Following up the reviews of my favourite films of 2022 (full list here). Maybe I missed the gathering of the Terence Davies fans last year, but I don’t recall many people listing this on any year-end best-of lists for some reason, and that perplexes me. He’s never exactly been fashionable, but this was a really strong film, an evocation of the past and the movement from youthful impetuousness into a conservative older age, set against the backdrop of WW1 and the ensuing interwar period.
Nobody is out here making films like Terence Davies. As it opens, this comes across like a combination of archival museum video that you watch in hushed silence in a media centre before entering a memorial to a horrifying past, along with the kind of TV drama which feels boldly experimental sheerly out of budgetary necessity (such enterprises usually restricting themselves to a handful of sets in old buildings sparsely populated by actors in costumes). And yet, for all that this seems like exactly the kind of thing cinema should not be doing, I really do mean it not in a bad way — for example, Raul Ruiz’s magisterial Mysteries of Lisbon very much had that latter kind of quality, and it doesn’t even feel like cost cutting but about cutting away the pointless aggrandisements of the costume/period genres to get to something essential.
In this film, Jack Lowden is fantastic as Siegfried Sassoon, who has a tender impish charm alongside a bitter seriousness (though it’s really only the latter quality that Peter Capaldi as his older version gets to show, his youthful esprit having been thoroughly dissipated). Not being familiar with Sassoon’s story, I was somewhat surprised he lived past the First World War (I think in my head I had conflated him rather too much with Wilfred Owen), but this film captures something of the turmoil of the early-20th century, while cataloguing popular/gay culture of the period (Ivor Novello, Edith Sitwell, and quite a parade of handsome slightly bland looking chiselled youths that flit through Siegried’s life).
It’s a fascinating way to tell this story, which gives as much time for him to read a poem to himself as it does to rather more melodramatic goings on, but it’s an effective story that neither panders to its period nor to us as modern viewers, and is all the better for that.
Director/Writer Terence Davies; Cinematographer Nicola Daley; Starring Jack Lowden, Simon Russell Beale, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at Light House, Petone, Sunday 24 July 2022.
The director of Madeline’s Madeline, one of my favourite films of a couple years ago, is back with another film, this time about the horror author Shirley Jackson, with a bravura performance from Elisabeth Moss. Hopefully this means it gets a bit more widespread acclaim, because I think it deserves it, not that it’s always easy to watch, given the mind games going on amongst the protagonists.
Director Josephine Decker has made some of my favourite films of recent years, developing a distinctive, corporeal and impressionistic aesthetic. It feels a little different here, presumably because she’s working with a different cinematographer from her earlier works, and so this feels a little more classical than her erstwhile experiments in trying to get directly inside someone’s head. It’s still stylish in evoking a mid-20th century New England setting, and comes across at times a little like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and while that film had its psychosexual overtones, Shirley really pushes hard into some dark territory in essaying the relationship between the titular writer and a young woman whom she at first fears her flirtatious and philandering academic husband has his sights set on. Things develop into a four-way entanglement between these two couples, all of which is brought out ultimately by the committed performances of the ever-mercurial Elisabeth Moss as Shirley and Australian actor Odessa Young as her protegee of sorts (plus of course Michael Stuhlbarg, who really makes the most of his beard and his paunch to create a memorable professor).
Director Josephine Decker; Writer Sarah Gubbins (based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell); Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Friday 9 October 2020.
Another odd independent Austrian filmmaker is Ruth Beckermann, who has been working since the 1970s and whose films have largely been documentaries but like the one below, have played with the edges of dramatisation or with historical subjectivity. She made a sort of travelogue in A Fleeting Passage to the Orient (1999), which I’ve already reviewed on my blog, though this 2016 film was the first exposure I’d had to her work.
It’s an odd film this one, and its oddness largely lies in its sort of contrapuntal relationship to the documentary genre. Two actors (Anja Plaschg and Laurence Rupp) read letters sent between poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann — two people who shared markedly different experiences of wartime Europe — during their relationship from the late-40s to late-60s. As it opens, in darkness, the faces of the actors are seen reading the texts into microphones and I’d thought it might be a sort of Straub/Huillet type exercise (I suppose there are similarities in that those two French-German filmmakers liked deploying texts in brutally minimalist ways). However, though the essential form doesn’t change, there are all kinds of interruptions to our expectations, not least distancing the words expressed with those exchanged between the actors. It’s hard to really encapsulate, but it’s certainly an interesting experience.
Director Ruth Beckermann; Writers Beckermann and Ina Hartwig (based on letters by Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan); Cinematographer Johannes Hammel; Starring Anja Plaschg, Laurence Rupp; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 8 December 2016.
A couple of weeks ago I did a themed week around documentaries because of the Sheffield Doc/Fest moving online (it’s still going until 10 July). However, it’s not the first film festival and won’t be the last to open online only this year. Next week Edinburgh International Film Festival is presenting a short online programme, and just this past week, the London (and Birmingham) Indian Film Festival has launched an online hub, which looks very similar to Sheffield’s. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to catch up with a few, but it’s a hectic time in filmgoing, albeit a very homebound one! In honour of this, I’m doing a week dedicated to Indian films, starting with some classics and then moving to more recent works (most of which I’ve seen are by women directors). I’ll start with Guru Dutt’s classic from 1957, whose bio makes him seem like he had something of a turbulent life, though it resulted in some great films.
A magnanimous and generous film about people living on the outside of acceptable society. The director Guru Dutt also plays the leading man, Vijay, a struggling poet (much of it sung) who has been more or less abandoned by his brothers and scorned by polite society, and who is only made to feel welcome by a prostitute (Waheeda Rehman). In a bitter twist of fate, he only finds fame after it is assumed he has died. The Wikipedia plot summary deals mostly with the film’s final third, as much of the earlier part of the film is more of an attempt to capture Vijay’s feelings, of being abandoned and shunned, and of failing to find love or respect, though somehow it’s never really depressing: the luminous cinematography, and the generosity of a small number of (similarly outsider) characters keep the film and its lead character from wallowing in misery. When plot machinations kick in, the grasping venality of those around Vijay is revealed.
Director Guru Dutt गुरु दत्त; Writer Abrar Alvi अबरार अलवी; Cinematographer V.K. Murthy वीके मूर्ति; Starring Guru Dutt गुरु दत्त, Mala Sinha माला सिन्हा, Waheeda Rehman وحیدہ رحمن, Rehman रहमान; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Saturday 24 November 2018.
As of writing this (and hopefully not for too much longer), I’ve never actually read any of the work of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I feel ashamed at that. More than ever, it’s important to celebrate authors who work in the fantasy and science-fiction genres who deal frankly and positively with difference, specifically characters with fluid gender and sexual identities, characters which cut across class divides and are sympathetic and believable. Le Guin has been doing so since the 1960s, and too many authors with a lot of media cachet have been getting recent media traction with appalling untruths about, for example, transgender people. Difference is still scary and threatening to far too many people, and reading the work of authors like Le Guin is a small way to rectify that.
A straightforward hour-long talking heads documentary about an American fantasy author who died at the age of 88 in January 2018. It dwells most on her upbringing and the work in the 1960s that made her name, and about her own personal growth in encountering feminism and moving from primarily male protagonists to integrate different class and gender perspectives into her stories from the 1970s onwards. As it’s quite short, you get the sense that there’s a lot more that could be covered, and it leans rather heavily on the opinions of David Mitchell and Neil Gaiman, but on the whole this is a fascinating piece. In particular, her speech near the end of her life to the National Book Awards is a reminder that her acuity and social consciousness remained undiminished throughout her life.
Director/Writer Arwen Curry; Cinematographer Andrew Black; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Saturday 10 November 2018.
I went back to YouTube recently to look up this film by Kinuyo Tanaka, the second woman to direct feature films in Japan and herself an acclaimed actor of some renown. I was inspired by the writing of critic Cathy Brennan, who has herself written far longer and better pieces about the actor/director for Another Gaze magazine, and the Screen Queens blog. Sadly, there are few opportunities to watch Tanaka’s films currently, which is surprising given her fame as an actor and the recent interest in women’s filmmaking, but one can dream of proper releases one day I suppose.
I’ve watched a number of mid-20th century Japanese films recently, but I haven’t seen any quite like this film, one of the handful directed by acclaimed actor Kinuyo Tanaka — and perhaps it’s her perspective that makes a telling difference, or that of celebrated screenwriter Sumie Tanaka (no relation), who also wrote most of Mikio Naruse’s greatest works during the same decade. It’s just that I hadn’t seen many films that deal fairly frankly not just with a difficult relationship — in this case young housewife and budding poet Fumiko (played by Yumeji Tsukioka and based on a real figure) being pushed away by her philandering husband — but also with her subsequent breast cancer diagnosis which gives the film its memorable title. It is, ultimately, a weepie of sorts, with a grand melodramatic arc that deals with this woman turning her back on love, before admitting into her life a big city journalist (well, she lives in Hokkaido and the journalist is from Tokyo), as she tries to recover from her mastectomy in a Japanese hospital while still writing poetry. There are big emotions, but also some delicate observation too, and it’s a film that shows plenty of care in its creation, only a few years after Kurosawa made the rather better known cancer drama Ikiru.
Director Kinuyo Tanaka 田中絹代; Writer Sumie Tanaka 田中澄江 (based on the article by Akira Wakatsuki 若月彰, and the poetry collections 乳房喪失 and 花の原型 by Fumiko Nakajo 城ふみ子); Cinematographer Kumenobu Fujioka 藤岡粂信; Starring Yumeji Tsukioka 月丘夢路, Ryoji Hayama 葉山 良二, Masayuki Mori 森雅之, Yoko Sugi 杉葉子; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (YouTube), London, Sunday 19 April 2020.
Biopics and costume dramas often intersect, as we’ve seen in The Favourite, and Keira Knightley has been particularly splendid at wearing an old frock and looking glamorous on-screen, though increasingly she’s also become an excellent actor, and Colette is a fantastic example of her recent craft.
In a season when we’ve had The Favourite, all other costume dramas now seem particularly plodding, unoriginal and well-meaning, and Colette seems at first blush to fit into the idea of a handsomely-mounted heritage film about another era, anchored by some strong lead acting performances, but presenting a very cleaned-up recreation of a past filmed in various grand houses and city panoramas retouched to remove all the signs of modernity. Still, there’s at least a queer subtext (no that’s not fair, by the latter half of the film it’s simply the text) to subvert things a bit, as Knightley’s title character has affairs with both men and women, while her marriage to Dominic West’s foolish husband starts to pall. Indeed, his priggish idiocy and the way that he is constantly put in his place by everyone, particularly his younger wife, becomes an enjoyable theme for the film. Setting aside the dreadful Louisiana accent of one of Colette’s companions, there’s a lot to enjoy in all the performances, and even the more affected cliches of the script feel a little bit revived by the particular focus brought by this story of a writer who remains largely unknown to English-speaking audiences. (I actually own one of her novels, but haven’t read it in the 20 years it’s been on my shelves, so perhaps now is the time.)
Director Wash Westmoreland; Writers Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Westmoreland; Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens; Starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw, Denise Gough; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 19 January 2019.
Upon the UK cinematic release today of comedy-drama Brittany Runs a Marathon, I’ve been looking back at this popular hybrid generic form, and wanted to finish with one of the best American examples of the past year, which deftly blends a pathos-filled dramatic story of a writer hitting the bottom with clear comedy notes (impossible to avoid with Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as your leads), with a side of criminal capers.
What I’ve enjoyed most about both of Marielle Heller’s films as director (she also made 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl) is the empathy and humanity she affords to people who are, pretty clearly, quite bitter and caustic people — the sense that maybe the way they are has been shaped by their environment and their struggles with depression, and that maybe they’re not fundamentally bad people. Melissa McCarthy’s washed-up novelist Lee Israel (and as with Destroyer, I’m reminded this is a generic archetype more usually played by grizzled older men) may be getting involved in criminality but it all seems so very low stakes after a fashion, and she shows apparent creativity in the process of pastiching various authors’ personal style. McCarthy is excellent at getting into this shuffling, self-loathing character, but for me the film is made by Richard E. Grant and Dolly Wells in the supporting performances, not to mention the other wonderfully weary bookshop owners who just have such a genuine thrill at these almost-forgotten names from a more literate past. Grant seems to be largely reprising his Withnail performance, with the hindsight of age and mortality, and (notwithstanding the very late and unconvincing swerve into AIDS themes) it’s an act that works beautifully. Dolly Wells’ Anna may be even more heartbreaking in the way she wants to but is unable to connect with Israel. Overall, and despite its embittered central character, the film just oozes with warmth, and a strange glow cast by antiquarian bookshops and squalid NYC apartments.
Director Marielle Heller; Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (based on the memoir by Lee Israel); Cinematographer Brandon Trost; Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Monday 4 February 2019.