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 — 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 — The Captive Heart (1946)

Earlier this week, I wondered what a fully mature and authentic British film industry might actually look like. For inspiration, I looked to the British cinema of the 1940s and found both good and evil.

One side of the dyad is represented by Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol, an immensely thought-provoking film about how children see the world and how that vision is subject to distortion by more-or-less well-intentioned adults.However, while the mature and authentic British film industry of the 1940s was capable of producing complex and challenging films like The Fallen Idol, it was also capable of producing films so wedded to the political establishment that hindsight reveals them to be almost indistinguishable from propaganda.

However, while it may be comforting to believe that a mature British film industry would happily churn out films of similar quality to The Fallen Idol, an authentic British film industry would almost certainly give voice to conservative and reactionary feelings that are just as much a part of the British cultural landscape as the desire to ask awkward questions and consider the perspectives of the powerless. While The Fallen Idol may embody everything I’d like to see from a mature British cinema, the opposite side of the dyad would be represented by  Basil Dearden’s The Captive Heart, an elegantly-structured and intelligently scripted film that just so happens to feel like the clarion call of a new British imperialism.

The film opens with footage of injured British soldiers marching through the French and German countrysides. These are the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force and they are destined to spend the rest of the War in a German POW camp. The film introduces us to a variety of different characters, provides them with back stories and then allows us to watch as the men come to terms with both their new situation and the demands placed upon them by their connections back home. As I say in my review, the effect is very reminiscent of the so-called Cosy Catastrophes that dominated British science-fiction in the aftermath of World War II:

Back in 1973, the British author and critic Brian Aldiss argued that British writers like John Wyndham had a nasty habit of depicting the end of the world as a cosy catastrophe in which survival demanded little in the way of hardship, sacrifice or philosophical re-orientation. The classic example of this style of science fiction story is Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in that, after escaping a London full of man-eating plants, the protagonists settle into a Sussex mansion where tea is drunk, cake is made, and the class system endures. Though somewhat unfair to Wyndham, it is easy to see how the generation that survived World War II might have come to imagine the end of the world in terms of rose gardens turned into veg patches rather than rape, cannibalism and disease. To this day, popular British representations of World War II are far more likely to dwell on ration books and period kitchens than the experiences of men who spent their formative years dodging bullets and climbing over corpses.

The idea that ‘Englishness’ will endure the collapse of civilisation is absolutely central to The Captive Heart. Aside from the fact that all of the various sub-plots involve British people doing British things in a POW camp until they can get back to Britain and continue being British, the film’s primary plot-line involves a man falling in love with Englishness as he falls in love with an English woman:

(Michael) Redgrave’s Czech officer is something of an interstitial figure as his growing love for Mitchell’s widow is skilfully interwoven with a growing love for the English born of their many kindnesses. There’s even a montage of people playing cricket as a voice-over talks about fruit trees coming into bloom in the back garden. The reason The Captive Heart was released so soon after the end of World War II is that Ealing Studios began making it before the war had even ended. This means not only that the film was made without being touched by the realities of war but also that it was made with very little idea as to how England (or indeed Britain) might fit into a post-War Europe. Unsurprisingly, the film resonates with a distinctly imperial mind-set in that English values are shown to be not only eternal and immutable but also exportable to Eastern Europe where tales of English decency and sacrifice would doubtless fill the squares with people desperate to try their hand at cricket. Seen in this light, Michael Redgrave isn’t so much seduced into English as colonised by it.

If I am blurring the line between Englishness and Britishness then it is because the film makes exactly this mistake. Much like Laurence Olivier’s wartime Henry V, Englishness is parlayed into Britishness through the use of loyal Welsh and Scottish subalterns who hint at a broader conception of Britishness only to doff their caps to the English upper-classes.

The Captive Heart is a deeply conservative film and that conservatism is manifest in its abject failure to imagine a future that was not identical to the twenty-years between World War I and World War II. The Captive Heart cannot imagine a world in which Britain isn’t a global player or where Englishness is neither admired nor emulated. Nowadays, people often use the acronym “TINA” to refer to our failure to imagine a world other than that provided by neoliberalism but I think works like The Captive Heart and Day of the Triffids are examples of an older version of TINA whereby people simply could not imagine a world without cricket, empire and an all-encompassing class-system.

 

REVIEW — The Fallen Idol (1948)

This week, circumstances have allowed me to offer you something of a cultural dyad. For years now, British film critics have fetishised British film to the point where the term has become almost meaningless. For some, it means simply British accents and British names on the credits of Hollywood Blockbusters. For others, it means a truly national cinema that speaks to the concerns of the British people in terms that are uniquely theirs. As someone who has grown increasingly pessimistic about the Hollywood machine’s capacity to generate decent films, I favour the latter solution but even I wonder what a mature and deep-rooted British cinema might look like. Would it be Hollywood-lite in the same way as BBC dramas have come to feel like childish and over-eager attempts to appeal to American audiences? Or would it be something much darker and unpleasant? An expression of the fascistic desires and xenophobic tendencies that coarse through the British political bloodstream?

French cinema might be a good form to emulate but French cinema has very noticeably struggled with the urge to be Hollywood-lite and the urge to continue producing respectable grown-up films about middle-class people experiencing some sort of crisis. Don’t get me wrong… I love French populist cinema almost as much as I love films about middle-class French people experiencing crises but I also realise that neither of these models represents the realities of modern France. Another alternative would be to look back to a time when Britain actually had a film industry that was both mature and authentic, which is where this week’s offerings come in.

This week’s first review demonstrates quite how sophisticated post-War British cinema could be. As my review for FilmJuice argues, Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol is an attempt to engage with how children see the world and how their vision of the world is liable to be distorted by grown-ups with vested interests in particular truths. Set amidst the marble palaces of Knightsbridge, the film is about a diplomat’s son who has been left alone with his father’s butler and house-keeper:

At first, Reed forces us to see this reluctant family unit through the eyes of the child meaning that Mrs. Baines comes across as an evil step-mother while Mr. Baines seems like an ideal father. However, as the film progresses and we are allowed to learn a little more about the secondary characters, it becomes clear that the couple’s behaviour towards the child is being driven in part by grown-up problems that Philippe is not equipped to understand. In reality, Mrs. Baines is not so much an ogre as a desperately unhappy woman who is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who cannot stop lying.

As the narrative unfolds, Philippe’s attempts to protect the interests of his surrogate father are undermined by his own failure to understand either the adult world or what it is that he is actually seeing. The tension between what Philippe believes, what he wants others to believe and what is actually true blossoms into full-grown horror when Philippe mistakenly comes to believe that Mr. Baines has murdered his wife. Interrogated by the police and still desperate to defend his hero, the little boy spins lie after lie and winds up making things a lot worse than they ever needed to be.

 

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The Fallen Idol took me completely be surprise as it seems to be engaged in a very similar exercise to that pursued by Charles Laughton in his classic The Night of The Hunter. However, while Laughton re-constructed the children’s vision of ‘reality’ as filtered through fairy tales, Reed allows the various interpretations of reality to co-exist and sit atop a ‘reality’ that is accessible to the audience but not the characters. This idea of conflicting ‘realities’ battling for dominance is also picked up in the form of characters speaking either figuratively or literally in different languages meaning that even relatively coherent conversations can be engines of disagreement and confusion. The Fallen Idol is a film in which people are forever talking despite being unable to understand each other.