The opening scenes of this melodrama look like a travelogue graced by Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. I guess tourism was becoming more popular in the post-War era and the shots of Venice would no doubt have tempted many to visit. All these scenes lack is a complacent voice over selling us the place’s charms in a twee way. Fortunately the film stars Katharine Hepburn.
The slight ‘holiday romance’ story was adapted, from Arthur Laurent’s play, by director David Lean and H.E. Bates (and the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart). Hepburn’s ‘independent woman’ persona is to the fore at the start as she’s touring on her own but finds the ‘romance’ of Venice casts her loneliness into the foreground: cue Rossano Brazzi’s Italian charmer, Renato di Rossi. What makes the film distinctive is the way Jane Hudson’s (Hepburn) loneliness is portrayed as it isn’t just something that is presented as a ‘narrative lack’ to be fulfilled ‘happily ever after’ at the film’s conclusion. There’s real pathos in Hepburn’s performance as she hesitates to go for the ‘holiday fling’. Her ‘middle aged spinster’ characterisation takes up a fair proportion of the film and the scriptwriters don’t compromise with their ending.
In a striking scene, when di Rossi first sees Hudson we get that rare beast: the male gaze directed at an ‘older’ woman (Hepburn was 48 at the time). We see him appreciatively look at her body, particularly her exposed calf. Even the ‘cute’ kid isn’t too irritating though Lean’s tendency to shoot a lot of the conversations in long takes and an immobile character tends to drain the drama. However, the numerous shots of Hudson wandering around a crowded Venice are skilfully executed.
Apparently the adultery fell foul of the Production Code and scenes were cut: the film leaves us with a firework display. Hepburn received one of her numerous Oscar nominations; Lean, too, was nominated.
It’s difficult to write objectively and dispassionately about A United Kingdom. I invested a great deal emotionally in watching the film on its release in 2016 and I wasn’t disappointed. For the film to be made at all and with a generous budget and good promotion is in itself a triumph. In fact, my only disappointment was in reading some of the mealy-mouthed and borderline offensive comments about the film submitted to IMDb. I hesitated about publishing my post but now, during something of a furore about Black History Month in the UK it seems appropriate to put my thoughts on record.
A United Kingdom presents a ‘real life story’ about a personal relationship which began in London in the late 1940s and which became the focal point of a story about international diplomacy, ‘End of Empire’ and racism in Southern Africa (and in the UK). While the film’s narrative is constructed mainly from historical facts, there are some instances of ‘artistic licence’ in scriptwriter Guy Hibbert’s version of events. But I don’t think these departures and other slight inaccuracies in any way undermine the thrust of the film’s message. This is a mainstream feature melding elements of romance, adventure, biopic and political thriller with a satisfying dose of social comment. It is also a personal statement by Amma Asante, a British director of African descent, working with David Oyelowo, a British star actor, also of African heritage, both of whom recognised the importance of putting this story on screen. Add to this a passionate and committed performance by Rosamund Pike and here is a film to savour.
In 1947 the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland in Southern Africa covered a large area of mainly arid plains (and desert areas) and mountains with a tiny population of under 150,000. As a ‘protectorate’ rather than a colony the local population had certain land rights vested in hereditary rulers, the most important of whom was Seretse Khama. In 1947 Seretse was studying to become a barrister in London while his uncle acted as regent after Seretse’s father died. In London, Seretse met and later married Ruth Williams, a clerical officer at Lloyds and the younger daughter of a lower middle-class family in South-East London. Ruth was a grammar school girl who had driven ambulances as a WAAF in the war. The newly-married couple faced a great deal of opposition. In London a de facto ‘colour bar’ existed in parts of society. In Bechuanaland, Seretse’s uncle opposed the union because he thought it inappropriate for a future king and when Seretse and Ruth arrived in the country they faced a difficult future. The British government opposed the marriage because of the situation in Southern Africa. Bechuanaland Protectorate was administered locally by a British representative on the ground who was answerable to a Commissioner for Southern Africa – who was actually based in South Africa. South Africa had been a ‘dominion’ in the British Empire since 1910 and a sovereign state since 1931 as a constitutional monarchy with a Governor-General representing the British monarch. In 1948 the Nationalist Party of South Africa returned to power under D. F. Malan with the intention of building an apartheid state – institutionalising segregation and ‘separate development’ for racial groups. The British Government faced the dilemma of accommodating the apartheid state or losing any influence in South Africa at a time when UK foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War was designed to retain British military bases and allies overseas in a time of austerity. A United Kingdom‘s script neatly demonstrates the insidious nature of apartheid in showing a hotel in Bechuanaland which requires Black Africans to use the back door – with just the one exception of the king, Seretse Khama. There was a real danger of South Africa attempting to annex large parts of the protectorate. The requirement to keep the Nationalists ‘on side’ in the early 1950s meant that Seretse and Ruth Khama were exiled and forced to live in London for several years in the early 1950s.
The key to the political/diplomatic narrative of A United Kingdom is in the land rights vested in the Khama family’s history, so that when diamonds are discovered in the territory, Seretse Khama has a legal claim in the British courts. This would eventually lead to a valuable resource becoming available for the people of Bechuanaland which moved to a peaceful independence in 1966 as the Republic of Botswana – with Seretse Khama as its first President. Botswana has since become a stable state with high levels of ‘human development’. It’s fascinating to see the role of Labour MP Tony Benn in all of this (the Khamas named their second son ‘Tony’). Benn’s role in the film is based on historical fact, but I’m not sure about some of the other Westminster political events depicted. In researching this background I realised that there was a second similar ‘scandal’ in 1956 when the daughter of the senior Labour Party politician Stafford Cripps married a Ghanaian politician just before the country’s independence from the UK in 1957. So, A United Kingdom is actually representative of many stories associated with ‘End of Empire’ – many African leaders of the 1950s and 1960s were in London in the late 1940s and 1950s.
But this is also a romance and a moving family story. I realise now that there is a great deal of similarity between A United Kingdom and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House released a few months later. Both films are proudly emotional and passionate about the ‘personal stories’ that represent the struggles of ‘colonial subjects’ in the dismantling of the British Empire. In both cases their directors are shining an important light on episodes of British foreign (and colonial) policy that very much need to be exposed. Both films should become staples in UK education about Empire history. What they also have in common is a criticism in terms of nitpicking about historical accuracy from the right and sometimes disdain from middle-class supporters who refuse to recognise the genre-based cinema of Amma Asante and Gurinder Chadha. There are those who still dismiss popular cinema but both films need to be supported in placing ‘popular’ stories before us.
My response to Pawlikowski’s films has been mixed, I positively disliked The Woman in the Fifth (FrancePoland-UK, 2011) but can’t remember why. However both Ida and Cold War are undoubtedly excellent. Stylistically the new film is more self-consciously ‘arty’ than Ida and both feature beautiful cinematography by Lukasz Zal. Cold War‘s also narratively elliptical with the audience left to fill in missing bits; such as how Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) establishes himself in Paris. The focus in on his relationship with the luminescent Zula (Joanna Kulig, remarkably only five years younger than Kot when she seems much younger in the film), that is not so much caught up in the Cold War as in fighting their own temperaments.
The film spans 1949 to the early ’60s and so the borders created by the Cold War do act as barriers between them but their relationship would have probably been as fractured, though intense, in other times.
As in Ida, Pawlikowski uses the Academy Ratio that, with the startling black and white cinematography, gives the film an old fashioned look. The scenes in the ruined church reminded me of Ashes and Diamonds and the scenes in Paris, particularly, evoke the nouvelle vague. However, there’s no doubt that this is a 21st century film possibly because it is not particularly concerned with the politics of the time.
There are numerous bravura compositions: in one scene, where a Party conformist praises Wiktor for his ethnographic work in Polish folk tradition, the use of a mirror is disorientating; it looks as though he is standing behind them but is in front. The camerawork that captures Zula’s joie de vivre when she dances to ‘Rock Around the Clock’ is brilliant. The way the music, song and dance, is shot also suggests a modern aesthetic; they are allowed to run without being constantly ‘sutured’ into the narrative by eyeline matches from characters (in other words: the shots of the audience reaction to the performance are few).
A review in the right-wing Daily Telegraph unsurprisingly thinks the film equates the east with repression and the west with freedom; Wiktor, for instance, plays jazz in Paris. It’s certainly not that straightforward. The focus on the folk music suggests where authentic experience lies, the Polish Communist party wants to use it for political purposes, and the authorities are not keeping Zula and Wiktor apart. Pawlikowski has said he based the protagonists’ relationship loosely upon his parents’ and the ‘cold war’ is as much enacted between them as in the social context.
Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot are brilliant in the lead roles and the music is sensational: a proper melodrama where it (almost) takes centre stage. Marcin Masecki’s arrangements of the Polish folk song into different idioms ‘Dwa Serduszka’ (‘Two Hearts’) signifies the emotional development of the characters. There isn’t a soundtrack album but someone has put together a Spotify playlist.
Is one of the best films of the year so far.
Puzzle stars two of my favourite actors on the top of their game in an American remake of an Argentinian film. Irrfan Khan has been widely recognised as a great actor within India and around the world for both festival films and international popular films but Kelly Macdonald has often been excellent but underused as a supporting actor. In Puzzle she is given the lead role for what I think might be the first time in 52 films. (Later, I realised I’d seen her in the lead in just her second film, Stella Does Tricks in 1996.) How did she manage to be overlooked for so long for a lead role? I’m tempted to say that is the ‘puzzle’ at the centre of this film and in a way it is.
Although the narrative involves jigsaw puzzles and a national ‘jigsaw puzzling competition’, it is really a narrative about a woman who attempts to solve the puzzle of her own life – in effect to ‘find herself’ as the modern cliché has it. And it’s perhaps the case that few actors could pull off the performance achieved by Ms Macdonald that makes the film particularly interesting. She plays Agnes, the forty-something mother of two sons, Gabe, planning to go to college, and Ziggy, reluctantly working in his father’s garage repair shop. The father is Louie. Agnes is still living in her father’s old house in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her family are Hungarian-Americans and besides the housework she is a member of the Churchwomen’s Guild of her local Catholic church. Everybody takes Agnes for granted, more in an unthinking than an unkind way.
She seems to be even putting on her own birthday party to entertain everybody else. Discovering (or ‘rediscovering’) her genius for puzzle-solving one day leads her into another world and into a ‘partnership’ with Irrfan’s character, Robert, a wealthy man in Manhattan. She then finds herself commuting twice a week to New York to meet Robert and practice solving jigsaw puzzles against the clock. Sketching out this bare outline, I realise how conventional a story it must sound. I was reminded of another American re-make, that of the Japanese film Shall We Dance? (1996). Fortunately, Puzzle is much better than the dreadful US version of that film with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez (2004). The more I think about Puzzle though, the more I realise that it is a familiar story in terms of structure in which a husband or wife discovers something they can do well after many years of routine, but they don’t tell their family – with the inevitable consequence that they will be found out. But Puzzle is interesting because Kelly Macdonald is mesmerising and because the script by Oren Moverman, Polly Mann based on the Argentinian original, Rompecabezas (2009) written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff, is carefully nuanced and only occasionally a little too clever. Oren Moverman is a writer-director I remember for The Messenger (US 2009)
What makes a film like this is the portrayal of characters who seem human because they aren’t perfect. Agnes certainly isn’t. As her confidence grows she perhaps says and does some things that might be hurtful and perhaps arising from resentment. Robert too isn’t perfect. Louie (David Denman) is a good man let down by a lack of education and an insensitivity perhaps caused by living in a relatively closed kind of community. He loves his wife. His sons are each differently challenged by the situations they find themselves in. The narrative ending works well for me. In real life there are always loose threads and things we could do, but which have consequences we might not be prepared for. It sounds trite but life is a puzzle. Macdonald and Khan are excellent – and so are the rest of what is a strong ensemble cast.
The technical credits are worth mentioning. Agnes and Louie’s house is quite dark and subdued inside and outside seems to be located in a fairly prosperous but conservative area. I’m still unsure how wealth and social class work in the US since Agnes is not employed and the repair shop is not making big profits, yet Louie has in the past managed to buy land in the interior which has a cabin, a lake and fishing rights. Robert’s house in Manhattan is spacious and beautifully furnished and the journey for Agnes by train and on foot across Manhattan is well presented through the cinematography of Chris Norr. The score by Dustin O’Halloran is effective without being overpowering. I was also struck by the subtle changes in the costumes worn by Kelly Macdonald, though when she arrives in Manhattan wearing a bright red sweater, the outcome feels predictable. The film was directed by Marc Turtletaub, best known in the film industry as a producer of independent films such as Little Miss Sunshine (US 2006). He chose to direct this film because of a personal interest in the script since he saw in Agnes a character resembling his own mother, to whom he dedicated the picture.
Puzzle is a quiet but strong and satisfying film that I found to be affective. In the UK the film is distributed by Sony Classics, opening on ‘100+’ screens. That’s quite a few screens and suggests either a high-profile ‘specialised film’/art film or a mainstream film that the distributer isn’t quite sure of. My feeling is that Puzzle is the latter. It could appeal to a fairly wide audience and we saw it in a late morning slot in a multiplex with just a tiny audience. It seems to be on at odd times here and there with little promotion. It has little chance of benefitting from ‘word of mouth’ if potential audiences struggle to find a screening. I’ve found this is a problem with Sony Classics before (e.g. with the excellent Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)). Do try and see Puzzle if you can, it’s well worth the effort.
This is the sequel to Room at the Top (UK 1959), often cited as the first film of the ‘British New Wave’. Like the first film it is an adaptation of a John Braine novel featuring the further adventures of his working-class character ‘made good’, Joe Lampton. In one sense it is a typical sequel in that the narrative structure and the nature of the events in the story are very similar to the first film. But on closer inspection this is definitely a development of the overall story. The film also demonstrates something seen in various sequels, a shift in the historical context. In the first film, Joe Lampton is a working-class young man who returns after the war to West Yorkshire in the late 1940s. He has been a Flight-Sergeant in the RAF who spent much of the war as a POW. The film uses fictitious names for locations but the actual locations appear to be Halifax for Joe’s home town and Bradford as the city in which he joins the Town Hall staff and then courts and marries the daughter of a wealthy mill-owner. At the same time he has an affair with the French wife of another industrialist. All this presumably takes place in the late 1940s/early 1950s. The sequel then leaps ahead to the mid-1960s but Joe’s marriage only appears to be 10 years old. His son, the reason why the wedding originally took place, is 10.
The new film uses Braine’s input but it is directed by the talented Canadian director Ted Kotcheff who also brought in a second writer, the celebrated Canadian author Mordecai Richler. Kotcheff had already worked on television plays in the UK and would go on to make important films in Australia (Wake in Fright, 1971) and a string of Hollywood features, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) in Canada based on Mordecai Richler’s novel. Richler had also worked on No Love for Johnnie (UK 1961). Life at the Top was a Romulus production by John Woolf just like the first film, but I feel that this sequel feels more up-to-date and fits in with several of the better-known contemporary films of the period. Kotcheff brings some energy into the narrative and Oswald Morris is very good on the cinematography. I didn’t see it in the 1960s or afterwards on TV. I’m not sure why it had a lower profile, but it may be connected to the TV adaptation, Man at the Top (Thames TV, 23 episodes 1970-72) and a spin-off third film in 1973.
At the start of Life at the Top, Joe (Laurence Harvey) seems to have it all – a beautiful wife, a good job at the mill owned by his father-in-law, two children, two cars and a nice house. But he isn’t happy. His father-in-law, Abe Brown (Donald Wolfit), wants to make him a Tory councillor and his son is being sent away to a boarding prep school. Joe’s working-class roots prompt him to rebel, but again he’s not sure how. In one sense at least, the casting of this sequel raises the ante. Heather Sears who played Susan, Joe’s wife, in Room at the Top was a fine actor with significant leading roles but she wasn’t a ‘star’. In Life at the Top, Susan is played by Jean Simmons, a genuine Hollywood star, albeit one who in her thirties was appearing less frequently in films. Her presence does strengthen the tussle for Joe between ‘home’ and ‘playing away’.
Like Simone Signoret the ‘other woman’ in the first film, Honor Blackman presents an assertive (and single) older woman. In her case she has come up from London as a reporter/presenter for regional television. It is a feature of mid-1960s British films to see work in TV as ‘modern’, whereas earlier, in the 1950s, TV is often treated as simply cheap entertainment, stealing audiences from cinema. Honor Blackman is a fascinating figure in British film and TV. Her long career featured a relatively small proportion of significant leading roles but in 1965 she was perhaps at her peak of public awareness having appeared for two years as Cathy Gale in the hit TV series The Avengers (1962-4) and as Pussy Galore, the most memorable ‘Bond Girl’ (she was 38) in Goldfinger (1964).
The ‘difference’ in the sequel is that Joe is sent down to London to clinch a business deal. London offers Joe another possibility of ‘escape’ and he will repeat the trip South hoping to break into the ‘modern life’ represented by London in 1965, about to become the world centre of ‘cool’. The London scenes expose Joe’s naïvete and that his ‘Northerness’ is a liability – whereas his working-class background could be a bonus. Unfortunately he is attempting to break into business corporations staffed by public schoolboys, not the newly fashionable arts and media activities (think David Bailey as a photographer at this time). Watching the film now is quite strange because Laurence Harvey starred in the very different film Darling, also in 1965. In similar settings (i.e. boardrooms) Harvey’s advertising executive is involved in foreplay with Julie Christie’s fashion model. Darling is a more sophisticated film which won three Oscars and had a much higher profile. It had a big impact on me at the time but now I’m rather taken with Life at the Top. I think that’s partly because of the location work in Bradford which includes Ilkley Station when it still had a through railway line from Skipton and Forster Square station in Bradford plus the Wool Exchange (now Waterstone’s bookshop). I’m surprised that ‘Bradford City of Film’ doesn’t make much more of the film’s depiction of Bradford in the 1960s. But also I think Jean Simmons and Honor Blackman are very good. The shots of ‘A.Z. Brown’s Mill’ also remind us of what a major city Bradford once was as the wool capital of the world. None of the British Cinema scholars seem to have much to say about the film but it strikes me as an important addition to Billy Liar as a narrative about Bradford’s decline and the frustration of the London links (i.e. the hero of both films fails to make it to London – and that was before Bradford lost its quick, direct rail link to the capital). Bob Murphy simply lists the film as one of ‘anti-Swinging London films’ in his Sixties British Cinema, which is a bit odd since ‘Swinging London’ had barely begun when the film was released in January 1966. John Hill doesn’t cover it as it falls outside his timeframe for Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1955-63 (although he mentions Darling).
Life at the Top ends with Joe’s return to Warley/Bradford and his elevation to Chair of the new company merged with a competitor. All this is Susan’s doing and she has Joe back – something he ‘settles for”. In one sense Joe has ‘lost’ as he is effectively dependent on Susan who will become the biggest shareholder in the new company when her father dies. I wonder what Joe will do next – and how he will cope with the decline of Bradford and the wool textile business?
Life at the Top has screened recently on Talking Pictures TV and there is also a Region 2 DVD.
In the extract from the film below, we see Joe with both Susan and with Norah. We also see the uncomfortable Ilkley station scene when Joe’s son goes off to school.
This is a long film (135 minutes) and, for its first thirty minutes or so, slow-paced with seemingly little narrative development. But gradually the narrative drive intensifies and we realise just how much we have absorbed so far. It’s also very beautiful, without ever succumbing to the chocolate-box beauty of so many ‘realist’ historical films. I found it very satisfying as well as thought-provoking. The director is Xavier Beauvois, best-known in the UK as director of Of Gods and Men (France 2010). As an actor I saw him in Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017) and it’s hard to equate the character he played in that film with the sensitive intellect behind Les gardiennes.
Xavier Beauvois wrote the film’s script with two women, Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau as an adaptation of a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon. This is very much a film about three women. As the French title suggests the women are ‘guardians’ and the narrative explores who or what they might be protecting, what they did and what the repercussions might be. Pérochon was an interesting man who in 1914 was a schoolteacher in rural Western France in what is now ‘New Acquitaine’. Posted to the front in 1914 he was invalided out after suffering a heart attack and in 1920 wrote a novel which won the Prix Goncourt. In 1924 he published Les gardiennes. Beginning with a pan across the dead on the Western Front in 1915, a cut reveals the peace of rural Western France where a mother and her grown-up daughter are running the family farm of the Paridiers with three of their men in the Army and Hortense’s brother Henri, too arthritic to do much more than make alcohol. This leaves Hortense, Madame Paridier (Nathalie Baye), running the farm with her daughter Solange (Laura Smet, the real-life daughter of Nathalie Baye). The three men at the front are Constant and Georges, Hortense’s sons, and Clovis, Solange’s husband. There is also Marguerite, whose status isn’t clear to me, possibly she is the younger sister of Clovis? Certainly she is part of the extended family. With the men away, Hortense needs more help on the farm and she is offered Francine (Iris Bry) a strong healthy woman of 20 who has been ‘in care’ in the district, brought up in an orphanage and is now seeking a sense of ‘belonging’.
Francine is the external character whose arrival will have an impact on the family. Her impact is compounded by the war and, in 1917, by the arrival of some American troops. The narrative takes us from 1915 until after the war and the bulk of the film follows the seasons on the farm. Having proved her worth in the first few probationary months, Francine is kept on and begins to become part of the family. In this period the film becomes almost a procedural study of life on the farm. It develops into a film drawing on several genres or familiar narrative types. First it is a realist rural narrative with aspects of an observational documentary, next it is a rural ‘Home Front’ narrative (and thereby a female-centred narrative) and finally a romance melodrama since it is inevitable that Francine’s presence in this situation will offer the opportunity for romance and for conflict in the family. This mixture is unusual and I tried to think of similar films. One of the closest might be David Leland’s Land Girls (UK-France 1998), an under-rated romance drama which is a Second World War setting in which three land girls (the British auxiliary service providing extra labour for farms in wartime) are sent to a Dorset farm. Both films share an interest in social class differences but the British film aims for more humour to go with similar dramatic concerns.
Part of the interest in Les gardiennes is the way in which the management of the farm by the women leads to ‘modernisation’ in the form of farm machinery and power. This has the clear suggestion that the women are quite capable of running the farm and that there is potential for conflict when/if the men return from war. I also remembered that the key moment of modernisation is located in the immediate aftermath of the Great War in Bertolucci’s 1900 (Italy-France-West Germany 1976). 1900 is a political melodrama in which the machinery appears under the control of a fascist element which will gradually take control over the peasantry and replace the landowners. The harvest is a key symbol in this struggle since it was traditionally the most collective enterprise in any rural community involving many of the local population. The harvest is also a key narrative element in Far From the Madding Crowd, the Thomas Hardy novel twice adapted for major films in the UK. It’s from an earlier period but it is also a narrative about a woman running a farming operation.
Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet are very good as the two women running the farm but Iris Bry is a revelation in her first film (of any kind, it appears). I couldn’t believe she was a novice and that she was ‘discovered’ working for her library qualifications. She looks and sounds the part and also sings beautifully. No wonder director Beauvois was staggered by how lucky he was. He says in the Press Notes (only available in French unfortunately) that he didn’t want a ‘modern young woman’ with modern manners and tattoos. He wanted a young woman who could have been a peasant in the 1910s and who could grow into a twentieth century woman. Iris Bry has the healthy body of someone who could milk cows, bale corn and do all the jobs around the farm and do so with an open and attractive face – and in the last section of the film could cut her hair into a style that announces a young woman of 1920s cinema. I think in 1915 she would have been thought of as a ‘bonny lass’. The film’s cinematographer Caroline Champetier has said that no matter how she lit a scene, the light would always find Iris, because she is naturally photogenic. I like Ms Champetier’s work very much and here she catches the moments in the day on the farm when there is a special light, whether it is in the mists of an autumn morning or the ‘magic hour’ of a summer’s evening. She also utilises the ‘Scope frame . Unfortunately I could not find stills to illustrate either of these points but both are there in the trailer below. The other important aesthetic consideration is the sound and the music score. The latter is by Michel Legrand but used quite sparingly and I enjoyed the silence in many scenes. Make sure you stay through the credits to catch all of Iris Bry’s singing.
I enjoyed this film very much and I’ve thought about it a great deal since. It’s distributed by Curzon so it is available to stream now, but I urge you to see it on the biggest screen you can find. I saw it at HOME in Manchester where it is still showing this week alongside Sheffield Showroom and Tyneside, Newcastle in the North of England.
This film opened the Cannes Film Festival Critics Week in 2017. It also received scripting support from the Sundance Festival. It has finally found its way into UK distribution via Altitude and I’m very pleased to have had the opportunity to see it. The festival links suggest an art film, but this is also a film that draws on popular film genres such as romance, horror and fantasy. Inevitably, it’s the kind of film that has received rave reviews and also some very negative ones – but here’s why it is definitely worth seeing.
The starting point for writer-directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza was a terrible event in 1993 which had an impact on most Sicilians. It involved the Mafia and led to much soul-searching across the population. But instead of attempting to tell the story in a realist, procedural manner, the filmmakers (from Palermo) decided to create a form of fantasy/ghost story because that seemed to be a more appropriate way of representing the impact of the events.
The narrative begins as children leave the elementary school in a village in the hills of Central Sicily. A rather beautiful young boy wanders into the woods and is followed by a girl from his class. She hides behind a tree watching him playing with a large colourful butterfly which rests on his hand. Around the girl’s feet a creature is snuffling, a mustelid of some kind (mink, pine marten?). Whatever it is, this is an animal usually very wary of humans. We seem to be in a fantasy situation. A little later the girl is frightened by an angry black dog. Hansel and Gretel in the woods? We will eventually discover that these thirteen year-olds are Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) and Luna (Julia Jedlikowska). Their day ends when Giuseppe, after showing his show-jumping skills on his horse at a remote stables, suddenly disappears. As Luna sits on a rock gazing into the distance, waiting for Giuseppe to emerge from the stables, we see behind her and slightly out of focus what appears to be a police car taking the boy away. When Luna goes to his house, she can’t find any reason why Giuseppe has disappeared.
I won’t spoil the narrative development. I’ll only note that while the rest of the village, including Luna’s parents and the village school, remain silent about the disappearance, Luna and her friend Loredana are determined to find him. Luna is a highly intelligent girl, a talented artist and someone who has the ability to investigate the disappearance in her dreams/nightmares as much as in her waking hours. In the still above she creates what might be an image from her dreams. The drawing reminded me of a recent Spanish-British film, A Monster Calls (Spain-UK-US 2016), though in Luna’s case she wants to rescue Giuseppe from his captors and not summon them. The director of A Monster Calls is J. A. Bayona, whose career took off with promotion by Guillermo del Toro and it is del Toro who is arguably the key reference here with the young girl, the fairy underworld and the all too human horrors of Spanish fascism in Pan’s Labyrinth (Spain-Mexico 2006). There are a number of generic ‘fairy tale’ touches in Sicilian Ghost Story with a pet owl, a falcon and Luna’s rather grim mother (the Swiss actor Sabine Timoteo). One reviewer has described the overall look of the film as ‘gothic and oneiric’ [dreamlike], which feels like a good call. Luna’s red coat (and red jumper) have also been seen as a nod to Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now set in Venice – but ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ seems a better bet.
Luna’s searches, whether ‘real’ or dreamlike are accompanied by winds and especially by underwater scenes in a nearby lake. I thought the cinematography by Luca Bigazzi was excellent – and so it should be since he has been responsible for the look of many well-known Italian films by Paulo Sorrentino and other celebrated directors. Music and sound design is important too with a variety of sound effects enhancing the dreamlike qualities of Luna’s search. I’ve noted that there have been criticisms of the film. Some have complained that the dividing line between reality and fantasy is never clear, but that seems an odd argument since it is presumably the point of the narrative that the experience of the disappearance and its aftermath is difficult to understand and represent as a real event. The real events took place in 1993-5 but the film doesn’t mark this too carefully and it probably makes mistakes in presenting the period settings as eagle-eyed audiences have noted. I suspect the film’s ending will also cause problems for some audiences, but not for me. Overall I found the film to be an imaginative attempt to deal with a major social issue in ways which allowed me to think differently about how communities and individuals within them might respond to terrible events.
This is a tough film which disturbs but which has at its centre an extraordinary performance from Julia Jedlikowska in her first role. The narrative is fuelled by the determination of a single character to keep searching despite the collective hostility of an entire community, most of whose members are too frightened to take action themselves. Luna’s friend Loredana is a reliable friend but without Luna’s devotion to Giuseppe, she will eventually find that time will heal. But I’m wondering what will happen to Luna.
There is an interesting review of the film here.
This year celebrating women in cinema has many anniversaries to promote. One of the most important is the 200th anniversary of the writing of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstencraft Shelley. This film was surely conceived as a celebration of the bi-centenary. I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more of a promotional push for it. Or perhaps there has – perhaps in women’s magazines and websites/social media? It’s certainly an interesting second feature for director Haifaa Al-Mansour, following Wadjda in 2013, especially as 2018 is the year in which Saudi women have got the legal right to apply for a driving licence for the first time and cinemas are finally being opened in the Kingdom. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, which is commemorated in Mike Leigh’s new film and which brings us to Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary’s husband and a radical poet who wrote a long poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ after hearing about the massacre. His inspirational words “Ye are many – they are few”, are still quoted today. Unfortunately, Peterloo and other events such as the Napoleonic Wars are not mentioned in the film, but it’s necessary to be aware of Percy’s radicalism alongside Mary’s amazing creativity. Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women), died a few days after her daughter was born and her story hangs heavy over Mary.
This is an independent film with funding from three countries. In practical terms, some of location work was in Luxembourg and much of the studio work and post-production was in Ireland. The BFI had a lesser role I suppose but the cast is primarily British apart from Elle Fanning as Mary. The history of the production begins with debutant Australian screenwriter Emma Jensen who received funding support from Screen NSW and Screen Australia and whose agent sold the project to an American producer, who in turn attached Al-Mansour (who had studied in Sydney). Elle Fanning was cast early and then HanWay (the UK company led by Jeremy Thomas) took over as producer and international sales agent.
What kind of costume/heritage/historical biopic (as well as ‘romance’) does Mary Shelley turn out to be? It could be one of those traditional Hollywood studio biopics – except this isn’t a studio pic as such. Could it be one of those BBC-style costume pics or something more radical and modernist? For me, Elle Fanning does rather push it towards Hollywood, though the overall look and feel of the film make it appear more realist in the mode of BBC adaptations of 19th century novels. As Mary, Fanning is perhaps too tall, too healthy and too attractive. There is nothing wrong with her performance, but she stands out as a ‘star actor’. I’m assuming that the initial producer thought getting her on board would make finding financial backing easier and that’s probably correct. I am not criticising Ms Fanning who is undoubtedly a talented actor, but there are many young British actors – Florence Pugh for instance – who might have been considered. As it is, Pugh’s co-star in The Falling (UK 2014), Maisie Williams, is rather wasted in a minor role in Mary Shelley – her status as a star of Game of Thrones came too late perhaps? I think that one possible pointer to what kind of film Mary Shelley might have become is offered by Jane Campion’s film Bright Star (France-Australia-UK 2009) about the young John Keats and Fanny Brawne, a similar pairing of two ‘creative’ young lovers at roughly the same ‘moment’ in history as Mary and Percy. It’s an unfair comparison because Jane Campion, Ben Whishart and Abbie Cornish have more experience. It’s interesting though because both films originated in Australia. Campion chose a title that didn’t immediately suggest the costume biopic and Mary Shelley in fact began with the title A Storm In the Stars – there are at least two scenes in the film in which gazing at the night sky features prominently.
If Bright Star was set in rural Hampstead with flowers and butterflies and cottage gardens, Mary Shelley is signed as ‘gothic romance’ from the get-go. The beginnings of the industrial age are in the background (and so is the not-mentioned war). The key London locations are dark and gloomy St. Pancras and upper-class Bloomsbury, the former partly a studio construction, the latter a Dublin street? The film’s plot gives no indication of specific dates. I found this odd since these were two ‘real lives’ lived at a time when sudden death was not unusual. But perhaps it is just me who wants the clear historical context? As far as I can work out, the narrative begins in 1813, Mary meets Percy in 1814. In 1816 they spend the summer by Lake Geneva with Byron and Polidori and the short story idea for Frankenstein is first developed. The novel is published in 1818 and the narrative ends around 1819.
The film is presented as a romance and as an introduction to the origins of the Frankenstein story – thus the gothic romance. It should be a very dark and passionate story – and a very sexy one. I’m trying to imagine the production meetings and the arguments about how much to ‘push’ the more salacious possibilities of the story and how important a sense of repression/restraiint might be. Although I enjoyed the film I do think it feels rather stifled in its attempts to reach its potential. The script is in tune with the current campaigns around ‘MeToo’ and sexual abuse and with the suppression of the true authors (Mary and Polidori) of stories passed off as the work of Shelley and Byron. That’s all fine but it loses some of its impact when Shelley (Douglas Booth) and Byron (Tom Sturridge) are poorly developed characters with no real substance. They came across to me like a pair of public school boys – privileged and cruel but not displaying any real talent. (By contrast, Stephen Dillane as Godwin, Mary’s father, seems just right.) The whole Lake Geneva sequence cried out for something like the appearance of Elsa Lanchester as Mary in the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein. 1816 was the ‘The Year Without a Summer’ in which crops failed and the skies were dark with rain – I don’t think enough of this is made in the film. I’m guessing that the budget limitations were partly to blame. Overall though I think the narrative just doesn’t have enough ‘passion’ and ‘wildness’, the key features of Romanticism.