); Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson; Starring Michael Redgrave, Michael Denison, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 7 September 2017.

Criterion Sunday 154: The Horse’s Mouth (1958)

Having never heard of it before it popped up on our Criterion watching project, this is a perfectly likeable colour film about a colourful character who paints colourful works of art and injects a bit of épater into those bourgeois lives he drifts through (well, more upper-class really), but I’m not sure what deeper meaning it really captures. The one the filmmakers presumably intend — that art is valuable, damn everything — comes through clearly though, and Alec Guinness in the lead as dishevelled painter Gulley Jimson is as ever reliable, not unlike the Meryl Streep of his day, all accents and imposture in the service of wit and well-crafted journeyman material. It has its diversions, and is pleasing on the eye.

Criterion Extras: There’s a short interview with Ronald Neame from before he died (around when the DVD was released, presumably), who is a genial host and tells of the film’s production. There’s also a trailer. However, the standout extra is a short film which was shown with the feature at its original New York run in the late-1950s, a short film by D.A. Pennebaker called Daybreak Express. For all its five minutes running time, it is far the superior work. It’s a jaunting work of jazzy cinematic propulsion, like a city symphony made my Soviet constructivists with a penchant for Duke Ellington. Rich and resonant colours, bold modern architecture, a train ride from the city to suburbs both exceeding that experience but also encapsulating it.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame; Writer Alec Guinness (based on the novel by Joyce Cary); Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson; Starring Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh; Length 97 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 23 April 2017.

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.

Criterion Sunday 119: Withnail and I (1987)

I have, as it happens, already written a review of this on this blog so here it is. There’s little I’d want to add to it, aside from reaffirming that it does stand up under the weight of its cult status, not that it’s a film I myself am necessarily drawn back to, unlike…

Criterion Extras: … the fans depicted in the short piece Withnail and Us (1999), who show a fanatical fondness for the film that sometimes seems too much (obsessive quoting of movie lines has never been something I’ve been good at, nor had any inclination to do) but also reminds me of what’s genuinely appealing about the film’s bleak dark vision of England. Alongside the fans, the documentary also corrals a number of the actors to talk about the experience of making the film, and is an enjoyable half-hour for what it is.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Bruce Robinson; Cinematographer Peter Hannan; Starring Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths; Length 107 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 26 January 2014.

Criterion Sunday 107: Mona Lisa (1986)

Bob Hoskins once again plays a Cockney gangster, and though my initial instinct is to assume his character (who begins the film recently released from prison) was locked up just after the events of The Long Good Friday (1980), given he seems surprised his street now has a large number of black residents, maybe he’s been locked up since the 1940s. Perhaps the filmmakers just took ‘film noir’ a bit literally, but underlying it is a well-meaning attempt to grapple with societal changes that must have seemed like a chasm following a series of race-based riots in the early-1980s. I’m not convinced all the racial politics really hold up (and how many films do after a few decades?) but at least there’s representation, even in the form of that filmmakers’ favourite stereotype: a high-class prostitute and her pimp (who incidentally is played by a much younger Clarke Peters from The Wire, albeit with no dialogue that I noticed). It’s strictly geezers and seedy London locales, and it’s by no means a badly made or acted film. Hoskins, along with Cathy Tyson as the titular character — and even Michael Caine as a gang boss — do good work. Let’s just say it’s of its High Thatcherite era.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Neil Jordan; Writers Jordan and David Leland; Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Monday 18 July 2016.