It’s that time of the year, the time of the year for the extremely bad (but hopefully still fun to watch) seasonal films on just about every channel you care to look on, and as usual Netflix has stepped up to the plate with a bunch of releases. I had hoped to bring you that seasonal treat Spencer for this special day, but inexplicably that hasn’t been released here in NZ yet, so you’ll have to make do with this very bad — but nevertheless compulsively watchable (if only for the car crash of Elwes’s Scottish accent) — film.
The director Mary Lambert is best known for directing horror movies (most famously 1989’s Pet Sematary), and I’d really like to put the knife in and say this is in the same genre, but honestly there is stuff I liked here. It is formulaic in the extreme, and don’t even get me started on Cary Elwes’s Scottish accent (okay maybe do, because it is very bad, just constantly, almost every scene perceptibly worse than the last one), and there are many holes in the plot. The script, in short, is messy. There’s a slightly evil couple who show up at one point in the middle of the film, and you go, “Ah… her ex! Or some nefarious English buyers for the castle. The stakes have just been raised!” but it swerves and you never see them again. The stakes therefore never get raised, and remain firmly at the level of the relationship between Brooke Shields’ American romance writer and Elwes as a Scottish duke fallen on hard times (or hard-ish, well maybe not hard at all really in the grand scheme of things, but hard by the standards of Christmas-themed romance movies). It really is a mess, and the music is mostly pretty bad and makes it seem like it really wanted to be an Irish-set movie (though most of the actors are English, so maybe they should have just sticked to there, as England has castles too). But, for all that, it retains a sort of kitschy charm.
CREDITS Director Mary Lambert; Writers Ally Carter and Kim Beyer-Johnson; Cinematographer Michael Coulter; Starring Brooke Shields, Cary Elwes, Lee Ross, Andi Osho; Length 98 minutes. Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Sunday 12 December 2021.
Although Robert the Bruce (whose story is rendered in Outlaw/King) and Henry V (of The King) were two historical figures whose lives never overlapped, they did live within a few generations of one another (Henry was born around 60 years after Bruce died), and both lived in what was then a divided island, though part of that was down to the actions of Bruce himself. Neither film can probably claim to be great history — they are more invested in generic tropes of heroism and resistance, while The King isn’t even based on the history but on Shakespeare’s rendering of it some century and a half later — but both illuminate some of the ways that history is used and abused, also adding to that popular idea that Mediæval times were all about grim misery, mud and gore.
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. Then again, he does have a tendency to be a bit controlling, forcing himself on more than one woman, before scolding her when he’s been rebuffed — the classic Hitchcock hero, in other words. Aside from that, 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.
Among the extras is a 24-minute documentary Hitchcock: The Early Years (1999) made for British TV. As you might expect from the title, it covers Hitchcock’s pre-Hollywood films which he made in the UK. At this length, it’s all fairly clipped, moving from his early years in the silent film system through to his more fully-realised 1930s work and is a solid introduction to some of his themes and traits, starting to develop even this early in his career.
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 (and later on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 24 April 2020).
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.