Criterion Sunday 301: An Angel at My Table (1990)

Janet Frame is one of those iconic New Zealanders (not least because of her bright corona of red hair) who probably isn’t much known outside the country — or wasn’t until this biopic by Jane Campion. It’s a remarkable work that tracks her life via a tripartite structure (taken from the three memoirs Frame wrote): we see her as a young schoolgirl, then as a teenager, and finally played by Kerry Fox as an uncertain adult venturing out into the world after a period of difficulty. By which I mean that she was sectioned into a mental hospital for eight years of her life, for absolutely no medically-sound reason as it later turned out (just that everyone thought she was a bit odd). Campion does her best to find a balance between the darker elements and a sense of poetic license and even joy, and ultimately the film is about Frame finding her place in the world and her poetic voice. It’s all gorgeously shot and mounted, set in rural Otago before Frame later moves to London and Spain. Fox does well to convey Frame’s withdrawn character in an engaging way, and this is one of Campion’s best films.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is the 10 minute The Making of An Angel at My Table (2002) documentary by one of the producers of the feature which gives some behind the scenes context for the making of the film, mostly told by Campion herself, as well as Campion on her festival and press tour, promoting the finished film.
  • There are six short deleted scenes which add a few more little details to the characterisations.
  • There’s a fine stills gallery with some production photos, including the actual Janet Frame with her three actors.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jane Campion; Writer Laura Jones (based on the autobiographies To the Is-Land, An Angel at My Table and The Envoy from Mirror City by Janet Frame); Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh; Starring Kerry Fox, Alexia Keogh, Karen Fergusson, Kevin J. Wilson; Length 158 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Sunday 12 December 1999 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Tuesday 17 March 2020).

Phantom Thread (2017)

Although the two principal characters do get married in this film, and there are certainly wedding dresses involved (for the lead character is a fashion designer), this isn’t really about marriage. It’s a relationship drama, though, and a rather twisted one at that, a three-way pull between Reynolds (Day-Lewis), his sister played by Lesley Manville, and a young woman who comes between them and tugs on Reynolds’ affections.


I was all ready to dismiss this film as yet another reworking of the eternal tropes of controlling older men and pliable younger women, an exercise in the manipulation of power dynamics via class, wealth, and the tedious tropes of masculine genius. After all, you can’t watch an awards contender, let alone a Paul Thomas Anderson film, without it being trailed in advance by untold reams of critical dissection that help you along to an opinion on a film you’ve not yet seen.

However, I think what I specifically like about it is the way that it moves from being one thing at the start — an idea of a handsomely mounted prestige costume drama (literally so: it’s about someone who makes clothes) — to something quite different by the end. To a certain extent this reflects the way the power dynamics shift, so that what starts as being about a controlling mercurial ‘genius’-like figure and the psychic toll you imagine he’ll inflict on this young ingenue-like woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), to the way Alma starts to find power within their relationship and the way he starts to willingly submit to it, becomes really the heart of the piece.

There’s certainly something of Hitchcock to this story, as it seems to be about a man shaping a woman’s identity to his own needs (a hint of Vertigo), yet I think there’s a lot more care taken with the construction than that. For a start, Alma is really the key character here, the one who drives the film in ways that Day-Lewis’s fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock does not, for he is just a man. It’s quite fascinating the way she subsumes Reynolds’ gaze and turns his controlling behaviour back on him, to a certain extent. I won’t go into details, but I think the power dynamic (while clearly unequal) is very interestingly handled, and Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ sister Cyril/mother surrogate is a key to unpicking it. Everything, ultimately, seems to be bound up in that central metaphor of stitching and impermanence.

This isn’t all that’s going on, though. Every filmmaker at some point in their career (if they have one) will make a film about their own creativity, and this feels like that, with Reynolds being the director stand-in. He is, after all, very much just one person within an industry, and this industry relies on the labour of women, in particular. The scenes of the women arriving at the start, of his workers standing around in their smocks just quietly getting on with the work, and then when Reynolds falls ill near the end, the way they work all night on his (their) project are among the more magical sequences in the film, a sort of emotional backbone to his own fragility as an ‘artist’.

Along with its careful symbolism, Phantom Thread has the feel of classic in terms of the way it’s shot (by Anderson himself as far as I can tell, and what a lushly grainy look it has, especially on 35mm), and the period 50s fashions on display. It’s artfully studied, and that suits the story I think. Things resolve with a certain element of perversity, of wilful helplessness, articulated not least in the focus on eating. I’d not been a fan up until Inherent Vice, but I do believe Paul T. has entered the imperial phase of his filmmaking.

Phantom Thread film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville; Length 130 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho (35mm), London, Monday 5 February 2018 (and most recently on 70mm at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Sunday 5 January 2020).

Criterion Sunday 274: Night and the City (1950)

A fun little number that’s set in London but made under the auspices of a Hollywood studio (with a number of big American names heading the cast) so it still sort of feels like a Hollywood pic. Richard Widmark plays a small-time conman and hood who’s looking for a break while doing some strictly small-time hustling, and finds it in wrestling. There’s a whole plotline featuring an old-school Greco-Roman wrestler who’s grumpy at his son (Herbert Lom) for taking up with a bunch of newer guys doing moves he doesn’t approve of at all. Well somehow Widmark gets in the middle of all this and it’s probably a bad idea, but he tries to make it work. Widmark doesn’t quite feel right for the role, or maybe I should say he’s not right for what the character needs to be to make it a success, so I guess you could make a case that he’s exactly right: he’s doomed. It’s a noir. Of course he’s doomed. (At least in the Hollywood ending; I haven’t yet seen the British cut.) There’s a real post-war sense of gloom to the capital that’s both true to the genre and also fits the era, and it’s all captured magnificently.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a British cut of this film with completely different music and a different ending, which I haven’t yet watched.
  • Historian Christopher Husted does a comparison of the scores for the British and American versions, and comes down in favour of the American score (preferred by Dassin himself), which does a better job of conveying the doomed noirish setting.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jules Dassin; Writer Jo Eisinger (based on the novel by Gerald Kersh); Cinematographer Max Greene; Starring Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom; Length 96 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Wednesday 6 November 2019.

The Limehouse Golem (2016)

Not all films that deal with period go the route of tasteful and sombre recreations of a historical past. Many of them just use the setting as a backdrop for generic thrills, such as the melodramatic camp murder-mystery thriller of The Limehouse Golem, which uses real historical figures and events as the backdrop for a very much fictional story.


This film seems to have received rather mixed reviews, but I suppose it invites that at a certain level: it has the feel of a camp bodice-ripper, or a lusty period detective drama, or a slasher film. It most closely reminds me of Se7en in its interplay between the grizzled veteran (Bill Nighy) and younger police officer (Daniel Mays), in its thrill at the gore and violence of the serial killer they’re hunting, and in the comfort it takes in the baroque cosiness of Victorian libraries (in this case, the British Library Reading Room). Indeed, being based on psychogeographer Peter Ackroyd’s novel, it revels in its literary and (above all) theatrical artifice, whether having characters like Karl Marx and the novelist George Gissing as suspects, or making its flamboyant music hall star Dan Leno open the film with a prologue delivered from a literal stage. It never feels like it goes deep — it plays with the Jewish origins of the Golem legend, tying it in directly to Jewish immigration to London’s East End (which is where Limehouse can be found), and is largely sensitive in its depiction of gay characters — but never lets that distract from the central whodunnit mystery. What I liked too is the way most of the (straight male) characters are depicted as never being too far from dangerous and exploitative when it suits them. There’s a beautifully recreated sense of danger and intrigue in this 1880s London, and even if it’s all rather breathless, it’s good fun.

The Limehouse Golem film posterCREDITS
Director Juan Carlos Medina; Writer Jane Goldman (based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd); Cinematographer Simon Dennis; Starring Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Monday 11 September 2017.

Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen

I’m doing a week focusing on ‘very long’ (3hr+) films, but most of these have been made by men, perhaps overeager to flex their cinematic clout or show off their stamina (amongst other things). However, there have been plenty of directors working in television who have pulled off longer-form work in the guise of mini-series and multi-part episodic drama. One such figure, working in the documentary form, is Molly Dineen, who like a British Frederick Wiseman, has been profiling institutions and work throughout her career. Her longest films are The Ark (1993) and In the Company of Men (1995), which respectively look at London’s zoo and the British Army (as deployed in Northern Ireland), but she also has a number of shorter works to her name. Her most recent film, Being Blacker (2018) is one I haven’t yet caught up with, but everything else I talk about below. All of these have been released by the BFI on the three-part DVD set The Molly Dineen Collection, which is well worth tracking down.

Continue reading “Women Filmmakers: Molly Dineen”

Two 2017 Films Directed by Expatriate Iranian Women: They and Gholam

Iranian cinema may have its own domestic identity, but plenty of creative talents from the country have been nourished overseas, in exile (whether formal or self-imposed) from their home country. Women like Mania Akbari or Ana Lily Amirpour have become quite well-known in their respective areas (whether visual art or genre cinema), and there are several others who have had some success. I focus on two below who made films in 2017.

Continue reading “Two 2017 Films Directed by Expatriate Iranian Women: They and Gholam”

The Receptionist (aka 接線員 Jiexianyuan, 2016)

Economics and demography mean that Asian-American cinema rather dominates the Asian diaspora experience on the cinema screen, but there are stories from around the world that deal with similar themes. One such is this smallscale British-Taiwanese co-production set in London, about a young woman with few means trying to get a foothold on employment in a strange city.


This is yet another recent film which deals with the precariat, young people who can barely subsist, have difficulty finding work and are often expected to take on unpaid labour — the situation in which our Taiwanese-born protagonist Tina (Teresa Daley) finds herself at the outset. We see her encouraged to intern to bolster her CV by an unhelpful agency, whose agent also dolefully jokes about possibly losing his job. She has a degree, speaks English very well, and is presentable and professional in interviews, yet all she can get is work as a receptionist at an unlicensed brothel in the London suburbs (as an aside, it looks like Barking or Romford to me).

The film has a taut running time and effectively conveys a sense of claustrophobia, as much of the film unfolds in either this suburban terraced house with its ageing decor, or Tina and her (frankly horrible, although also likely depressed) English boyfriend’s tiny, drab flat. At one level, Tina’s work in the brothel is just a job, really, even if it’s one that puts her in rather closer touch with violence and exploitation than most jobs (much of that is due to her workplace’s illegal status, I daresay). Indeed there are repeated references to death (worms dying when out of the ground is a repeated metaphor, and one of the plotlines literalises it), hinting at the lives of these immigrant women, who are all just trying to keep their heads above water in an expensive foreign country.

It’s an interesting film, and a different viewpoint on life in London (in that respect, I am reminded of Gholam, another such London-set story), that largely stays away from the tourist views and, even given the sex work setting, is likely to be redolent of many young workers’ experiences (especially those of women, and particularly women of colour, in the service industry).

The Receptionist film posterCREDITS
Director Jenny Lu 盧謹明; Writers Lu and Yi-Wen Yeh 葉宜文; Cinematographer Gareth Munden; Starring Teresa Daley 紀培慧; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 24 July 2018.

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.

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.