Josh O’Connor already starred in probably the most celebrated British romantic drama of 2017, God’s Own Country, but whether playing gay or straight it turns out he seems to be suited to difficult, bruising romances far better than the light and fluffy kinds which are released on Netflix every other week. This film, directed by a woman (don’t be confused by her name), is built around pregnancy just like in, say, Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016), but takes a somewhat different approach.
This is a very romantic film, distilled down to something very elemental; you could call it a two-hankie weepie even. Jake (Josh O’Connor) and Elena (Laia Costa, who was in Victoria) are two young people (though she’s a little older than he is) who meet cute in Glasgow. Neither of them are Scottish (he’s English, she’s Spanish), and it becomes clear that this is set before Brexit as the film progresses, otherwise her resistance to marriage might seem somewhat self-defeating. Nevertheless, they hit it off and pretty soon there’s a sex scene where he suggests having a baby, which feels like a stretch to assume after such a short time that she’d want to conceive, but pretty soon that becomes an obsession for her, and thereafter everything starts to unravel. There’s coordinating their sex with her fertility cycles, then the IVF and the injections (which all entails money), and the constant pregnancy tests followed by crying jags in the bathroom, and their strained relationship as a result of all this. We talk a lot in our current culture about “toxic masculinity” — that set of codes that defines and limits how men are supposed to act in the world — but this film seems to be about whatever women’s equivalent to that is: a slightly insidious idea that to be doing womanhood correctly you need to have a baby (which even if you’re only thinking about cis womanhood, is deeply problematic). And so Elena gets the little nags from those around her, finding that all her friends are starting to have kids, and she starts to feel excluded from gatherings and become desperate to be part of the in-group. It should really be a lot more painful a film than it is (and I don’t doubt it will be to some people), but the director manages to get her actors to find the humanity and the warmth underneath all this, so that it’s never quite as bleak as it could be.
CREDITS Director Harry Wootliff; Writers Wootliff and Matthieu de Braconier; Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner; Starring Laia Costa, Josh O’Connor; Length 119 minutes. Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 13 July 2019.
British cinema is in constant dialogue with the heritage industry, and there is no shortage of films set in the past — with particularly popular eras being during World War II and the 1950s (as seen here), the Victorian age, or the Tudors. Plenty of women have turned their hand to this heritage, finding further interest in underseen representations (particularly in recent years): Amma Assante put a Black British perspective into the 18th century in Belle, while this film’s conservative small town 1950s setting adds a lesbian romance.
If there’s one thing I’ve gained growing up, it’s a tolerance for fairly desultory period movies, especially ones set in gloomy parts of the UK. This one is set in Scotland in 1952, which is more or less exactly when Carol (2015) was set, but this takes rather a different, let’s say more traditional arc. The two central women (Holliday Grainger’s Lydia, and Anna Paquin’s Dr Jean Markham) find each other and then, in time-honoured fashion, unleash all the ire and judgement that a small close-minded town can muster — and, in the final act, this feels like rather too much. I liked the set-up, and I particularly liked both central performances, even if Anna Paquin has a patchy Scottish accent and spends much of the film looking anguished. There’s also some rather iffy bee CGI towards the end, extending a metaphor which doesn’t entirely hold together. Basically I wanted to like this well-mounted film more than I ended up doing, but it has its moments.
CREDITS Director Annabel Jankel; Writers Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth (based on the novel by Fiona Shaw); Cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek; Starring Holliday Grainger, Anna Paquin; Length 106 minutes. Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 20 July 2019.
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.
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.
CREDITS 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.
CREDITS 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.
CREDITS Director Amy Hardie; Cinematographers Hardie and Julian Schwanitz; Length 83 minutes. Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Tuesday 20 October 2015.