Sunset Song (2015)

This adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic 1932 novel — which my mother will be disappointed to hear I haven’t yet read, but I’m pleased to register does feature a key character with my own name — has been many years in the making, but Terence Davies has previous form with fine period literary adaptations (The Deep Blue Sea, The House of Mirth and the underrated The Neon Bible all fall into this category, and are all excellent). What he’s done here fits into that continuum, and there’s a really handsome visual quality to the staging, all rolling vistas and sweeping location shots — which I trust are of Aberdeenshire, although I know some of the filming took place in New Zealand, and this latter may be why the accents don’t always fully convince. In the lead role of Chris Guthrie, the farmer’s daughter who finds herself rather put upon by circumstance — not to mention by her gruff father (Peter Mullan, of course) — Agyness Deyn (hitherto a fashion model, I am given to understand) does excellent work. However, clearly director Terence Davies has worked hard with his actors to find a register which is not quite naturalistic, but which strikes a balance between the immediacy of the characters’ emotions (the plot, set on the cusp of World War I, is rich with melodramatic detail) and creating a stylised distance for viewers that self-consciously reminds us that this is both an adaptation of a beloved literary work and one which is set a hundred years in the past, in a world which is largely lost. Davies has always been apt to find this balance, particularly by interpolating traditional songs (he does it here, when the characters sing after a wedding), but elsewhere there’s an almost theatricality to the staging. As to the world the film depicts, it’s hardly an idyll of course, but one of the themes is the way that modernisation has largely supplanted (if not destroyed) traditional methods of working and living, and shaken up familial relationships, which is only cemented by the outbreak of war. I suspect this is a film that needs a second viewing to appreciate fully, but it’s certainly rich in detail.

Sunset Song film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Terence Davies (based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon); Cinematographer Michael McDonough; Starring Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie, Peter Mullan; Length 135 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Tuesday 8 December 2015.

Elsa & Fred (2014)

To call this film gentle would probably be an insult to gentility, but sometimes that’s all that you want as a viewer. It’s a story of a love affair between two 80-somethings played by Shirley Maclaine and Christopher Plummer, after they’re moved into adjoining apartments by their fussy children (Marcia Gay Harden and Scott Bakula respectively). The character arcs — whereby Elsa is the sparky vibrant one who has a love of the film La dolce vita, and who coaxes Fred out of his shell — would be tiresome if the actors were a third their age, but you don’t see too many films about love amongst the elderly, so it’s nice to know the actors can still get work. Both have an easy charm, and the director keeps things firmly middle-of-the-road, avoiding the worst excesses of sentimentality (until the finale at least). Easy to forget, but hard to really take too vociferously against.

Elsa and Fred film poster CREDITS
Director Michael Radford; Writers Radford and Anna Pavignano (based on the film Elsa y Fred written by Marcos Carnevale, Marcela Guerty and Lily Ann Martin); Cinematographer Michael McDonough; Starring Shirley Maclaine, Christopher Plummer, Marcia Gay Harden, Scott Bakula, Chris Noth; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 30 June 2015.

Winter’s Bone (2010)

One of things I like about movies is that they take me places I’d never otherwise visit, and set their stories amongst people I’d never otherwise meet. I can’t say how accurate this depiction is of the Ozarks (a mountainous area roughly in the centre of the United States), but it certainly feels close to the bone, and has an excellent control over its atmosphere.

This is a hard-edged world where people are wary of one another and resort to desperate means to make ends meet. The film is best when it’s setting out the elaborate rituals that people in this part of the world follow; in many ways, it is these that motivate the entire drama. Just in visiting her friend’s home, Jennifer Lawrence’s character Dolly must ask her friend’s husband for permission to enter, and this overly-polite pas de deux is repeated on several occasions. Even the police officers approach others with caution, though that may partly be that Dolly’s uncle ‘Teardrop’ (John Hawkes) is somewhat unhinged. These are, relatively-speaking, the ‘good guys’ though; when Dolly comes up against the really dangerous characters, she comes out rather the worse for it. And again, there appear to be delicate issues of etiquette even around violence: it’s the female family members of local kingpin ‘Thump’ Milton who dole out the punishment for Dolly’s transgressions.

These transgressions are all deviations from an unspoken code, for Dolly is asking difficult questions about her absent father, whose disappearance has put their home under threat. It turns out her father was involved in the production of crystal meth, which had brought him into conflict with not just the law (he was on bail, and his home was his collateral), but the local thugs. Dolly’s mother is certainly not equal to the task of raising her children, suffering from some unspoken mental illness (presumably depression), and Dolly is only just clinging on. Her search for her father is not so much out of affection for him (she has no expectations that he’s alive) but so that the family can avoid eviction, and in her search she calls on family kinship with the other townsfolk — clearly this is one of her transgressions: you can see in the faces of the people she asks that they cannot refuse these ties, but will exact a punishment for Dolly’s invoking them.

This points to one of the great strengths of the film, which is its unshowy but beautifully controlled acting performances. John Hawkes, in particular, shines as ‘Teardrop’, a tightly-coiled crystal meth-snorting character, who very rarely does anything violent, but manages to give off the constant impression that he might snap at any point. But it’s Jennifer Lawrence who carries the film, being in just about every scene, and she excels at what is a film of small details, almost subliminal at time, building to a denouement which avoids southern gothic clichés or a forced showdown (of the kind as seen in, for example, Mud), but which is in many ways just as painful.

Of course, one of the dangers in depicting this kind of milieu is of falling into poverty tourism — parading the deprivations and misery endured by one group of people to allow those of us more fortunate to feel smugly superior — but I don’t get this impression from Winter’s Bone. The rural setting is treated without any overt (hillbilly) stereotyping, and if the characters are enduring tough times, it’s not something that the filmmakers linger over. There’s none of the kind of sneering at accents or backwards ways that you might get in, say, a Coen Brothers film: this inhabits a quite different world.

In its unflashy way, this is an exemplary American film with some excellent and convincing performances. It has the kind of attentiveness to details that you’d get in a police procedural, which in a way this bears some relationship to, if only because the police seem to be outsiders to this world and therefore little regarded. And though it has a bleakness to it, it’s not one that overwhelms the film. One gets the sense that Dolly at least may yet prevail where those around her have not.

Winter's Bone film posterCREDITS
Director Debra Granik; Writers Granik and Anne Rosellini (based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell); Cinematographer Michael McDonough; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Tuesday 16 July 2013.