As I write this, Lynne Ramsay is poised to sweep the boards at all major awards shows for her most recent film You Were Never Really Here (2017, although it was given wider release in 2018) — except, of course, no she’s not, for various systemic reasons which are all far too obvious and have been written about widely. Indeed, aside from a single BAFTA nomination, she is not even nominated, which is absurd given how much more directorial flair she has than most other living British directors. Of course, I don’t imagine my keenly amateurish post here will change much, and she’s already well regarded in the critical community, but it’s always worth paying her films some attention. Many other talented women haven’t had the career trajectory of Ramsay, and she’s still only managed to make a film every 6-8 years or so, which is a real shame, but at least it means when they do come they are mostly exquisite. Certainly that most recent film has a taut focus that’s lacking in too much filmmaking, coming in under 90 minutes and with a narrative economy that elides as uninteresting many of the generic conventions she’s working within, instead going straight for a character portrait of a comprehensively broken man.
I don’t think the liner notes are wrong to suggest this 1960 film is an underrated classic: like a lot of British movies of the period — ones which rely on solid acting and their carefully scripted themes — it sort of gets lost amongst the various European New Wave films which were making a splash with formal innovations and a looser street-bound sense of place. Instead this is largely based in the single setting, a barracks in Edinburgh, where two military officers with contrasting management styles face off against one another: the rowdy and boisterous (and flame-haired Scot) played by Alec Guinness, and his replacement, the controlled authoritarian Englishman played by John Mills. It becomes a film about the reverberations of class throughout the power hierarchies of British life, not to mention — at a more quotidian level — what it’s like to work under a bad manager. Both leads do excellent acting work, and there’s a coolness to the colour cinematography that’s also striking.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ronald Neame; Writer James Kennaway (based on his own novel); Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson; Starring Alec Guinness, John Mills, Susannah York, John Fraser; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 26 August 2018.
It’s very easy, I think, to imagine all of Lynne Ramsay’s films as being suffused with bleakness, especially when you cast your eye over any given plot summary. Ratcatcher, after all, starts with a classic bit of misdirect as Ryan, a cherubic young boy being dragged off by his mother to see his dad, spots his friend James (William Eadie) playing by the canal, and so hides from his mum and goes down to James, where they get in a play fight and Ryan drowns while James runs off in confusion and guilt. Almost as quickly, then, we realise that it’s James who is the centre of the film, a gaunt angular boy who even at the best of times seems to be carrying the woes of the world. Other characters are hardly having less of a time of it than James, not least Margaret (Leanne Mullen), the slightly older girl he meets, who is callously exploited by the older boys around them, but who forms a quite playful friendship with James. And therein I think is a lot of Ramsay’s storytelling power, in contrasting the bleakness of the narrative and the setting (a dour early-70s Glasgow during a binmen’s strike), with moments of pure escapism and fantasy, or the occasional respite of innocent play. The key recurring motif is of James in a field of long grass as he imagines the perfect home the family will move to, away from the decay and the rot and the dereliction. Somehow this balances the Bressonian sense of doom, or a grim fatality reminiscent of many Russian filmmakers, leaving an indelible impression of the debut feature of one of Britain’s finest working filmmakers.
- Ramsay’s three earlier short films are included, best of all being Gasman (1998), a really fine bit of storytelling done in 15 minutes, a fractured family story set at Christmas against a background (familiar from her other short films) of an impoverished Scottish milieu. It’s seen through the eyes of the kids — low camera angles, lots of telling details caught by the camera — who are confused by new developments in their emotionally distant father’s life. Bleak, but great.
- Alongside it are Kill the Day (1996) — which has a nice sense of fractured time, bleak shards of a story and a reverie-like atmosphere that would find fruition in the feature — and Small Deaths (1996) — a little collection of vignettes from a young girl’s life suggestive of the pain of growing up and becoming socialised into a world of violence.
- There’s a 20-minute video interview with Ramsay, as she talks through her (at that point, fairly brief) career and the inception of Ratcatcher from story to production, and notably the casting of her young non-professional actors.
- Finally, there’s a gallery of still photographs taken during production, which further emphasise the sort of aesthetic Ramsay was aiming for, based as much in photography as in film.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay; Cinematographer Alwin Küchler; Starring William Eadie; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 27 January 2019).
This is a light, frothy and rather silly romance from Powell and Pressburger, made towards the end of World War II. It’s not exactly a comedy, but the way that the ceaseless forward momentum of Wendy Hiller’s middle-class Joan founders on the rocks of Roger Livesey’s unflinching Torquil is a comic scenario expertly mined by the writer-directors. Joan is marrying a wealthy industrialist on the remote Scottish island of Kiloran he’s leased, while Torquil is the Laird of Kiloran, not rich but happy for the income. He’s staying with a friend in a mainland port town where Joan has become stranded due to bad weather, waiting to get out to the island. Where the comic setup gets silly is in a local curse that’s been placed on the Lairds, which is invoked in the denouement. Still, that’s all of a piece with this snappy film, which really conveys a great sense of the windswept bleakness of this stretch of coast: the viewer really feels all that rain and wind, especially in a boat-set scene so churning one is happy for the camera to return to stable land.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors/Writers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; Cinematographer Erwin Hillier; Starring Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 5 May 1999 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 April 2016).
It may not be the equal of some of director Alfred Hitchcock’s later works, but this early espionage thriller has plenty to recommend it in terms of propulsively silly plot dynamics, as Robert Donat’s fairly ordinary (albeit refined and elegant) bloke Richard is drawn into shenanigans at a music hall by bumping into a glamorous spy, who is soon murdered, but not before revealing a plot that he can help in exposing. This leads him into what is essentially an extended chase scene that takes up the rest of the movie as he heads north to Scotland, along the way encountering the even more elegant (and blonde, of course) Pamela, played by Madeleine Carroll, who believes him about as much as everyone else he meets — which is to say not at all. It’s all good fun, with plenty of hints towards comedy and some surprise plot twists. Good for a rainy afternoon, I suspect, and it may well be more unaffectedly enjoyable than much of Hitchcock’s more revered later output.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alfred Hitchcock; Writers Charles Bennett and Ian Hay (based on the novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan); Cinematographer Bernard Knowles; Starring Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 10 December 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.
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.
I’ve seen a couple of Scottish documentaries this year dealing with the late stages of terminal illness (the other was Seven Songs for a Long Life) and both have confounded my expectations in different ways. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not facing that finality yet myself, but I expected both to be difficult and depressing in ways that neither is. The more remarkable of the two, perhaps, is this one by Scottish multi-media artist Karen Guthrie, whose mother suffered a stroke which left her immobile. Documenting this altered new reality, interspliced with footage showing her mother before the stroke, seems to be the direction things are going until it becomes evident that this isn’t really a film about Guthrie’s mother at all, but about the apparently well-meaning and kindly father who lingers in the corner of most of the shots, making gruffly sardonic comments while doing sudoku puzzles, his head bowed almost permanently either through age or (perhaps?) some form of guilt. For all that Guthrie tries, her father remains a frustrating enigma as a character, but his life and his fractious relationship with his wife come to take centre stage as family secrets are unveiled. This method of drip-feeding revelations to the audience is not uncommon to the family documentary (Stéphanie Argerich did something similar in a film released here earlier this year), but when the audience cannot know the life being told, it has a greater effect. Therefore, I shan’t spoil anything, except to say that it leads the viewer down unexpected roads, with Guthrie’s ever-present voiceover helping to contextualise her own uncertain responses to her father’s life decisions.
Director/Writer Karen Guthrie; Cinematographers Guthrie and Nina Pope; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Thursday 12 November 2015.
I would stop short of calling this documentary set in a Scottish hospice a ‘feel good film about dying’ but that’s what it amounts to, after a fashion. The patients are all diagnosed with terminal illnesses (though some rare cases do recover), so the hospice is dedicated to providing palliative care. There’s probably no good way to get through this, so the film’s focus on music as one way is quite fruitful. Throughout we see the patients involved in singing and performing, across a range of musical styles, whether on stage or to themselves (and the camera, obviously). There’s an easy bond between patients and staff, and a general sense of people trying to get through the bleakness of their situations, using music and self-deprecating humour, something that seems to come easily to the hardy Scottish people who take centre stage. Ultimately, Seven Songs for a Long Life is not nearly as sentimentally manipulative as one might expect, but simply well observed and keenly felt.
Director Amy Hardie; Cinematographers Hardie and Julian Schwanitz; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 20 October 2015.
FILM REVIEW || Seen at friend’s home (DVD), London, Tuesday 10 June 2014 || My Rating good
What I like about Ken Loach as a filmmaker is his willingness to engage with groups of society traditionally occluded by narrative fiction, specifically those underprivileged people traditionally referred to as ‘working class’. And it’s not just this, but the way he generally refrains from judgement or talking down, and makes them the full protagonists of their own stories, over which they have control. It’s a rare enough thing in mainstream cinema, and Loach goes even further here by allowing his motley group of Scottish friends (most of whom haven’t been given many opportunities in life and who live in an atmosphere of constant violence) to take on vested interests and succeed on their own terms. It’s working-class wish fulfilment, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — although it’s really very silly. The thing is, at times it feels like an extended commercial for the Scottish tourist board, and while they might have been wary of taking as our heroes a bunch of somewhat airbrushed Trainspotting rejects (in and out of prison, and trying to go straight), the sweeping Highlands scenery, a bit of the Proclaimers’ music, and the prominence played in the plot by the whisky industry comes straight out of the promotional playbook. We even have to accept that our lead character Robbie (Paul Brannigan), on the apparent basis of only a few drams shared with him by his English boss Harry (John Henshaw) as well as some small sample bottles nicked from a distillery tour, can then distinguish between a Cragganmore and a Glenfarclas. Perhaps it’s just condescending of me to suggest that it would be difficult to tell these two apart so quickly; maybe it’s obvious to anyone who’s had a taste of any whisky. But I’m a sucker for a happy ending, and this film, while cleaving to a lot of the signifiers of the kitchen sink drama, turns out very sweetly in the end.
CREDITS || Director Ken Loach | Writer Paul Laverty | Cinematographer Robbie Ryan | Starring Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw | Length 106 minutes
I must concede at this point that though I still go to as many films, I cannot necessarily work up the enthusiasm to post full reviews of all of them. Some may be good and others may be disappointing, but for whatever reason there’s nothing that grabs me and makes me want to write them up at length. Therefore I present below some short reviews of some recent releases.
Under the Skin  || Director Jonathan Glazer | Writers Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer (based on the novel by Michael Faber) | Cinematographer Daniel Landin | Starring Scarlett Johansson | Length 107 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 19 March 2014 || My Rating very good
I relish how strange watching this film must be to mainstream cineplex cinemagoers, because it’s the kind of strange and uncompromising object you usually only get at festivals. It’s had a decent release (at least over here in the UK) on the strength of its marquee name star and the interesting work of its director Jonathan Glazer — some notable music videos and two feature films, including Sexy Beast (which coasted in on the crest of the trend for geezerish British gangster films, but managed to stand out from that fairly bland crowd by virtue of its excellent performances). And yet it’s got such an odd sensibility. For a start, Scarlett Johansson is the only really recognisable presence in the film; the rest of the cast is made up of local extras and a few small, fleeting roles. Its style, too, is laconic — not just in the paucity of dialogue, but in its reluctance to reveal much of anything. It’s not a flashy film, and it can seem quite slow at times, but it at least seems very clear about what it’s doing. Stylistically, it starts strikingly with a series of close-up images that are hard to make out, but suggest something smooth and machine-like and, as it turns out, otherworldly. Once the first humans appear, images and faces loom out of the Stygian darkness, and there’s a bleak, dreich Scottish overcast to everything: this is not a film that makes Scotland look like a tourist destination, but the film finds a certain groundedness in the elemental forces of nature. Partly that’s a balance to its protagonist’s apparently alien origins, and the harvesting of human victims (for this is at heart a horror story) is presented as oddly theatrical, Johansson luring them by undressing into a black room, where they sink into an oily murk. The drama comes as she starts to have reservations about her mission, though nothing is so overtly stated in the laconic script. As I said at the outset, it’s quite unlike very much else out there, and if for that reason alone, is worth watching, although it exerts an oneiric, uncanny hold over the viewer at times.