Bait (2019)

It’s another week where I suspect most of us are still stuck at home, and it’s looking like it’s going to stretch on. I’m taking a new tack with my themed weeks. Rather than focus on films I’ve seen on various online streaming services I’m already subscribed to (Netflix and Mubi in past weeks), I’m highlighting films available on other streaming services — or at least films for which I’ve not yet posted a review here. I’ll start with the BFI Player, which as a branch of an official national institute to support film and the moving image, has plenty of free programmes of largely archival and historical interest, many of which are fascinating. They also (for UK citizens) have a subscription service that seems like pretty good value (£5 a month, with a 14 day free trial period), as well as offering a range of straight rental titles (which as far as I can tell are separate from the ones available to subscribers). There’s also a special section of LGBTQI+ titles because the BFI Flare Film Festival was supposed to be finishing yesterday, but sadly was not able to go ahead. Some of the new films are being presented online, so maybe I’ll sign up for the free trial and review one or two of those if I can. In the meantime, here’s one of the big British success stories of last year.


The title Bait suggests a creature feature, and the way it looks suggests something with a real experimental edge (it reminded me a little of Rey, another recent film with a very textural and worn sense of film stock, despite being screened digitally). However, once you get over that initial shock, it’s actually an engaging drama. Still it’s quite a shock: there’s the obvious worn and scratchy black-and-white celluloid look but it’s combined with a very confrontational soundtrack in which all the sounds (of feet walking down the street, and the dialogue too) seem somehow abstracted and overlaid onto the image in a way that only heightens the constructedness of the enterprise. And then there’s the editing, which aggressively cross-cuts between different actions both at the same time and in the past/future, and the soundscapes, which constantly suggest the imminence of violence through scraping and dissonance. However, for all this, the drama remains focused on a small fishing village in Cornwall which is undergoing an unpleasant (and sadly, in our times, unavoidable) bout of gentrification. Our lead character Martin (Edward Rowe) has sold his family’s home to a posh couple with an utterly awful son (the daughter is less terrible), who’ve done it up and are letting out the loft to holidaymakers. At every stage, their sense of entitlement butts up against the traditions of the village and the family, a legacy of fishing and living off the sea, that Martin is desperately trying to maintain despite dwindling money. It’s a singular and fascinating film that really stands out thanks to its odd production, but it tells a classic story of precarity and gentrification that’s all too familiar.

Bait film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Mark Jenkin; Starring Edward Rowe, Mary Woodvine, Simon Shepherd, Giles King; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Friday 30 August 2019.

Criterion Sunday 303: Bad Timing (1980)

This is a tough film but I think it makes most sense in the context of the kinds of films being made at this period (which Russell herself touches on in an extra on the Criterion disc), films in which pretty young women act flirty and have sex with the (older) leading man, thus softening his hardened masculine persona. Except unlike those films, Bad Timing makes this relationship central to its plot and it doesn’t leave it there, but goes much further. This older man here is not just any man but an esteemed psychoanalyst Dr Alex Linden (living and teaching in Vienna, of course), and his obsession for Theresa Russell’s flirtatious and ‘easy’ younger woman Milena becomes something that ultimately contributes to her psychological disintegration. He projects onto her his own needs, takes out his jealousy and is overtly positioned by Roeg’s film as in fact not just a creepy sexual predator but also (and this may perhaps count as a spoiler, but it’s important to know in terms of the kind of psychosexual terrain that’s being covered in the film) a rapist. The film makes clear, through Russell’s fantastic performance, just how social constrained her agency is, a societal expectation as created explicitly by men like Art Garfunkel’s doctor, and which he preys on increasingly methodically. As such, it’s all rather psychologically (and at times, physically) brutal — their initial sexual encounter in flashback is cross-cut with a bloody, invasive surgical procedure on her unconscious naked body, following what appears to be a suicide attempt — so despite Roeg’s typically textural use of editing back and forth in time, little snippets of one time period fragmenting into another, it is a difficult watch. However, I do believe it’s trying to unpick the layers of obsession that can run through relationships (especially in films), pointing its finger firmly at 20th century psychoanalysis as being part of the problem.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Nic Roeg and his producer Jeremy Thomas sit in one of their kitchens and talk about the film some 25 years later, recollecting some of what went into creating it, how Roeg found Russell as his actor, and a little bit about the reception by the studio.
  • There are about 17 minutes of deleted scenes, half of which have no sound (as it wasn’t preserved) but they give little extra scenes to flesh out some of the characters.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Nicolas Roeg; Writer Yale Udoff; Cinematographer Anthony B. Richmond; Starring Theresa Russell, Art Garfunkel, Harvey Keitel, Denholm Elliott; Length 122 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 22 March 2020.

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).

Criterion Sunday 294: The Browning Version (1951)

I’m pretty sure that most people going into this film aren’t exactly expecting anything thrilling. After all, as a film it exudes exactly the atmosphere of the scenario it depicts, black-and-white photography capturing the fusty old corridors of a large overprivileged English public school where Michael Redgrave plays a Classics teacher, Mr Crocker-Harris. He has a quote from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon permanently chalked up on the board behind his desk as he dispassionately surveys his classroom and speaks in a flat monotone to the boys, all but one of whom very much dislike him. It takes its time, too, for the drama to get going, but it works in some of the same ways, as, say, Brief Encounter in tracking these minute little changes of emotional register among a small group of central characters. It’s easy to miss what’s going on, and I suspect it only improves on re-watching, but this impressed me far more once it had finished than I had any expectation upon starting.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a five-minute clip from British TV in the late-1950s with Redgrave being interviewed about acting and how he gets into roles, during which he briefly touches on this film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Anthony Asquith; Writer Terence Rattigan (based on his play); Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson; Starring Michael Redgrave, Jean Kent, Nigel Patrick, Brian Smith; Length 90 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Wednesday 12 February 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).

Emma. (2020)

I’m on holiday in New Zealand this week. I’m not exactly sure what’s coming out in cinemas here (it’s not a priority right now) and I don’t want to be sad about what I’m missing out on in London (I think Portrait of a Lady on Fire is out, and if it is, go see it). However next weekend I am going to a wedding, so I am doing a themed week about relationship movies, not all of them about weddings or romances, but I’ll try to fit in a few. Luckily, just about half of all popular culture is about romantic entanglements, so there should be plenty of pick from. First up is this film, the sad yet comical story of a matchmaker.


One wonders sometimes at the need to remake certain films. Clueless (1995) is such an enduring classic that it feels odd to have this updated version, which for reasons best known to the makers they’ve relocated to England in the 19th century. However, I have to admit it’s been 25 years since that previous film, so perhaps the time is ripe, and there is a very picturesque quality to these locations (almost too pastel-coloured at times, though captured with gorgeous clarity by Kelly Reichardt’s regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt).

One of the sad losses due to the change of setting is in some of the diversity of the cast: there are no gay characters, and all the principals (in fact, all of everyone) remain very firmly white. However, I can’t pretend there isn’t some joy to be had in the dialogue and the characters, all the same. It’s reaching for a Love & Friendship vibe, and the actors are all very capable at finding the comic potential (not just the noted comedic actors like Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy, but Josh O’Connor as the insufferable Elton, and of course Anya Taylor-Joy as the almost alien-looking title character, whose self-regarding exceptionalism seems to exude from her throughout the film).

For all that the title emphasises a certain finality of execution with its full stop, I do still think the canonical version of this text has already been made. However, this is a pleasant divertissement with little digs at the absurdities of class distinctions, and at Emma’s haughty attitudes. Also, as with every Austen adaptation, the dance sequences are expertly choreographed.

Emma film posterCREDITS
Director Autumn de Wilde; Writer Eleanor Catton (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 17 February 2019.

Mr. Jones (2019)

Today the fearsome British costume drama industry unleashes yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma upon us all. Last week my Polish themed week led up to the release of Agnieszka Holland’s latest film, but it can probably be considered as much a British film as a Polish one, especially as it deals with a British subject. It has the big old handsome period details you expect from such films, but it tells a slightly different story once it gets to the USSR, and perhaps that sets it apart from the usual run of such things, but I think there’s a lot to like.


This film sets itself against the backdrop of the “Holodomor” in the Ukraine — a famine during the 1930s largely engineered by the Soviet leadership, which killed millions of peasants — but really it’s about the way that these kinds of stories are treated by the media, about how the media is in the pocket of business and government interests. And so our crusading Welshman Gareth Jones (played by James Norton, the same actor who most recently was seen as Mr Brooke in Little Women) campaigns to bring to light this atrocity at a time when Western powers were more interested in alliances with the USSR and so not well-disposed to such revelations (and the media, as ever, reliable lapdogs to the powerful). The acting is all pretty solid (even Vanessa Kirby in a rather token role as the only apparently non-historical figure), and it’s directed capably by Agnieszka Holland albeit with some little expressionist touches. However, there’s plenty about this movie which rather too on the nose, seeming to ask us “do you see??” as it’s waving its arms to make clear what its teachable moments are. For example, and perhaps most clunkily, there’s the framing device of George Orwell writing Animal Farm, which we gather might have been a rather anodyne book about animals being mean to one another until our titular hero impresses upon Orwell exactly what the Soviets are really doing, at which point his faith in the Revolution starts to waver. Sadly, then, the film never quite lifts the way it needs to, but it’s worth watching all the same.

Mr. Jones film posterCREDITS
Director Agnieszka Holland; Writer Andrea Chalupa; Cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk; Starring James Norton, Peter Sarsgaard, Vanessa Kirby; Length 119 minutes (originally 141 minutes).
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Friday 7 February 2020.

Rocketman (2019)

This is perhaps an outlier in my themed week of British costume dramas, but it’s a period piece and you couldn’t possibly say it doesn’t have costumes, so I’m including it. Obviously it’s a biopic of the life of Elton John, and it’s mounted with impressive brio (even if maybe it’s not entirely for me, I’m willing to believe it is better than the similar production the previous year about Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody, which director Fletcher took over late in proceedings).


I don’t think I’ve ever specifically chosen to listen to an Elton John album or song, but of course they’ve often been on in the background or on soundtracks and such, so a lot of them remain familiar to me. That said, the point I’m making is I’m not really in the demographic for whom this film strikes any particular chord, as I’ve never been a big fan, but I concede that Dexter Fletcher has a solid touch with a musical and this one is good fun to watch. The performances are all good, and it has some nice set-pieces, such as the one where Elton goes from almost dying to being pushed on stage, seemingly in a single sequence. The framing device — him unraveling at an addicts’ group therapy session — is rather too convenient as a way to pull the narrative through his whole life, and he does a lot of confronting his earlier self and family/friends in feverish flashbacks, but it’s a musical, so it rather trades in elevating the quotidian to a magical and surreal level, and at that it succeeds nicely.

Rocketman film posterCREDITS
Director Dexter Fletcher; Writer Lee Hall; Cinematographer George Richmond; Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Friday 7 June 2019.

Wuthering Heights (2011)

A number of recent British heritage productions have attempted in their various ways to try to break away from some of the clichés of the genre, most notably the recent Lady Macbeth (2016). A lot of this has been in terms of casting (and certainly there’s a certain element of colour-blindness here), but the director also pushes the visual expectations of the genre with this adaptation of a well-loved and well-known novel.


Andrea Arnold certainly has an assured visual style. This film is shot in an Academy ratio (watch out that your TV doesn’t try to stretch it into widescreen) and frequently shoots through cracks and veils to further reduce the image size. When the camera does go outside there are some frankly beautiful shots, and some pretty taut editing too. It’s just that the script doesn’t always match this visual sense. There’s a lot of play with class and (newly for this adaptation) race, but most of it is enunciated at a formal level rather than in the dialogue, though that’s probably right for the period. There’s also an over-reliance on handheld camera; in many ways this feels like a period film for those who don’t tend to like them. Still, whatever else I might say, I do like it. The style is strong enough — and the performances too — to carry it.

Wuthering Heights film posterCREDITS
Director Andrea Arnold; Writers Arnold and Olivia Hetreed (based on the novel by Emily Brontë); Cinematographer Robbie Ryan; Starring Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Shannon Beer, Solomon Glave; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Wednesday 3 August 2016.

Viceroy’s House (2017)

Not all the prestige heritage productions of the British film industry are about rich white aristocrats, but too many of them do tend to be, even the ones directed by British-Asian directors like Gurinder Chadha. I imagine it will take a long time to truly decolonise this most stalwart of the British filmic genres, but perhaps there may be little steps in that direction. This is hardly flag-waving patriotism, mind, but it still feels a little bit misty-eyed, though I broadly liked it.


I’ve seen plenty of commentaries calling this film to task for its representation of the partition of India, specifically the way that Pakistan and its leader Jinnah seem like the ‘bad guys’ and the aristocratic Mountbattens (here played by Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson) are the well-meaning yet unwitting deliverers of imperial judgment. I can’t really disagree with these criticisms, though however much the film may go out of its way to make the Mountbattens (especially Lady M) likeable and empathetic towards the Indian people, I can’t ever really get onside with imperialists, so really it’s the story of the younger lovers within the Viceroy’s household which is most affecting. It also leads to a poignant, tearful, melodramatic and sentimental climax, which can be a failing of many a big sumptuous historical epic (and this one is nothing if not sumptuous). It’s not a million miles from A United Kingdom in this respect. It has honour I think (and it clearly has personal meaning to director Gurinder Chadha, as the end credits make clear), but it’s not without its weaknesses.

Viceroy's House film posterCREDITS
Director Gurinder Chadha; Writers Paul Mayeda Berges, Moira Buffini and Chadha; Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi हुमा क़ुरैशी, Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Om Puri ਓਮ ਪੁਰੀ; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 4 March 2017.