REVIEW — A Quiet Passion (2016)

After a period of considerable silence on my part, FilmJuice have my review of Terence Davies’ wonderful biopic of the American poet Emily Dickinson entitled A Quiet Passion.

It was interesting to find myself writing about Davies for the second time in five months after having spent a number of years bouncing off his films…

Whenever you acquire a passion for a particular cultural form, there is always a period in which you wind up feeling obliged to be a good citizen and, at the very least, experience the great canonical presences of the field. This gravitational pull can arise from social gatekeeping but even if you never experience a dude in a stained T-shirt snorting dismissively at your faves, you can still wind up being drawn into a cultural gravity well.

For example, once you acquire a passion for a particular cultural form, it is only natural to seek out respected commentators on that form and when those commentators all point towards the same cultural artefacts then it is quite hard to avoid engaging with those tastes and values. This is particularly obvious in the world of film criticism where an already limited range of canonical critics all tend to wind up writing about a limited range of canonical directors.

Davies is a director who sits at the bottom of quite a deep critical gravity well, which is to say that his work is respected by a lot of very respectable people and the amount of gravitational force he exerts on the culture around him means that there will always be some pressure to give his work another try, if only to try and work out what other people see in him.

I wrote about Davies’ long-awaited Sunset Song back in April and found it sorely wanting. A Quiet Passion is very similar to Sunset Song in that it is also quite dark, emotionally controlled, and oppressively internal. However, while the aesthetics of Sunset Song seemed a questionable fit for the source material, those same aesthetics turned out to be a perfect fit for the life of Emily Dickinson:

 

A Quiet Passion reads a lot like a critique of contemporary liberalism: It begins as a light and fluffy comedy of manners in which brilliant young women drop truth bombs on stuffy 19th Century caricatures but the comedy of manners collapses into tragedy when it turns out that material reality is immune to your zesty one-liners and epic owns. What follows is an absolutely uncompromising vision of genius and depression rooted in the realities of 19th Century life. Indeed, while many of Dickinson’s friends and family affect a form of world-weary cynicism, Dickinson expands those insights beyond the punchline and towards their logical conclusion in the realisation that society is built upon a series of monstrously unjust lies.

 

I went into the review-writing process rather unsure of my feelings on Davies and so I talk a bit about how I view Davies’ career and I begin to elaborate a narrative about the aesthetics of British art house film that I may wind up returning to at some later point:

 

The root of the problem is that Davies is a director in the great tradition of British art house film. Indeed, while many of the art films to come out of continental Europe tend towards the abstract and novelistic, British art films tend to be theatrical and rooted in social realism. To put it another way, European art film is a house built by Andrei Tarkovsky and Jean-Luc Godard whereas British art house film owes considerably more to left-leaning social realists such as Alan Clark and Mike Leigh. Unfortunately for Davies and many directors like him, the 1990s saw the economic heartlands of prestige cinema shift a lot closer to the American middle-class and while the abstract tendencies of European art film survived the transition, the British art house tradition did not.

 

 

REVIEW — Melody (1971)

Bit late uploading this but FilmJuice have my review of Waris Hussein’s thoroughly excellent and recently re-released British drama Melody (also known as S.W.A.L.K.)

Set in 1970s East London, Melody begins by introducing the resolutely introverted and middle-class Danny to a working-class community that his shit-munching parents are hoping to gentrify. Initially alienated from his class-mates, Danny soon manages to establish a friendship with a local lad whose home life is so horrifying that you never actually see it on screen. Made in the great tradition of British post-War social realism, Melody explores not only the dynamics of gentrification and middle-class ‘concern’ for the lower orders but also the ways in which proximity and cooperation can work to establish solidarity between people from ostensibly very different backgrounds. Filled with these lovely scenes in which the camera runs and runs as kids go about their normal daily lives, the film soon transitions into an utterly charming and genuinely moving love story between Danny and a little girl called Melody:

 

Despite being set in a recognisably socialist universe in which social class shapes both your identity and your hopes for the future, Melody is a deeply romantic film that wants to believe in the absolute power of love to remake the world. At first, these two thematic strands appear to be in conflict as nobody but Danny (and later Melody) believe that they should be in love or want to get married. However, as the film reaches its conclusion, opinions begin to shift as kids rally to the couple’s cause and set about creating a world of their own. In a move that recalls the ending to both Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Melody ends with the protagonists running away from a world that they can’t escape… because sometimes all you need for happiness is a bit of breathing room. As Ornshaw says, “Don’t forget to change at Clapham Junction!”

 

Interestingly, the weakest element of this film is probably the soundtrack that inspired its makings. Dominated by profoundly not-famous tunes by the BeeGees, it feels way too folky and blandly up-beat for a film with the urban setting and realistic tone of a film like Melody. This being said, Melody is a thoroughly excellent film from an era when the British film industry was still interested in making films that spoke directly to the experiences of British people.

REVIEW – Absolute Beginners (1986)

Long before there was the internet and film magazines, there were trailers squeezed onto the VHS tapes I rented as a child. In those days, trailers were my only connection to the broader cinematic world and while they inspired me to seek out certain films, they could also convince me to avoid certain films at all costs.

The funny thing is that many of those emotional reactions remained with me well into adulthood. In fact, with the possibly exception of Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners may well have been the first film I refused to see out of spite because I was annoyed by the amount of hype that surrounded its initial release. It may have taken thirty years but the spell is finally broken and I have reviewed Absolute Beginners for FilmJuice!

Set in the late 1950s, the film follows a group of teenagers caught in a maelstrom of economic and cultural renewal: On the one hand, the poverty of the post-war years combined with the shoots of economic recovery allowed for the creation of cultural spaces where the young were allowed to find their voices, have their say, and generally call the shots. On the other hand, this emerging youth culture appeals not only to the uncool kids who desperately want to be a part of it, but also to wealthy older people who want to exploit that desire as well as the teenage creativity that feeds it. In other words, the film’s protagonists have been presented with a choice between remaining true to their working-class roots and selling out in order to make their fortunes. Based on a trilogy of gritty novels by Colin McInnes, Absolute Beginners uses razor sharp visuals and 1980s pop music to capture what it feels like to be young, gifted, and burdened with opportunity:

Set in the late 1950s, the film waxes nostalgic about the cultural renewal of the late-1950s only to channel these feelings of nostalgia into a biting commentary on the forces of cultural and economic reaction that had been unleashed by the rapidly-maturing Thatcher government. Shot mostly on studio lots and concerned mostly with the past, the film voices its feelings of malaise by painstakingly recreating 1950s Soho only to litter it with anachronistic touches like neon socks, punk rock fashion shows, and the music of performers like David Bowie, Sade, Ray Davies, and the Style Council. At the time, critics hated the film’s unsettling combination of nostalgia and modernity but time and distance allow us to see a film that is beautiful, stylish, and made with more political insight that almost any other British film of the 1980s.

The film opens with a succession of long-take explorations of 1950s Soho. Our guide is Colin (Eddie O’Connell) a working class lad who is eking out a living as a street photographer while trying to secure the affections of the ambitious fashion designer Crepe Suzette (Patsy Kensit). These long takes are arguably the best things about the film as Temple recreates a vision of 1950s Soho that is vibrant, transgressive, multi-cultural and positively over-flowing with life. This is a place where races mingle with sexualities as crime, passion, and violence spill out onto rain-slicked streets. As Colin puts it, knives are sometimes drawn… but only among friends.

Absolute Beginners is a beautifully shot film that manages to smuggle a highly-sophisticated critique of 1950s British capitalism out under the auspices of a crowd-pleasing musical. The only flaw in the plan was that the film was sold not only as a musical but as a musical featuring (then) popular musicians performing their own material. Given the glamour that surrounded the British music industry in the early 1980s, it is easy to see why the producers might have decided to sell the film on the strength of its musical elements… the only problem was that none of the tunes turned out to be in any way memorable. This perhaps explained why the film tanked at the box office and failed to win over many critics.

Strip out the shitty music and what you have is fantastic Julien Temple film about Thatcherism and the collapse of British punk. This is a film in desperate need of a serious critical reappraisal.

REVIEW — Couple in a Hole (2015)

*taps mic* Is this thing still on? Good.

FilmJuice have my review of Tom Geens’ excellent Couple in a Hole, a Anglo-French drama that set amidst the mountains and forests of South-Western France. While my critical career has not exactly been on the ascendant in recent years, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to write about films that hype forgot. In fairness, many of these films have been mediocre but every now and then, a film comes along that reminds me of why I love the medium of film and the dysfunctional artistic traditions that have grown up around it. Couple in a Hole is one of those films.

As political and economic crises make it harder and harder for young people to pursue their dreams, Western civilisation grows ever more obsessed with its own inevitable demise. Most manifest in young adult blockbusters like the Hunger Games and Divergent series, our apocalyptic fascination keeps drawing us back to stories in which the science and politics of catastrophe have been replaced with levels of emotional abstraction that speak to a yearning for absolute psychological simplicity. We don’t care whether the bombs rain down or the zombies rise up, we just want immerse ourselves in worlds where the stultifying complexity of late capitalism have been replaced with spaces where people can breathe and be themselves.

Just as TV’s The Walking Dead has spent the best part of a decade exploring the rise and fall of simple human societies and Mad Max: Fury Road imagined a radical break with patriarchal structures, films like 2015’s The Survivalist used the end of the world as an excuse to explore one man’s movement from solitude to community along with the interwoven bonds of love and trust required to make such a journey. These films are only about the end of the world in so far as they create fictional spaces where the nuances of capitalist emotional economics have been replaced with something that seems both more real and less realistic. Even outside of genre filmmaking, the end of the world has proved an enduring source of metaphorical imagery as in the case of Thomas Cailley’s brilliant debut Les Combattants where a couple need to immerse themselves in an apocalyptic landscape before they can move beyond embarrassment and confront the true nature of the feelings. Built along similar lines, Tom Geens’ second film Couple in a Hole also benefits from the lightest possible touch of the genre brush. Set in the forests of South-West France, this brilliantly acted and beautifully shot film uses apocalyptic imagery to explore the collapse of one life and the slow emergence of another.

You can read the rest of my review right HERE.

Couple in a Hole is a non-genre film that uses genre imagery and themes to explore characters and express emotional truths. In my review I pointed to Cailley’s excellent Les Combattants but another example of the form is Jeff Nichols’ superb Take Shelter starring Michael Shannon.

The combination of genre and non-genre elements rather reminds me of those genre short stories that use genre elements as a way of turning emotional states into metaphors and then making those metaphors concrete, the supreme example of the form being Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories are for Losers” from back in 2013. For John and Karen, the death of their son felt like the end of the world and so their attempts to live with their grief take on a post-apocalyptic character.

The film is out on DVD in the UK this week and, by the looks of it, is also receiving a few screenings in indie cinemas. Seek it out, it is one of the best films I’ve seen in ages.

 

 

REVIEW — The Forgotten (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Oliver Frampton’s debut film, a low-budget British horror film named The Forgotten.

The film is set in Central London where a troubled teenager has returned from holiday to find his mother gone and his father living in an abandoned council estate. By day, the teenager helps his father break into flats and strip out copper wiring. By night, he worries about the noises coming up through the floor and the people who seem to be following his father home at night.

The Forgotten was maybe one major script revision away from being a genuinely excellent modern ghost story. It would be interesting to see what a more experienced and worldly Frampton might be able to produce as Britain really could do with a few more genre directors who were willing to make films about the harshness of normal lives.

Though not to be confused with the identically-named Christian Slater-fronted TV series about a group of amateur detectives piecing together the lives of unnamed murder victims, both Forgottens share a desire for social relevance and a belief that pop culture can serve to increase our understanding of the world rather than simply distracting us from it.

However, despite some admirable aims and some real technical skill yielding some really effective scares, The Forgotten is ultimately little more than one of those disposable low-budget horror flicks that wind up on supermarket shelves.

REVIEW — Sunset Song (2015)

FilmJuice have my review of Terence Davies’ intensely frustrating and disastrously miscast Sunset Song, a long-gestating adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy of novels A Scots Quair.

The novel is set in early 20th Century Scotland where a psychotic patriarch decides to become a tenant farmer. Ill-equipped for the task, he drives his wife insane and his son to Argentina leaving him all alone with his sensitive daughter Chris who leaves him to die and takes over the farm only for her life, love, and relationships to be ruined by the outbreak of World War I.

In fairness to Davies, I can completely understand why he was drawn to the project as Chris is a fantastic viewpoint character who — despite possessing some agency — winds up being completely destroyed by the harsh beauty of the Scottish landscape. As the character points out in one of many monologues delivered to a screen of waving corn, the land endures when its human inhabitants do not. The problem with Davies adaptation is a failure to strike a balance between light and shade and a complete failure to condense three complex novels down to a three act structure that fits into just over two hours:

 

The shallowness of Davies’ adaptation is particularly evident when we enter the final act where Chris’ family comes under pressure from local villagers who are enraged by the group’s failure to support the war. The problem here is that, up until that point, Davies had barely acknowledged the existence of a world outside of Chris’ farm and so he is unable to communicate why a group of isolated farm workers would suddenly feel obliged to conform to the wishes of a community that appears to have had almost no impact on their lives.

 

There are some lovely moments; the compositions are striking, the photography is beautiful and when Davies does allow some sunlight to penetrate the gloom, there is real humanity too. The problem is that he’s cut so much out of the script that he winds up relying on the actors to form a connection with the audience and neither Peter Mullan nor Agyness Deyne are able to transcend the limitations that Davies’ adaptation has imposed upon them. A shame really.

REVIEW — Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990)

Having just finished putting up my review of Gemma Bovery, I find myself linking to yet another work of cinematic metafiction intended as a means of approaching a classic text from an entirely new perspective. Well… I say “new” but FilmJuice have my review of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are dead.

I love the idea of metafiction. Metafiction is one of those quintessentially postmodern literary devices that serve not only to highlight the artificiality of a given text, but also to explore it from an entirely new perspective. Metafiction works by locating holes in the plot, character, or setting and then creating a fresh text that not only fills the holes, but links them together in a way that forces you to look upon the original text in a different way.  Like many postmodern devices, the principle aesthetic of metafiction is cleverness and so the name of the game is usually to see how many gaps you can fill, and how far you can distort the original text without the entire thing becoming cumbersome and boring. I love the idea of metafiction but tend to find that cleverness is a singularly unappealing aesthetic.

Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead was a classic play before it was a classic film and the adaptation is weighted down by the fact that a) Tom Stoppard is no film director and b) Many of the ideas that Stoppard tried to extract from Hamlet have entered the mainstream and feel neither fresh nor in need of the kind of complex metafictional infrastructure that Stoppard felt obliged to create. Did we really need an entirely new text to draw our attention to the absurd nihilism at the heart of Hamlet? Maybe back in 1966.

But I’m skipping ahead of myself… Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is a work of metafiction about two of Hamlet‘s more inconsequential characters. In the text of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of Hamlet’s old school friends who turn up in Denmark, listen to a couple of speeches, get involved in courtly intrigue and wind up sentencing themselves to death. Stoppard’s play and film use the characters not only to draw our attention to the contrivances at the heart of Hamlet, but also to drive home the vicious nihilism that haunts the events of the play. Thematics aside, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is all about the linguistic games and philosophical tangents explored at 100 miles-per-hour. Unfortunately, Stoppard’s directorial inexperience completely undermines this aspect of the play:

When performed live, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is all about speed of delivery and the way that a conversation about one thing can suddenly blossom into a scene from Hamlet dealing with something else entirely. Performed live, the play is immensely impressive if only because of the sheer speed and complexity of the material being delivered. Having been asked to adapt his play for the screen, Stoppard evidently decided that he should try to make the play seem more cinematic but rather than replacing elements of the play with elements that might work better in a cinematic format, Stoppard took the text of his play and inserted additional cinematic elements like elegant footage of the decaying castle and visual jokes about people being chased up and down corridors. While these elements are not in and of themselves terrible, they do serve to slacken the pace of the narrative and so undermine the sense of speed and flow that is evident even in the written form of the source material. The result is an adaptation that feels overly long and cluttered to the point where it calls into question the cleverness of the source material.

Another thing that occurred to me after writing this review is that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead seems to harken back to a rather dated form of Shakespearean performance. Prior to the likes of Olivier, Shakespeare was often performed purely for the strength of its mouth music and so actors would plant themselves in the middle of the stage and deliver magnificent orations without being overly fussed about the nature of the characters they were meant to be portraying. It occurs to me that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead harkens back to this unfashionable approach in so far as the play’s aesthetics are all about speed and elegance of delivery rather than expressions of character. Tim Roth, Richard Dreyfuss, and Gary Oldman are all superb actors but it struck me that, aside from mouth music and gurning, the play did not offer them very much to do.