Criterion Sunday 373: The Proud Valley (1940) and Native Land (1942)

The director of The Proud Valley (the first film on this disc) — who was a descendent of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson — died the year after it was released at the remarkably young age of 28, but he shows a sure sense of direction in this work set amongst Welsh miners at the cusp of war. Of course, the star is the African-American expatriate Paul Robeson, by this point no longer particularly welcome back in his home country, and who had already had most of a decade working in Europe to various success. This film escapes the jingoistic colonialism and condescension of Sanders of the River (1935) and is much more in-line with the kind of noble depiction of the Black American that Robeson was far more interested in conveying. Indeed, racism becomes very much a minor issue amongst this group of workers — when they’re down the mines, after all, they’re all coated in coal dust — and the film is about the small town’s attempt to reopen their mine and restore work to the struggling community above all else. In that sense, it has a fair amount of feeling for the struggle of working class people across racial divides that would certainly seem to become rarer in British culture thereafter.

The final film on the set, the American film Native Land, certainly isn’t perfect — it pitches itself somewhat as a documentary about the union activism, its suppression by forces of government and capitalism, and its triumphant resurgence, but intersperses the documentary portions (narrated by Paul Robeson) with re-enactments of incidents in the struggle for union rights. These bits are a little bit stagy, but still valuable and interesting, though certainly I’ve seen persuasive critiques at the overall tone, a sort of patriotic nationalism that ties in the Declaration of Independence to labour struggles — and to be fair I can somewhat understand that impulse to cast the union as a patriotic institution deserving of vigorous defence. It also begs the question of whose land this is, and who exactly is native to it, and while the answer is presumably the honest worker, one does wonder at the lack of nuance around indigenous rights and anti-racist struggles. Still, it’s flying the flag for a progressive agenda, and for the power of the unions to affect our lives in a positive way (which they have historically done and continue to do in many cases), especially against the organising of fascists and their sympathisers, a theme that sadly has not aged.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

The Proud Valley (1940)
Director Pen Tennyson; Writers Fredda Brilliant, Louis Golding, Herbert Marshall; Cinematographers Glen MacWilliams and Roy Kellino; Starring Paul Robeson, Edward Chapman, Simon Lack, Rachel Thomas; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Thursday 19 November 2020.

Native Land (1942)
Directors Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand; Writers Hurwitz and Ben Maddow; Cinematographer Strand; Starring Paul Robeson; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 22 November 2020.

A Way of Life (2004)

It’s interesting that Amma Asante’s debut film takes place entirely amongst white people (that is to say, people who look more like each other than — as the director said in a Q&A at the screening I attended — she looks like them), even if they find plenty of opportunity to sling racial slurs at one another (a Turkish character comes in for some particularly nasty abuse). In a modern climate of anti-immigrant sentiment, it’s clear this stuff has been growing for a while. Asante’s focus is on the small gang of friends in Cardiff, living with very little money and desperate to get by (by any means) — a way of life marked by teen pregnancy, drug use, petty crime, the usual. These are fairly depressing characters, and so it’s interesting that Asante finds some sympathy to them at times, though any short-lived moments of decency are always quickly overwhelmed by hate. I didn’t honestly like everything here — the music in particular seems ill-judged, and rather too redolent of 80s televisual plays. However, the largely non-professional acting is strong, and it seems to capture some of the intersecting ways of being an outsider.

A Way of Life film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Amma Asante; Cinematographer Ian Wilson; Starring Stephanie James; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Genesis Cinema, London, Tuesday 7 March 2017.

Dark Horse (2015)

I’m not a horsey person, nor do I tend to ever watch horse racing, but when I was younger we did occasionally watch the Grand National, as it was always the one race on which my granny would have a flutter. She had also taken me a few times to horse racing meets, which always seemed to me a strange mix of impossibly posh with the shabby plebeian, and were usually good fun, even if I didn’t have half a clue about what I was supposed to see in the horses as they paraded by. However, despite all that, there’s plenty even for me to enjoy in this story of an unlikely alliance of villagers in Wales who stumped up some cash and helped to breed and train a horse, Dream Alliance, which made it as far as that most august of British sporting fixtures. The ups and downs of Dream’s career are part of the story, which was unknown to me, so I shan’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say this film has plenty of zip, with heavy use of musical score to hold together the talking heads and archival footage, keeping things moving along at a fair trot. The filmmakers are attentive to the disparity in class between the villagers and most other horse owners and trainers, and hints that maybe the rich owners have less love for the animals themselves as for the sport. However, the bulk of the film is buoyed by the engaging charm of the villagers in telling their unlikely and emotional story.

Dark Horse film posterCREDITS
Director Louise Osmond; Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 22 April 2015.

No Manifesto: A Film about Manic Street Preachers (2015)

When you watch a music documentary about a band you don’t really like, there’s always going to be some difficulty in assessing it fairly, so my comments should be taken in that light. Manic Street Preachers are a Welsh band formed in the 1980s but who attained some of their greatest success in the following decade. As the documentary makes clear, however, this didn’t always translate internationally — there’s a series of vox pop interviews with New Yorkers on the street indicating how little they’ve heard of the band compared to MSP’s contemporaries — and yet this film is made by a primarily US-based crew and director. It does all the usual documentary stuff — talking heads interviews with band members and fans, archival footage of key points in their career, live gigs — and it covers controversies like the mysterious disappearance of original member Richey Edwards, all set against the three remaining band members rehearsing and working up a new album. No doubt this will appeal to existing fans (those I was watching it with seemed to like it well enough). It just doesn’t get under the skin of why the band have the success they do, or why a casual listener should be interested in them. Don’t get me wrong, they all seem like perfectly nice chaps and I wish them continued success, but as a documentary I was hoping for more insight.

No Manifesto: A Film about Manic Street Preachers film posterCREDITS
Director Elizabeth Marcus; Cinematographers Mike Desjarlais and Chuck Miller; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s flat, London, Saturday 28 March 2015.

Pride (2014)

It’s easy to be dismissive of a certain strand of emotionally-manipulative feel-good films about small communities resisting state oppression, or maybe it’s just easy for me. I can be cynical. Pride recalls similar British films of the recent past, set in the same milieu (miners fighting for their lives and livelihood against the policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative party), like Brassed Off (1996) and to a certain extent The Full Monty (1998). Still, it does the whole thing every bit as well as those films did, and further frames it within the (largely metropolitan) struggles for gay rights during the same era, a struggle marked in some measure by the scourge of AIDS and the Thatcher government’s almost dismissive response to it. (I was but a young lad in the 1980s, but I still remember the bleak finality of their TV ads about AIDS.) You could argue there’s a bit of rose tinting involved in taking two narratives permeated with real pain, death and indignity, and crafting something heartwarming and feel-good out of it. Sure, there’s a nod at the beginning to the unlikeliness of the (drawn from real-life) conjunction of two struggles in the form of Mark Ashton’s Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) activist group, who collect money to help the embattled mining community. When they have their first meeting in London’s Gay’s the Word bookshop (still there, pleasingly), one man angrily denounces the way he’d been beaten up by miners when he was younger, stalking out of the shop and taking most of the rest with him. However, such unease is quickly smoothed over as Ashton (played likeably by Ben Schnetzer) finds a Welsh mining community who are willing to accept donations from the LGSM, and there follows a wary yet rather delightful rapprochement between the two very different camps, ably helped by wiser heads amongst the Welsh (including the very much not-Welsh actors Paddy Considine, Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy). And yet, whatever reservations one may have about the way things unfold, it has an irresistible charm, by turns funny, sweet and heartbreakingly poignant. It’s also an unapologetic flag-waver for the union movement, bookending the film with rousing pro-union anthems. Most surprisingly, the events of the film are all drawn from real life, so the film’s title is quite apt: it makes one proud, and not a little bit teary.

Pride film posterCREDITS
Director Matthew Warchus; Writer Stephen Beresford; Cinematographer Tat Radcliffe; Starring Ben Schnetzer, George MacKay, Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Paddy Considine; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Rio, London, Friday 12 September 2014.