English film editor Neil Marshall burst out of the gate as a director with Dog Soldiers (2002), a vigorous, gory, refreshingly cheeky spin on the traditional templates of low-budget horror with a strong dose of hyped-up style. He quickly achieved cult status with his follow-up, the claustrophobic post-feminist nightmare The Descent (2004). Seen as a member of the early ’00s wave of splatter-loving horror filmmakers, Marshall then switched directions from horror to action-oriented fare with 2007’s Doomsday and Centurion in 2010. Marshall’s obvious worship of ’80s genre cinema in particular was crossbred in each with an amusingly parochial sense of humour and hip revisions of certain stock situations, giving his faux-blockbuster material a jolt of outsider energy and impudent perspective.
Dog Soldiers set the template he’s followed consistently: placing a collective of tough and resilient people in the middle of a relentlessly dangerous situation and picking them off one by one, be it by monsters or hordes of angry Scotsmen. If The Descent was a touch overrated because of its original tweak on an old formula, and Doomsday underrated for being excessively indebted to Marshall’s favourite trash films to a degree that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, Centurion suggested new ground that, alas, Marshall has thus far been unable to pursue further. Watching the leaden conceptual snoozefest that was Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012), my early feeling that the story was tailormade for Marshall became all the more powerful.
Marshall isn’t above some modish tricks of modern cinema, and Doomsday falls prey to some excessively choppy editing and dodgy CGI. Most of the time, however, he is a pellucid, rigorous stylist, rare enough in modern filmmaking and particularly in his branch of cinema, with films that improvise on frameworks provided by his favourite influences marked with a personal brand. Centurion, although fast-paced and structured with elegant simplicity, is also littered with some of the most arresting and well-framed images in recent cinema. Centurion built upon the conceit of Doomsday, which had turned Scotland into a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque landscape where modern civilisation began to devolve into barbarism. Centurion inverted the approach as an outright historical adventure film, indeed, the best example of such in the West in recent years. Centurion is a fight-and-flight action film par excellence, but one that encompasses all kinds of fascinating reflexive interests, deepened and given contemporary edge by distinct hints of political parable. With this relative complexity, Marshall outclassed many attempts to revive the historical action epic by filmmakers like Ridley Scott, with his clunky Robin Hood (2011), Antoine Fuqua’s moronic King Arthur (2005), Gore Verbinski’s overworked Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and Mel Gibson’s various bombastic entries, in spite of their infinitely greater resources. Centurion itself is easily recognisable to the adventure film buff in its working parts: a little bit of Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992), John Ford, Kurosawa, some The Naked Prey (1966), combined with hints and hues of decades of sword-and-sandal flicks.
On top of the film’s true historical foundation, Marshall superimposes a quiet, but powerful echo, implicitly evoking various phenomena like British Imperialism, the Wild West, and the Iraq War, through the efforts of the Empire to suppress Britain in a nihilistic, vicious struggle of suppression and reaction. He goes a step further to link the bombastic machismo behind the urges that began the Iraq War with that of the Roman expansion, with the phallocratic force of General Titus Flavius Virilus (Dominic West), commander of the Ninth Legion. His very name communicates virility, and the man is avatar for this underlying spirit. His counterforce is presented concisely in the form of lethal female warrior Etain (Olga Kurylenko), a brutalised engine of destruction working for the Picts.
The setting is 154 AD, and the decades-long stand-off between the Roman Empire and the Pictish peoples of present-day Scotland is building to a head. The Romans, all swagger and politicking, are trying to hold on to a network of border forts. A Pict raid upon one fort sees most of the Romans wiped out; the conscientious officer Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) is taken prisoner because he has learnt to speak the local dialect, in obedience to his father’s maxim that one should know one’s enemy. He is brought before the Pictish king Gorlacon (Ulrich Thomsen), who has troubled the Romans endlessly with his sophisticated guerrilla warfare. Gorlacon has him tortured and shown off as captured prey, but Dias manages to escape from Gorlacon’s stockaded capital and flees south across the snow-crusted Highlands.
Meanwhile, the Roman Governor Agricola (Paul Freeman) decides to send a punitive expedition against Gorlacon north from his base at Carlisle, detailing the Ninth Legion under Virilus, a former foot soldier who’s risen to command whilst not losing his link with his men. Introduced in a tavern engaged in an arm-wrestling match, Virilus skewers his opponent with a dagger when it’s plain the man intends to do the same to him and joins the all-in brawl between his men and the locals that results. Washing up the next day, he’s mistaken by a messenger for a ranker. Agricola gives Virilus an unusual guide and scout in the form of Etain, a superlatively skilled, perpetually unspeaking woman whom Agricola introduces to Virilus through the expedient means of having her kill a slave in a play-act assassination.
On the march into the fog-shrouded forests of the north, Virilus’ troops save Dias just as he’s been cornered by some of Gorlacon’s men. But a well-prepared ambush, into which they’ve been led by the double-agent Etain, sees Gorlacon’s army devastate the Legion and take Virilus captive. A handful of survivors, including Dias, regroup over the corpses of their dead fellows, and Dias enlists them to pursue Virilus and his captors back to Gorlacon’s city. They fail to free Virilus from his chains, however, and are forced to abandon him as Gorlacon’s forces begin to stream back into the city. But they soon find they’ve stirred up a new hornet’s nest, because one of their number, Thax (J. J. Feild), has throttled Gorlacon’s young son (Ryan Atkinson) to silence him during the raid. Incensed, Gorlacon has Virilus pitted in single combat against Etain, who quickly, brutally disposes of the General. She then leads a hunting party after Dias’s band of survivors until they or their chasers are all dead, and, in time-honoured style, the Roman survivors have to try to make it back to their own lines fighting every step of the way.
Marshall starts with a structural nod to many classical epic poems that commence in medias res (mid action), resolving his opening, a series of helicopter shots of the Highlands that lay out the turf of the following action, and plunges deep into the one-time heart of darkness, zeroing in finally on a lone figure racing across a snowy ridge: Quintus, in his first flight from the Picts, bloodied and half-naked in an inimical landscape. Centurion plays loose with history: Agricola, who actually conquered most of Britain and defeated a large Caledonian army in a field battle, is transposed to the time of Hadrain, whose famous wall is depicted under construction in the film’s final phases, offered as a classical Green Zone. Moreover, the Ninth Legion, which for a long time was believed to have disappeared in Scotland, has been challenged by recent scholarship that shows it might have been met its end in Spain instead. Still, whilst it’s been much fictionalised—Rosemary Sutcliffe’s popular The Eagle of the Ninth novel series and its adaptation The Eagle (2011) also play with that contentious historical fillip—Marshall takes the legend a step further in suggesting the Legion’s vanishing from the history books was no accident, but a conspiracy perpetrated by Agricola and his fellow Roman bigwigs to cover up their own failure, a touch that happens to coincide nicely with the hunt for weapons of mass destruction, Abu Ghraib, and other suspicious travesties in Iraq. Moreover, whilst Centurion hardly slows for a breath, narrative-wise, Marshall paints a coherent vision of the past as present, with the polyglot of nationalities, economic conscripts, and continental refuse that was the Roman Army confronting a native enemy that resists with every tool at its disposal. Marshall interestingly casts European actors, like Thomsen and Kurylenko, as Picts, to emphasise that this historical land isn’t the same one as modern Scotland nor its people exactly the same, with only one Pict, the exiled “witch” Arianne (Imogen Poots), a woman stranded between cultures and a product of the middle ground, who has a modern Scots accent.
Etain, on the other hand, has no voice, a trait that adds to the impression that she’s not entirely human anymore, but rather an animal mother in a human body, a beast that stalks Quintus in his dreams as well as in the primal forest. Etain’s savagery is revealed to be a Frankenstein creation of this invading force: forced to watch her father’s blinding and her mother’s gang rape by Roman soldiers as a young girl, and then being gang raped herself, Etain’s tongue was then cut out. Raised by Picts as an expert warrior and tracker, Etain is the personification of wrath against any force intruding upon a homeland, raw and mindless in antipathy but infinitely cunning in resistance. Kurylenko, since being stuck playing the most superfluous Bond girl in history in Quantum of Solace (2008), has evolved into one of the current film scene’s more interesting satellite stars, and here she brings a striking level of charisma and expressive intensity to Etain, displaying what Christopher Lee once said of playing Dracula, a silent, hypnotic power that can be the hardest kind of acting. Not that Etain, conceived with visual and attitudinal power, was ever going to be less than a striking figure: her compellingly atavistic visage, smeared in pancake white and daubed with streaks of blue woad, is the film’s obsessive, almost fetishistic refrain, laced with erotic appeal that blends weirdly with her completely inimical hate. Following Marshall’s recreation of Snake Plissken as a stoic one-eyed woman in Doomsday, Etain is an equally potent adversary. Marshall and Kurylenko imbue her with hints of masochism and distraught pain even as she’s committing horrendous acts, beheading a Roman she captures with a grimace as if she’s hacking a piece of herself off, and, after she kills Virilus, releasing an anguished scream of insatiable hate and unappeasable grief, her tongueless maw barking at the gods. As Arianne puts it, she has a soul that’s an empty vessel that can only be filled by Roman blood.
Marshall is one of the few action-oriented directors at the moment really interested in female characters, usually mixing up the bag in allotting them good and evil parts, and the twinned poles of Etain and Arianne are joined by another Pictish warrior, the strident archer Aeron (Axelle Carolyn); indeed, between her and Etain the most formidable foes in the Pictish force are their women, whilst Agricola’s wife Druzilla (Rachael Stirling) proves an altogether different, but no less dangerous threat. Marshall offers a cheeky shot early in the film that confirms the link between his conquest-era Britons and Native Americans as pantheistic opponents of steely intrusive forces when Etain performs an ash-scattering ritual as tribute to ancestors before riding off with the Legion. She fulfills her mission as a sleeper agent to deliver the arrogant Romans into the best place for an ambush in a sequence where Marshall stretches his budget superbly with simple tricks and modern graphics. The imprint of Anthony Mann’s work on The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is particularly strong throughout Centurion: like Mann, Marshall sees the links between the Western and the classically set action drama. The sequence in which the Legion is attacked and wiped out evokes both the forest barbarian battle in Roman Empire and the attack on the British column in Last of the Mohicans.
More fundamentally, like Mann, Marshall captures a sense of spiritual and psychological extremes in depicting the violent disparity between first and third worlds at a time when those worlds were much closer together geographically but even farther apart in everything else, a maddening clash of nascent civilisation intruding upon primordial places and peoples who are less “civilised” but no less human in both good and bad ways. One shot presents Etain presiding over the incineration of the legion’s eagle standard, a perfect visual encapsulation of the infernal results of the clash between nascent despotism and fringe ferocity. Marshall goes on to suggest the charged counterbalance of humane feeling and dark, extreme mysticism in his Scottish landscapes that is authentic to the quality of the nation’s mythology. In the course of Quintus and his team’s flight from the Picts, the scene moves from mist-shrouded woods to craggy, snow-crusted mountains to hazily beautiful spring morns at Arianne’s hut, a safe ground from the predations of war ironically because she lives in cursed isolation, the flooding rays of sunshine giving visual substance to the air of regenerative tranquillity around her.
Marshall isn’t above some of the less pleasing flourishes of many modern directors, particularly his love of adolescently vivid, CGI-enhanced gore. Visions of pikes being shoved into groins, heads being cleaved in half, and spears entering mouths are not as gruelling as they sound, largely more amusing in effect than sickening, and that’s actually the problem. But that’s really neither here nor there in a story that races with the verve and spunk of a classic drive-in flick whilst mixing with a genre more associated with grand scale production and pretence. And, indeed, Marshall’s delight in brute force is conjoined with his work’s vivacity and fierce, new-fashioned, balls-and-all attitude. Marshall plays some deft games, in a manner that’s becoming a distinct trait of his when it comes to apportioning empathy and thematic emphasis. He doesn’t romanticise either the honourably turf-defending, but feral and brutal Picts or the rapacious, war-loving Romans, viewing each as competing varieties of the same thing. That the lost Roman survivors, except for the conscientious, morally probing Quintus, are finally the heroes is only because of their assailed, outnumbered desperation. His company comes to include the psychopathic Thax, Indian-via-Syria Tarak (Riz Ahmed), North African runner Macros (Noel Clarke), cleaver-wielding Greek cook Leonidas (Dimitri Leonidas), and the lumpen Roman duo of Bothos (Neil Morrissey) and grizzled vet Brick (Liam Cunningham). The latter’s name proves to be sourced in a Latin pun, with Marshall’s sneaky sensibility nascent here, as Brick turns out to be is short for “Ubriculius,” aka, testicles. Quintus is dubbed the band’s centurion, after being left in command, a responsibility to which he rises, but not without qualm: as the son of a freed gladiator, he aspires to be a model soldier but has never entirely escaped his outsider status. When he and his team run away from Gorlacon’s city, all they can take with them is Virilus’ helmet. One of the men hands it to him sarcastically as he gives orders; Quintus leaves in a shrine.
The Romans hardly prove an infinitely resourceful band of brothers: many of the remaining men die with stunning rapidity in spite of their individual qualities. After performing a regulation adventure movie stunt of leaping from a high cliff into a frigid river, most of the men flounder out together, but Macros and Thax are separated and finish up forging their way across open heaths chased by wolves. Thax sneakily cuts Macros’ Achilles tendon, leaving his fellow soldier as dog meat to ensure his own survival, in a nasty spin on that old joke about the man who puts on his sneakers to outrun not the lion but his friend. Only Quintus, Brick, and Bothos, who’s been wounded in the leg, remain of the original force when they come across Arianne, who gives them food and shelter. She saves the men by hiding them when Etain and her party arrive on the hunt, with Arianne almost getting her throat cut by Etain for facing down her malevolence with truculent wit: “Cat got your tongue?” Ardour sparks between her and Quintus, but the film’s most intimate moment actually comes when Brick apologises to Arianne for not trusting her, and the ever–terrific Cunningham is particularly good in this moment as he offers, “I’m sorry I misjudged you…there it is.” When the trio take their leave, Quintus leaves behind a carved horse in a pose of delicately artful expression that doubles as his memento for her, concluding a sequence that’s closer in spirit to Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) than Seven Samurai (1954).
The terrific final battle between the Roman runaways and the Picts takes place in another familiar trope of adventure sagas, a remote fort that proves tragically deserted when the trio reach it—one almost expects the Romans to find Gary Cooper in there—because Agricola has ordered a general retreat to the new walled frontier. Unable to run any further, they set the fort up for a confrontation and successfully pick off several of Etain’s warriors, including Aeron, before she charges in for a frantic duel with Quintus, finally pitting native speed against gladiatorial art. Brick dies, but not after going out in the most badass way possible, skewering his opponent at the last breath by pushing the spear lodged in his own chest right through. Quintus finally defeats Etain, but only by the narrowest of margins, and her death comes across, aptly, like being put out of her misery.
Victory segues into despair in a cynical final movement strongly reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s fondness for last-act bastardry and some ’70s epics of dark revelry. Thax rejoins the surviving pair, but as Quintus lets slip his realisation that Thax killed Gorlacon’s son, Thax and he finish up fighting to the death, whilst Bothos is killed by snipers on the wall as he rides shouting toward it. Quintus kills Thax, but is left to despairingly cart Bothos’ body into Roman lines. Even once he’s safe, fate hasn’t finished twisting for Quintus, because, in order to save his reputation, Agricola lets his wife set up an attempt to kill him. Quintus survives again, but, badly injured, now has to flee again into the forest. Marshall closes the film with an aptly ouroboros-like flourish with Quintus’ admonition that “this is neither the beginning nor the end of my tale,” as he finds his way back to Arianne, cut off from his homeland. Yet the tale of Quintus’ struggle hardly suggests surrender to the dark forces, but the start of something else, with the distinct suggestion he and Arianne will found another tribe to inhabit British soil and invent the future. Either way, Centurion is a curt, rowdy, rousing gem and proof that the adventure film tradition hasn’t been entirely trammelled in the age of the blockbuster, whilst the class of the old can mesh with the vigour of the new.
I did something strange the other day—I picked up a book at the library by a British author known for writing old-fashioned stories with old-fashioned values aimed at women in or approaching their golden years. My reason for choosing the book had to do with trying to suppress a bleak and angry outlook that has seized me in recent weeks, to escape into a fantasy of romance and tradition and charm. After about 60 pages, the plot conveniences, cliché-filled language, and attitudes about women with which I vehemently disagree shook me out of my fog and, if not exactly in the finest shape to face the world, I nonetheless saw that looking backward isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It seems that director Terence Davies, 67, is experiencing even more acutely the pull of the past. His 2008 poetic documentary Of Time and the City revealed the passage of time and the frailty of the physical as filtered through the environs of his hometown of Liverpool. With The Deep Blue Sea, Davies has lifted a 1952 chestnut from the British stage penned by Terence Rattigan, who would come to defy the trend in British theatre and film of so-called kitchen sink realism that bowed in 1959 with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Rattigan and Davies, both gay men in a country where homosexuality was illegal until 1967, could justifiably claim anger in their works. Their attraction, however, is to the refinement and moral uprightness of the days of empire, their sensibilities lodged squarely in the coded gay traditions of the stage and screen.
Sadly for Davies, his loathing of his sexual orientation and acute nostalgia have sent him into something of an artistic neverland. I say this with enormous regret, as his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, one of my very favorite films, is admirably clear-eyed about the rot beneath the veneer of high society while still exploring the tragedy of a fatal love. The Deep Blue Sea is squarely in the tradition of the 1950s women’s films Davies grew up on and loved, a genre I also love but recognize as hopelessly out of date. To recreate one of these films in 2011 without burrowing beneath the gay code or reflecting on contemporary attitudes toward a sexual coming of age makes this brand-new film a premature museum piece.
Set in 1950, The Deep Blue Sea tells with unabashed sentiment the story of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), a young woman married to a kind, older member of the peerage, Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), who is awakened from her comfortably dull life by the raffish sexuality of Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). Freddie, an RAF pilot during World War II, is restless and angry, offering an avatar of adventure and danger from his experiences that Hester finds bewitching. She believes she loves Freddie, so unacquainted is she with lust that she can’t distinguish one emotion from the other. Freddie remains tantalizingly out of reach, treating her with an offhand contempt for her bourgeois romanticism and inexperience. When her despair drives her to the suicide attempt that opens the film, Freddie is deeply offended that she absolves him of blame in a note she left for him, a magnanimity he neither needs nor believes, and determines to end the affair. Despite her husband’s willingness to take her back, Hester won’t put the genie back in the bottle, preferring to live in misery rather than to feel nothing at all.
On its surface, this is a story worth telling, one of a sexual and emotional awakening that sets its protagonist on the path to leading a more authentic life. Yet, in the oh-so-stately telling, there’s not much to distinguish The Deep Blue Sea from a Victorian frolic like Lady Windemere’s Fan except for its lack of wit. My, this story could have used a bit of Oscar Wilde’s social buffoonery or Douglas Sirk’s playful gay coding or even some down-to-earth sincerity. As directed by Davies, Simon Russell Beale plays a very nice man whose impeccable breeding and good English sportsmanship won’t allow him a moment of messy breakdown even though his life has just cracked wide open. The direction he’s given to be mild-mannered and magnanimous is, I suppose, Davies’ attempt to show the passionless marriage Hester is running away from, but Sir William just seems kind of pathetic and insubstantial. Surely Hester’s suicide attempt must have been at least partly a provocation to her husband’s maddening even-temperedness, but nothing about their relationship manages to break the surface.
Hiddleston’s Freddie comes off as a bit of rough trade, shouting incongruously like a caricature of the Angry Young Man, dumping on Hester without apparent motivation other than his slim backstory as a damaged war veteran. In the beginning of their affair, he and Hester certainly do seem physically magnetized, and I appreciated the sensuality that flairs through a couple of scenes. Their parting, perhaps the best scene of the film, gives Hiddleston a chance to show his tenderness and humanity as well.
The one redeeming facet of The Deep Blue Sea is Rachel Weisz. Rather than fall into the Harlequin Romance notion of a suffering woman in love, Weisz fills her Hester with genuine emotion. You can practically smell her longing for Freddie, feel her slightly contemptuous regret at hurting her husband, understand her seemingly foolish resolve to remain outside the comforting confines of her marriage after Freddie throws her over. When Davies gives us the cliché of a back alley through which Hester walks to find Freddie at the local, his frequent home away from the one-room flat they share in London, her posture shows that her helpless addiction to Freddie sits on her like the proverbial monkey on her back.
Davies is enraptured with Weisz’s limpid eyes, perhaps too much so. For all her beauty, Hester comes off as a weepy drudge too often in his hands. Worse perhaps, after the activity of Hester sealing her digs off so that she can die from gas asphyxiation and a somewhat cinematic start at letting her life flash back in her mind’s eye, nothing much happens. I’m surprised that the normally theatre-phobic film critics who have been captivated by Weisz haven’t torn this film a new one for being so stagey. With three anemic central characters, the film just becomes a boring slog, relieved at moments by the earthy pragmatism of Hester and Freddie’s landlady (Ann Mitchell) and the savage elitism of Barbara Jefford as Sir William’s mother.
It is equally baffling to me why this film generally has been critically embraced whereas the 2012 film that bears a close resemblance to it in theme, Anna Karenina, has foundered. Admittedly, the latter film is more modeled on the costume epic, whereas The Deep Blue Sea is a women’s film, yet Anna Karenina makes deliberate, effective use of theatricality to forward the story, whereas Davies’ film seems retrograde in nearly every respect. Even the cinematography, which Davies normally codirects with unusual aplomb, is all misty memory. Like Of Time and the City, this film feels too personal a project for me to relate to.
Joe Wright’s fifth feature film, adapting Leo Tolstoy’s feted 1876 tome, seems on the face of it like a retreat to the safe ground of the period, prestige-laden works with which Wright first made his name: Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Atonement (2007). Wright’s smart, stylish revival-cum-critique of the globe-trotting action movie, Hanna (2011), was a departure for the director, and stood tall as one of last year’s best films, even if it didn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. It proves to have been only a warm-up for this extravagant rendition of Tolstoy’s panoramic tale of adultery and social hypocrisy. Financial difficulties meant that Wright had to reconceive his intended adaptation, penned by no less a personage than Tom Stoppard, and hit upon the idea of rendering it as a variety of theatrical melodrama. The result is a teeming pageant of artifice, and heightened, almost dreamlike beauty that throws into relief the always powerful, often raw and disturbing emotions experienced and expressed by its characters.
Tolstoy pushed the 19th century realist novel to its utmost limits of scope and inquiry whilst managing to maintain a grip on essential dramatic intimacy. The canvas of the average mainstream film is far more limited than what Tolstoy offered in creating around the centrifuge of Anna’s romantic tragedy an ontological portrait of his society in all its grandeur, contradiction, and pathos. This limitation is, ironically, one of the best arguments for rejecting Tolstoy’s measured, sprawling realism in film and adopting a style that can evoke the same meaning through cinematic means. Moreover, Tolstoy’s novel has been adapted many times, most famously with Greta Garbo in 1935 and a much-admired Russian version from 1967 by Aleksandr Zarkhi, thus raising the stakes for the worth of another version, whilst clearing room for radical interpretation.
Wright’s chosen approach is clearly patterned after Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1945), beginning amidst overtly theatrical settings that gradually give way to stylised reality and then general verisimilitude, and back again. There’s a certain similarity, also, to the porous boundaries of life and performance found in the films of Carlos Saura, where the performance consciously strives to recreate human drama and, in turn, bleeds over into “real life.” Whereas Olivier and Saura were paying heed of the theatrical origins of their material and turning the audience’s awareness of the artifice into an aspect of their cinema’s texture, an adaptation of a novel has no such original strictures or preordained conventions. On this level, the choice is less immediately apt, except that this setting invokes the closest thing there was to cinema at the time of the novel’s publication. For Stoppard, the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, this sort of thing is hardly new, and Wright avoids any obvious meta-narrative structures, a la The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), another probable influence, about the nature of the performance.
Wright’s choices reorganise the predictable rhythms of the period literary film with boldness, vivacity, and a narrative that drives like an unstoppable machine. That’s very much the point, as the first third of the film turns stage machinery into a visualisation of the governing laws and dancelike niceties of a society that is narcotising in its materialism and formalism and alienated from itself. Anna (Keira Knightley), a wife and mother who is still young and something of a case of arrested development, is swept up in a passion that manifests as an elemental imperative, a natural law made manifest by Wright’s intricate staging that transforms the erotic passion that overtakes its heroine as a fatefully choreographed tötentanz.
The early scenes of Anna Karenina, then, are a whirl of stylised spectacle, as Wright’s camera roars around the interior of a huge stage, observing as cast and crew “create” the world of period Russia, stripping down and erecting sets for changes of scene, with actors shifting from squared-off illustrative postures to naturalism. The very first shot is of Prince “Stiva” Oblonsky (the ever-splendid Matthew Macfadyen) framed on stage in a barber’s chair awaiting his shave, the barber marching in and swinging his towel like a matador’s cape before proceeding to circle the prone Oblonsky, sharpening his blade. The suggestion of violence, with Oblonsky as a bull perhaps about to be skewered by his servant, reverberates throughout the film, where a promise of death lurks, of course, but also with one eye fixed on the future, still far off and yet dreadful and unavoidable, when the society it portrays will collapse. The opening’s tone is set, however, by a series of swift, overtly theatrical tableaux, true to the droll mood of the novel’s beginning, as the fatuous, cheerfully licentious, but sufficiently respectable Oblonsky has his domestic bliss ruined when his wife “Dolly” (Kelly Macdonald) discovers his affair with their children’s French governess (Marine Battier). In a fillip of Dickensian humour, Wright’s dancing camera glides across the theatre floor transformed into a room full of bureaucratic factotums, labouring in synchronised rubber stamping, and Oblonsky, master of what he surveys, marches amongst them. The bureaucrats then rise from their chairs and change uniforms on stage, or flee to the corners, and the ministry becomes a restaurant where Oblonsky lunches with his old friend Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson).
The teeming variety of human action in these scenes borders on the frantic, as the extras rush to change roles and erect new settings, but is also intricately choreographed, all moving with purpose and design, movement and labour tellingly contrived to support the illusion of opulence, ease, and natural motion for the governing class. As such it serves as a portrait of this communal existence, its structure, pretences, and underlying laws, far more concisely and intelligently than any number of exterior shots of passing carriages would have in a more familiar adaptation. Oblonsky begs the intercession of his sister Anna to convince Dolly to forgive him, though Oblonsky has no actual intention of restraining his extramarital appetites. Anna bids farewell to her husband, Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) and son Seryozha (Oskar McNamara) in Moscow, and, arriving in St. Petersburg, succeeds in convincing Dolly to reconcile with her husband.
Levin, a landed idealist and fretful, unconfident intellectual, has set his own heart on marrying Dolly’s younger sister “Kitty” Shcherbatskaya (Alicia Vikander), and meets with Oblonsky to discuss it. Oblonsky warns him that he has a rival to his affections in the form of one Count Vronsky. “Oh, you don’t need to worry about him,” Oblonsky assures his pal dismissively, “He’s just a rich, good-looking cavalry officer with nothing better to do than make love to pretty women.” Kitty is vivacious but naïve, and she turns down Levin’s proposal in the hope of getting one from Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). But her suitor, whilst meeting his mother Countess Vronsky (Olivia Williams) on the train from St. Petersburg, catches sight of Anna, who has been conversing with the Countess during their journey, and is instantly drawn to her.
Tolstoy’s name itself has long been a byword for artistic enterprise that engages with the macrocosmic as well as the immediate drama. The brilliance of Wright’s conceit is steadily revealed throughout these sequences he uses for holistic realisation of theme. The “theatre” serves a multiplicity of settings and functions: whereas its aptness for evoking artificiality is passing trite, the cleverness here lies in the dialogue of settings, as, in the bustle and closeness of the “backstage,” realism, even authenticity, is located. Its ropes and catwalks and narrow stairwells offer a cunning simulacrum of the labouring grit and functional claustrophobia of the urban world in this period in Russia; it is the street, the market, the hovel, the factory, the hiding place, the feminine retreat. The gilded world erected on the stage and in the auditorium is a constant interplay of spectator and drama, social form and personal viewpoint, barriers ruptured most effectively and dramatically in the film’s central set-piece. Levin’s ill-fated proposal to Kitty sees him approach the girl who, situated upon the “stage,” is glimpsed lounging amidst painted swirling clouds, actualising his perception of her as a creature from a higher realm, one who tantalises and delights Levin’s fervently romantic heart even as he acts the solemn, sober intellectual. The clouds part, and Kitty descends to the stage level as part of a soiree. After his proposal is rejected, Levin climbs up the backstage fly space, which becomes the other, unromantic world, a slum, where he finds radical brother, Nikolai (David Wilmot) dissipating in a haze of fever and vodka.
The floor of the auditorium then becomes the railway station for the fateful meeting of Anna and Vronsky, a setting at once stylised and animated, replete with vividly visualised binaries: beautiful, white snow that crusts the thundering black locomotives, the whirling, colour-drenched crowds and the Morlock-like rail engineer whose appearance before Anna, covered in soot, perturbs her like a bad omen. When she lets Vronsky kiss her hand, it seems to shake the entire train—actually the portent of a dreadful accident, as the worker is glimpsed having been cut in half after being knocked under the wheels by the train’s sudden jolt. This moment is both an apt quote from Doctor Zhivago (1965), where the first physical contact of Zhivago and Lara was announced by a cutaway to the sparking coupling of a suburban tram: Wright cuts to sparking wheels and shuddering steel redolent of a more fervently sexual connection, and also a portent of bleaker tidings of Anna’s own predestined end. Vronsky is charmed by Anna’s concern for the engineer’s dependents, and in his own showy desire to charm her casually hands over a great wad of cash to rail staff to be given to the dead man’s family. This is a pungent moment where Wright’s feel for the underlying fiscal realities of this society are revealed as mixed inextricably with the vagaries of individual natures and brute reality, and the beginnings of a process of systemic rot.
The subsequent ball sequence cranks steadily into an erotic and emotional crescendo: Wright repeats one of his signature conceits from Pride and Prejudice in a shot in which Anna and Vronsky, dancing, are suddenly, dramatically isolated from the cotillion, hovering in bright light that excises them from reality. The sequence continues with an increasingly frenetic series of whip-pans and drunken camera whorls, evoking the great waltz sequence of Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949) in sustaining the sensual force of both the dance and the emotions enacted. Whereas in Atonement Dario Marianelli’s scoring provided the film with an unnerving aural analogue for the reality-ordering drive of its antiheroine, here it approximates her overheated psyche and palpitating flesh. The dancers’ serpentine arms weaving around each other with increasing suggestiveness, and Kitty becomes increasingly distraught as she watches from the sidelines, Anna and Vronsky’s instant ardour in dancing every dance together is all too obvious for both her and other onlookers.
Only after this sequence does this hermetic vision of period Russian society begin to break open. Wright’s theatricality expands to absorb Golden Age Hollywood’s mythical stylisation, with model trains standing in for the real things, and an ebulliently beautiful moment that seems torn from the most classically styled expressionist melodrama. Vronsky emerges from a haze when the train taking Anna back to Moscow is paused on a siding, snow piled, seething smoke and saturated light and colour, like the very ghost of Anna’s repressed desire. Taylor-Johnson’s Vronsky, every inch the dashing gallant with blue eyes unwavering in every shot, dressed in uniforms so crisp and clean he could have been carved from a solid hunk of ice, has an eerie, otherworldly beauty, seeming at first to be an incubus born and bred specifically to locate the fault-lines in bourgeois propriety and strike hard at them, a male bimbo seducer without depth or character. Yet he’s actually as high-flown a romantic as Anna, obeying the natural simplicity of his ardour for her with fixated intent, even as his strong-natured mother tries to offer up alternative partners and dissuade her son from a course of action that will harm her son’s prospects.
Importantly, Stoppard and Wright preserve Tolstoy’s oft-denuded contrapuntal narrative, where Anna’s experiences are contrasted with those of a classic Tolstoyan seeker-hero, Levin, who searches for personal stability and happiness, whilst also trying to shake off what he sees as the ills of his society, including a self-loathing engendered by its Westernisation and the evils of its traditional hierarchies. Levin’s viewpoint offers a substantive diegetic channel for Wright and Stoppard’s inquiring, ironic approach—Wright based the film’s style especially in the tension between the Western affectation of the period’s Russian society—and offsets the raw, biological level for which romantic love manifests for Anna, who is plunged into a tragedy that plays out specifically because of social constructs which the characters themselves try to work around, but fail. The early shot of the barber sharpening his razor gives way to a scythe being sharpened, as Levin joins his peasants on his estate in reaping wheat. They’re frightened and confused by his labours, however, especially as, since their emancipation, they’ve lost the life security they used to prize, whilst Levin is beset by constant contradiction in his attempts to live by reason, which often dictates acting against his instincts, manifest most particularly in his love for Kitty. After being spurned by her he toys with the idea of marrying a peasant woman, and keeps swapping charged glances with one of his workers. Levin’s relationship with his more overtly radical brother informs, and haunts, his choices, as Nikolai, dying slowly of consumption, has married Masha (Tannishtha Chatterjee), a prostitute he plucked from a whorehouse to prove his radical cred, though he treats her as basic chattel.
It is Levin who, notably, ruptures the film’s ravishing, yet stifling interior mise-en-scène when he first returns to his estate, the doors behind the stage parting and allowing him to step into snow-crusted fields. This visualises a clear schism between artificial city and natural landscapes, and sets up the dialectic that reverberates throughout. Later, Wright again refines an earlier piece of his own filmmaking, coinciding beautifully with a moment from Tolstoy’s writing: Levin is stricken by an epiphany when, having slept atop a haystack, he awakens in the dawn-light-drenched mist and sees Kitty driving by in a carriage, a gloriously visualised moment that evokes the romanticism of Pride and Prejudice’s similar dawn-light climax, but with an added spiritual aura and impact. Levin is ripped out of the ambient earthiness of his setting and announces not only his still-compelling love, but also his awakened self-knowledge and his surrender to forces larger than his reason, a surrender he doesn’t acknowledge entirely until the concluding scenes. His second proposal to Kitty, who, chastened and matured in her spurning by Vronsky, accepts the less glamorous but more substantial suitor, sees the duo avoid verbalising their feelings by spelling them with children’s letter-blocks. Vikander’s performance is particularly good in suggesting Kitty’s emotional authenticity and worthiness even when she makes childish mistakes, and the smartness of Levin’s choice becomes apparent when he takes her to his estate. They find his brother and his wife are there, with Nikolai dreadfully ill. Levin moves to obey the niceties of societal presumption to eject Nikolai’s woman, but Kitty instead sets about helping her nurse Nikolai, a triumph of humanist instinct that proves Kitty might actually be her husband’s moral superior as an embodiment of empathy.
The time Wright spares for this aspect of the story is indicative of the underlying attentiveness of this adaptation to the thematic breadth and heft of the tale, rather than reducing it purely to a tale of adulterous passion and social crucifixion: the possibility of a different kind of union is evoked and sustained. Nonetheless, Anna’s story proceeds with merciless force and clarity. Visions of her and Vronsky, both swathed in white and glowing in the sun on a picnic cloth, give way to the trap of space that Anna’s homelife becomes, mirrors and glasses turning faces upon themselves and conflating individuals into functions of one another, as when Vronsky and Karenin catch sight of each other in the mansion’s double doors. There passion gives way to domestic pretence—there’s a ruthlessly funny shot of Karenin neatly plucking a Victorian condom from a silver case on his desk before retiring to bed with his wife. Karenin, played superbly by Law, swings between poles of powerful emotion, from self-pity to vengeful fury to chastised forgiveness, but finally settling into a default mode of acquiescence to socially demanded wrong-doing. His sister Lydia (Emily Watson) talks him into banning Anna from coming to visit their son on his birthday, an injunction Anna ignores; Karenin guiltily watches from the sidelines, looking as if Anna’s angry glare burns a hole right through his self-respect. The film’s major set-piece and pivotal sequence, which sees the private become public and truths forcibly acknowledged, is a horse race in which Karenin observes Anna with chilly suspicion; Anna, in turn, spies on him in with a purse mirror, and drama unfolds on “stage” as Vronsky tries to win the race.
The audiovisual impact of this scene, with the horses thundering out of the darkness from off stage, is tremendous, and so, too, is the vividness of the shattering of the fourth wall as Vronsky’s mount falls and he crashes with it into the “audience,” wrenching Anna into an unfettered moment of hysterical concern that, like Barry Lyndon’s eruption of anger in Stanley Kubrick’s great film, leaves her fatefully exposed to forces that are inimical to individual definitions of happiness. The physical beauty Wright and DP Seamus McGarvey bestow on this film, and the gaudy, highly unreal spectacle in its most florid passages, is ravishing, even hypnotic in its lushness. The major objet d’art is Knightley herself, who perhaps represents the most lustrously fetishized screen presence since Marlene Dietrich, a possibly deliberate evocation. The costuming, providing eye candy par excellence, is also intricately employed as another dramatic device. Vronsky’s chill blue uniforms cut through the earthier tones surrounding him with the keenness of a straight razor. Anna’s veils, at first flatteringly thin, become thicker as she seeks to hide her face from the world, and yet they resemble cracks in a broken mirror, declaring the turmoil behind the perfect face they obscure. A deeper template revealed as the film continues is the ironic romanticism and orchestrated sedition of Luchino Visconti, especially Senso (1953), where every frame is drenched with physical lustre and yet eaten away at by the alternation of powerful, often ugly, but always authentic emotions that rupture that always-present fourth wall of social expectation. And hanging over the production as a whole is the spirit of Ken Russell, the doyen of radical Brit directors, an influence particularly apparent at a soiree where Anna and Vronsky’s affair is finally, properly sparked amidst the dazzle of fireworks and Kabuki-like posturing. I draw attention to these influences not to brand Wright as a filcher but in noting the depth of awareness of cinematic models evident here.
Wright constantly offers a tension between the immobilising spectacle and frantic movement redolent of hysterical energy, and, like the movie, Anna is defined by her constant, extremely neurotic movement; her triumphant moment is, paradoxically, the one where she’s practically paralysed by fever, a crisis that sees her able to achieve an almost saintlike scene of mutual forgiveness and rapprochement between herself and her two men, conquering Karenin’s righteous fury. There’s a touch of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Knightley and Law’s early scenes together as she charms her pasty overlord with her still-girlish mannerisms, mannerisms that fade and give way to leonine ferocity as she enters her affair. The filmmakers and Knightley allow constant glimpses of Anna’s vanity, mental instability, and faintly sado-masochistic impulses, side by side with her admirable qualities, making her a different order of character to the usual run of blankly admirable females bound to be tortured in such period fare, several of which Knightley has played before. Knightley, more restrained than in her full-blown neurotic mode in A Dangerous Method (2011), maps out Anna’s journey as one of compulsions, until she’s finally beset by a cringing disgust and reactive grief in the face of social disgrace and the probability of being exiled from both her home with Karenin and the temporary bliss she has with Vronsky.
The wonder of this Anna Karenina is the precision with which it captures and depicts the inner turmoil of Tolstoy’s characters, and the skill with which it finally removes, rather than adds, elements until, finally, emotional immediacy inverts the focus and the artifice retreats into the background. The film’s most striking moments are those where effect and matter are entwined, like the horse race, and when Karenin, tearing up a letter from his wife, hurls the pieces in the air, and they fall upon him and transform into snow, and his beset solitude in the midst of a fake city is rendered inescapably beautiful and sad. Karenin’s pathos is especially sharp, Law questioning “What did I do to deserve this?” as he sits before the darkened “theatre,” perfectly visualising his punch-drunk bewilderment and the gruesome sensation of being at once hollowed out by emotional shock and left exposed. Anna’s social crucifixion, an outing to the theatre that sees her confronted by her own most lethal anxieties, including watching Vronsky converse with Princess Sorokina (Cara Delevingne), the “child” his mother is trying to foist on him, and being loudly denounced by a society dame (Shirley Henderson) after her leering husband loans Anna a programme, results in Anna’s speedy spiral into a psychic collapse. This is momentarily assuaged, ironically, by Dolly, who cheerfully states to Anna she wishes she had the guts to follow in her footsteps.
By this time, the stage surroundings have faded to a near-general realism. But Anna’s fracturing psyche and perception of herself and others, communicated by images fragmenting in mirrors and the sight of Anna stripped down to her support garments, reveal Anna’s very person is the stage, stripped back to the frame to reveal the ludicrous assemblage required to sustain the illusion of polite femininity. Anna’s suicide, a breathtaking sequence, takes place backstage, where onlookers are locked in friezes, reduced to props in Anna’s aching loneliness and despair, rescued by the prospect of a pummelling juggernaut, a force that both saves her from and mimics the forces that have already run over her, and a bliss of extinction. Wright nods again to Lean’s Brief Encounter, zooming in to the exultant fear on Knightley’s face as the lights of the train carriages whip across her visage; unlike Celia Johnson, she takes the plunge. The final images of the film, with Karenin seated in a verdant field as his son with Anna and her daughter with Vronsky play together whilst Karenin himself seems to have found peace in paternal solitude watching over the children, resolves with a sense of natural grace and maturity. The stalks of grass invade the “theatre,” presaging the breakdown of the order depicted in the film. Anna Karenina is an orgy of cinema, undoubtedly likely to be too rich for the blood of some, and yet it offers an experience far too rare in this year’s cinematic output—a film both boldly conceived and successfully realised on many levels.
The true romantic adventure film is a rare breed. Not an action film where a romance is grafted on as a momentary distraction from stunts and gunfights, a romantic adventure film generates excitement not just by posing danger to the characters’ bodies, but also to their innermost selves and their relationships. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a true romantic adventure film, was produced by Alexander Korda at a time when he and Alfred Hitchcock were the key drivers of British cinema in the early sound era. Korda’s productions, with their determinedly classy, yet peculiarly minimalist, intimate style, gained initial success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), buoyed by Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning turn as the rapacious monarch. This and other productions tried to make virtues out of some of the perceived faults in the British industry, with its reliance on a theatrical tradition and cramped budgets, and exploited Britishness for its own sake whilst also bringing a noticeably tart perspective on that Britishness that perhaps only an immigrant like Korda could. At its best in films like Henry VIII, Rembrandt (1936), and The Scarlet Pimpernel, Korda’s house style interrogated assumptions about cinematic structuring that were quickly becoming truisms under Hollywood’s influence. With a gentle sense of dramaturgy, and intricate, dramatically encoded sequences playing out in a fashion moulded after historical tableaux plays, Korda’s films shared a spirit in common with those of William Wyler and Jean Renoir and anticipated Andre Bazin’s theories of mise-en-scène over montage. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a peculiar by-product: an adventure film without set-piece derring-do, and hardly even a gunshot—and it’s one of the most exciting films ever made.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is based on Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s literary hero, an English aristocrat who rescues the innocent victims of the Reign of Terror that accompanied the French Revolution. Orczy was herself actually Hungarian, but had married into the English aristocracy. Her first Pimpernel book debuted in 1905, and she was still alive and churning out books about her hero when this film was made. Orczy’s creation was and is fascinating and deeply consequential for pop culture, as she can in many ways be said to have invented a crucial type of modern hero: the man of action defying oppressive forces with disguises and cunning whilst maintaining a secret identity that masks his true nature. Simultaneously, whilst she stopped short of creating a proper female action hero, Orczy clearly invested a telling amount of interest and energy in creating Marguerite, Blakeney’s beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, yet initially morally questionable French wife who evolved throughout Orczy’s cycle into one of Percy’s agents. The Scarlet Pimpernel is built as much around the central romantic tangles and tortures the couple put each other through—an extended and fascinating metaphor for the problems of identity of many a couple actually settling down to the problem of really living together—as it is about period gallivanting and historical fancy.
Orczy had constructed that historical fancy around the plausible wish fulfilment of saving innocents from the worst excesses of a political movement. As the 20th century progressed, this fantasy was to become increasingly urgent, and when Korda’s production was released, geopolitical overtones vibrated through the whole affair. Leslie Howard would play an updated version of the hero he plays here in Pimpernel Smith (1941), and in doing so, reputedly inspire Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust. In the 1934 film, the sensation that something evil is happening just over the horizon, played out in icy diplomatic niceties and by men utilising proto-Cold War techniques, is nonetheless palpable, and the period French Revolution setting starts to sound more and more contemporary as Percy condemns men who “use high-sounding principles an excuse for the most bestial cruelty.” Indeed, The Scarlet Pimpernel, made five years before WWII started, feels more than a little like the first WWII movie, offering as it does a template of flight, disguise, and infiltration that any number of spy adventure melodramas in the coming years would. It even lays out a template for the kinds of patriotic encomium such films would often see, as when Percy recites the “this England” speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. The coolness of the Korda style, at odds with the kind of florid historical filmmaking becoming popular in Hollywood that would soon flower in the second coming of the swashbuckler, builds and emphasises tension in an entirely different fashion to what one expects. As witty and defiant as Percy can be, there’s no campy winking at the audience in the fashion of Errol Flynn’s films, and the absence of a music score, already by 1934 an unusual lack, emphasises the sombre, subtle pitch of the drama.
The film begins with a discursive sequence of soldiers parading under the window of the Prince of Wales (Nigel Bruce). The Prince’s bluff and hearty charm seems for much of the movie as disconnected as the rest of his countrymen from the international reality, his soldiers marching prettily but not actually doing anything. The Prince confesses his pride in the fact that the Scarlet Pimpernel, rapidly becoming famous for his escapades, is English. In Paris, the situation the Pimpernel is fighting against is coldly depicted as victim after victim is sent to the guillotine in an assembly line of slaughter, and a neat dissolve from the guillotine itself to the Revolutionary logo of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality packs ironic punch. A priest (Bramwell Fletcher, of The Mummy “He went for a little walk!” fame), actually one of the Pimpernel’s agents, gets an earful of bloodlust from a barber, before visiting a prison where families of the fallen nobility cringe in the cellar as a revolutionary official announces: “Madame Guillotine has fresh meat today.” The fake priest delivers a message in a bible to the family of the Count de Tournay (O. B. Clarence), his wife (Mabel Terry-Lewis) and daughter Suzanne (Joan Gardner). De Tournay, the former ambassador to Britain, is introduced playing cards with his fellows and contemplating with hard-won wisdom that his class has been “sheltered all our lives,” establishing him as a nice aristocrat fit to be rescued. As victims are called up to the tumbrel, rapid vignettes of grace under pressure include one aristocratic woman placing aside her book and adjusting her gloves with seemly calm, whilst outside the baying crowd awaits. Wife and daughter are dragged away to their deaths, torn from the Count, who is held back to be taken Robespierre.
But the Pimpernel’s promise to the De Tournays is good, as the crowd is distracted by a man on the rooftops shouting royalist slogans, a first sign of the depths of Percy’s cleverness in using the crowd’s own inchoate passion against it. As they pursue the rooftop agitator, Percy is able to swoop in and spirit away the family. The Pimpernel himself is disguised as an aged hag transporting her plague-ridden son out of the city, successfully bluffing his way past a guard who has already been seen capturing an aristocrat trying to escape and congratulating himself on his ability to sniff out his quarries. Moments after the Pimpernel gets out, a squad of mounted soldiers arrives to inform the guard he just let the Pimpernel escape, but the soldiers, under Sir Andrew Ffoulkes (Anthony Bushell), are themselves members of the Pimpernel’s band, and they escort the De Tournays across the Channel to safety. Meanwhile, Percy loses his hag’s guise, after a moment of deadpan transformative humour as Percy takes some snuff from his gold box whilst still in full ratty regalia, and then maintains the most businesslike of attitudes as he strips off the drag. He’s alerted by his operative Armand St. Just (Walter Rilla) that they have to return to rescue the Count and that a new, dangerous enemy has been set after them, Citizen Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), the Republic’s envoy to England. Armand also happens to be the brother of Percy’s wife, the former actress Marguerite (Merle Oberon), who is regarded as a traitor and murderer in French aristocratic circles because of her apparent role in the execution of the Marquis Saint Cyr and his family, the first aristocratic clan to go to the guillotine.
The remainder of the narrative revolves around a peculiar question: is Percy’s wife one of the people he despises? Is he operating out of guilt for her actions? Marguerite is first mentioned in a tavern conversation between Ffoulkes and the De Tournays, as they tell him about her evil acts, and he states with defensive pride that “Everyone in London knows Lady Blakeney.” Marguerite is introduced thus, like her husband, first through gossip and second-hand perception, an accumulation of legends that address only one apparent side of their natures. She is first glimpsed properly having her portrait painted by George Romney (Melville Cooper), supervising her conversion into a perfectly aestheticized image as Romney would do for Emma Hamilton. Percy studies the work twice, once in full fop character and then again more like himself, and finds it frustratingly lacking, as he attempts to discover the true woman behind the various images of her. As the husband wears a mask of false identity, he is questioning whether his wife does, too. When Armand asks about the chill between the couple, Percy explains that he once asked if she had truly denounced the Saint Cyrs: “She flashed back a yes as sharp as the guillotine!” “So that is why you ceased to love her,” Armand says, “What a tragedy.” Percy replies, “I shall love her ‘til the day I die, that’s the tragedy.” Such a line captures The Scarlet Pimpernel‘s rare feel for the smouldering romanticism lurking under the seemingly stoic and staid English surface. The very French and expressive Marguerite is conversely suffering her sudden and chilling alienation from Percy, who, as far as London society is concerned, is a shallow, witless gadabout obsessed with fashion and trivialities.
True to Quentin Tarantino’s maxim about secret identity as a mask that reveals and critiques, the version of himself that Sir Percy Blakeney presents to the world is a stinging study in English upper-crust complacency and cloddishness. Percy maintains his cover by playing a jackass, fop, and effeminate pseudo-wit. He predicts Beau Brummel by advising the Prince in fashion, ridiculing his tailor’s efforts (“I’ll have you know that this is the last word in sleeves!” “Oh I should hope so, for there should never be another like it!”), and reciting to anyone who’ll listen his poem about the Pimpernel (“They seek him here, they seek him there…”) which he has to censor when repeating it to society ladies. The fat, old former soldiers he teases as they lounge about his club congratulate themselves on their superiority to such callow youth: “What that young man needs is a year of two’s hard campaigning, facing powder and shot!” declares Winterbottom (Edmund Breon), whilst one of the Prince’s circle, contemplating the horrors in France, muses, “What do you expect of a lot of foreigners with no sporting instinct? If it wasn’t for our fox hunting and grouse shooting, I dare say we should be cruel, too!” When Marguerite wonders if Ffoulkes might be the Pimpernel, Percy derides the idea: “The fellow couldn’t hit a ball at Eton!” This tint of satire on the worst traits of the English upper crust is, of course, contrasted in how Percy and his fellows actually represent their class’s best qualities. Even the Prince finally reveals his hidden grit when, disgusted by news Robespierre is planning to execute the French King, he’s introduced to Chauvelin, who he welcomes as a private citizen: “We shall try to forget the government that sent you,” before turning his back and getting on with his pleasant evening.
The Scarlet Pimpernel’s layered and wit-laden script was composed by many hands, with Korda and Orczy adding some material to the credited foursome of Lajos Biró, S. N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, and Arthur Wimperis. As per the Korda style, and perhaps partly reflecting the fact that the story had first appeared not as a novel but as a stage play, the narrative moves forward in a series of intensely orchestrated and carefully composed sequences. The actual job of direction fell to American Harold Young, making his third film after a long career as an editor: Young’s subsequent career would be largely unremarkable as a maker of B-movies, including The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). But the entire production bears the imprint of Korda, particularly in the carefully composed crowd scenes. Korda’s approach to spectacle was strange, offering lavish sets, casts, and costuming, and then often dismissing them, preferring to concentrate elliptically on peripheral details. The Scarlet Pimpernel deliberately detours from many key moments of action, and yet avoids staidness with its supple and functional cutting and quietly musical visual pacing.
Notable are little minuets of telling close-ups and dramatic camera angles in compositions that are fastidiously balanced, often with characters framed in association with statues that match their personality. A brilliant, pivotal moment occurs when Marguerite finally realises her husband is the Pimpernel, camera zeroing in on a tell-tale feature of a painting she stares at, and cutting back to a high shot of Marguerite gazing up, the moment of realisation rendered electric. The effect shifts emphasis from the physical intensity of the drama to the emotional, making The Scarlet Pimpernel all the more singular. It’s tempting, if running the risk of making facile presumptions, to ascribe some of the emotional intensity of The Scarlet Pimpernel to the way it offers such a fervent metaphor for the lives of so many of its creators. Korda and Howard were Hungarian with Jewish backgrounds, busy dissembling as perfect English entrepreneur and actor, whilst Orczy was also Hungarian, and Oberon was part-Indian, a side of herself she had to keep suppressed to avoid the censure in a still often segregated cinema screen.
One doesn’t look to The Scarlet Pimpernel for in-depth political considerations, and yet the brief depiction of Robespierre (Ernest Milton) is an amusing study in dictatorial power as the self-dramatized posturing of a child prodigy, one that seems cleverly pitched to evoke caricatures of Mussolini and Hitler as bratty buffoons for audiences of the 1930s. He stalks away from his desk after writing a death warrant with showy gravitas and situates himself before a nobly bearded bust, before calling Chauvelin and declaring effetely to De Tournay that “I send you people to the guillotine for the future happiness of the human race, but I don’t allow torture!” Chauvelin is both smarmy and serpentine in his confident espousal of the revolutionary cause, and also acutely aware of his vulnerability, tasked with capturing the Pimpernel and knowing it means his neck if he can’t. Chauvelin blackmails Marguerite into helping him identify the Pimpernel, having traced the various leads to Percy’s social circle. To manipulate Marguerite, he uses both standard pressures—arresting Armand and holding his fate over her—and his sinuous and unsettling psychological grip on her, as the keeper of her darkest secrets. Chauvelin was partly responsible for Marguerite’s denunciation of the Saint Cyrs, though her animosity towards the clan after the patriarch had her thrown in prison when his son wanted to marry her, was still powerful.
The film’s multiple story strands collide in a lengthy sequence at a ball held by Lord Grenville (Allan Jeayes) in which dancing is dismissed as frou frou in favour of the far more intricate cotillion of role-playing and gamesmanship. Percy swaps gracefully between fop and spymaster (he’s able to rescue himself from the coterie of trailing women and make contact with one of his agents with the cry, “Zounds! That’s a monstrous good collar!”), Chauvelin stalks through the proceedings with his hunting-dog smirk, and Marguerite is caught between camps, cold-shouldered by the De Tournays until the Prince, who worships Marguerite, commands them to make friends. Marguerite is tasked by Chauvelin to obtain a message Ffoulkes has tucked in his sleeve, and Marguerite rises to the challenge in a sublimely odd sequence in which dance music drifts sonorously in from the ballroom, Ffoulkes tries to both aid Marguerite and read the message, and Marguerite looks for a chance, any chance, to see it, too, whilst a confused crackle of the erotic and the illicit infuses the game of deception. She finally succeeds in getting hold of the letter and is able to reveal its contents to Chauvelin, that the Pimpernel will be in the library at midnight, which proves true, only Percy makes a play of being asleep on a couch, sprawled with indolent laziness. Percy seems to fake Chauvelin out by this means, but his joke proves to have been a bit too clever, for Chauvelin quickly realises the truth and sets in motion a plan to catch Percy the next time he ventures to France.
The weight of sustaining the film falls heavy on Howard’s and Oberon’s shoulders. Howard was just hitting the height of his fame, as he was starring in the hit play The Petrified Forest and had played the lead in a Hollywood adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage opposite Bette Davis. At first, Korda had offered the role of Percy to Charles Laughton after the success of Henry VIII, but fans of the books objected. Howard’s specific screen persona here came to the fore, in playing a man who seems emotionally obtuse and physically mild, and yet who actually possesses surprising moral and mental force; Howard would offer several variations on this character before his sad death in 1943. His performance as Percy, nonetheless, has a clarity and simplicity of technique that puts me in mind of Paul Scofield, in the precision of his shifts of character registered in diction and restrained physical emphasis, his delightful skill in swinging from pallid overcivility (the curse of his Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, 1939) and mincing foppishness, to an unconventional, but steely, convincing rectitude. He’s particularly excellent in the key scene the couple have after the ball, in which Marguerite distraughtly confesses how Chauvelin has used her, and Percy asks just what she’s done in exchange for her brother’s freedom, with a sudden revelation of the anger and pain he’s been sitting on. As Marguerite breaks down and appeals to him with real desperation, he comes precariously close to kissing her as he realises she’s a victim and not a villain, but remembers himself at the last moment and pulls back with obvious difficulty.
Oberon was still a fairly fresh-minted movie star, although she had been leading a life laden with novel-worthy mystique for much of her life, rising from headliner in Bombay nightlife in her early teens to several years of bit roles after landing in Britain, and discovery by Korda, whom she would marry. She would go on to be an underutilised but reliable star in Hollywood, but she inhabits the difficult role of Marguerite perfectly. She keeps Marguerite’s emotional quandaries in focus, smouldering with guilt and disaffection even as she’s called upon to be the perfect, nerveless beauty, wife, secret agent, and emotional prostitute, speaking with rueful sadness after her husband’s made another of his embarrassing displays, “The biggest fool in England has the most complete contempt for his wife,” and insulting Percy with bite, “You were a man once!” The quiet romanticism of the film is indeed laced with the bitter taste of its opposite, the Noel Coward-esque cynicism apparent as Percy, in character and yet delivered with cold brutality, responds to Marguerite’s proposition that they should help Armand get married, “What has poor Armand done to be sentenced to matrimony? You should know better, my dear.” Massey likely never quite had as much fun in a film role as here, playing Chauvelin with a plummy, come-and-go accent, but more effectively offering his hangdog face and perpetual five o’clock shadow to imbue a faint air of shifty dishevelment to Chauvelin’s pretences to elegant villainy, the inelegant method and functionary brutality underneath constantly in evidence. His exchanges with Percy in foolish guise are droll in Chauvelin’s recoiling disgust of the seemingly oblivious aristocrat who sneakily makes jabs at Chauvelin’s fear of the guillotine under the pretext of giving him fashion tips; whenever Percy reaches to adjust Chauvelin’s cravat, the envoy recoils in alarm.
Chauvelin has his moment of triumph as he thinks he finally has Percy exactly where he wants him, in front of a firing squad, mouthing orders in anxious delight until he hears the shot. Once Marguerite ventures into enemy territory to warn Percy that Chauvelin is laying a trap for him, but once again makes herself perfect bait, as Chauvelin takes her prisoner and uses her as a means of forcing Percy into exchanging himself for her. Here the moral, physical, and romantic danger facing the characters crystallises in another marvellous moment of smouldering romanticism, as Marguerite declares she wants to die with her husband and fainting, Percy offering a last, breathlessly romantic kiss to her prone form before letting her be carried out. Percy pauses for his moment of poetically graceful patriotism before heading out to die—except, of course, Percy is too clever for Chauvelin, and, in one of the great action hero bluffs, his firing squad proves to be formed entirely of his own men. What’s rare about this last act is that in avoiding traditional action movie stunts, it generates a fervent tension that’s altogether sublime. The very finish twists Percy’s earlier black description of matrimony as a sentence, as he revises Chauvelin’s own pronouncement that Marguerite would be free when Percy died into an epigram of fidelity of a couple reforged into strong and confident partners in adventure. It’s worth noting that a sequel was produced three years later, but the only returning cast member was Bushell, and the film, whilst competent, was essentially an afterthought, which goes to show that half-hearted sequels are hardly a recent phenomenon.
Reggae is in my blood. Around 1980, when I was only a couple of years out of college and on my own in Chicago, I started visiting a new club called the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary that featured live reggae music seven nights a week. Lodged a block from Wrigley Field among traditionalist neighbors who fought the installation of lights at Wrigley for night baseball until just a few years ago, the club’s marijuana perfume and rhythmic music filled with revolutionary messages and prayers from musicians who worshipped Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ were an endless source of irritation.
For a person like me whose early enthusiasm for the blues, jazz, and bossa nova turned into a passion for world music like reggae before it became a market niche, the Wild Hare let me escape the great white stiffs of the Great White North as the only club where I could reliably count on a man—always Jamaican or Ethiopian—to ask me to dance. As I worked up a sweat on the concrete floor that always turned my legs to rubber bands, I could only glance with condescension at the uptight white boys who did nothing but sit at the bar drinking Guinness at one of the few places in the city that served it while I chanted uncomprehendingly (and probably offensively) “Jah Rastafari” along with the band.
Along with local and small touring bands, a lot of big reggae stars played at the Ethiopian-owned club, including Jimmy Cliff, Dallol, and Shabba Ranks. The biggest star of them all, Bob Marley, was already too big a draw by the time the Wild Hare opened to play there. He made his one small-club appearance in Chicago at another of my hangouts, The Quiet Knight, back in 1975, but alas, I had not caught rasta fever in time to see him. In fact, until yesterday, I had no idea he had played there; a mention of the appearance is only one of numerous eye-opening facts I learned while watching Marley.
From its conception in 2008, Marley was meant to be the definitive documentary about the life of the Jamaican superstar. Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, both superb craftsmen of music documentaries, picked up and then dropped the project. It fell to Kevin Macdonald, an impressive documentarian in his own right with a spotless film pedigree as the grandson of Emeric Pressburger, to meld archival footage with talking heads to tell the cradle-to-grave story of Bob Marley. Ziggy Marley, the oldest son of Bob and his wife Rita, acted as an executive producer of the film and provided photographs and footage that had never been exhibited publicly to help flesh out many facets of his father’s life.
One important facet of Bob Marley’s life was that he was so-called “half-caste,” with a white English-Jamaican father and a black Jamaican mother. The film shows the only known photo of Norval Marley, a handsome plantation overseer who was “the” Marley of Jamaica until his charismatic son took over that title. Norval had almost no contact with Bob and his mother, traveling constantly and fathering other children with other women, a practice Bob would pick up along with his father’s good looks. Bob would also deal with the prejudice against half-castes by saying his allegiance belonged to the god who chose to make him half-black and half-white; his shaky status and his life with his black mother most likely turned him toward his African heritage and his pride that Africa is the place where the human race began.
Marley has footage of Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica in 1966, a rather funny portion of the film in which we learn that Selassie emerged from the airplane in Kingston, saw the massive crowd on the tarmac, and turned right around and went back in. Selassie’s visit, however, marked a turning point for Marley in becoming a Rastafarian and growing his trademark dreadlocks. Scenes of Marley smoking marijuana in spliffs and pipes, lost in a haze of smoke, follow. Marley’s wife admits that Bob was almost perpetually stoned, though whether you view this as the religious devotion Rastafarians say it is or a consequence of being a poor musician, or both, is up to you.
Regardless of your views, there is something to the assertion in the film that pot smokers are laid back and peaceful, something Marley and his band The Wailers always preached and lived. It is rather amazing to see footage of two violently opposed political groups in Jamaica come together briefly during Marley’s 1978 One Love tour and Prime Minister Michael Manley of the People’s National Party (PNP) join his rival from the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP), Edward Seaga, onstage at Marley’s urging. This gesture is even more extraordinary considering that extremists tried to kill Marley and The Wailers at his Hope Road compound only two years before when a planned free concert by Marley was coopted for political capital by the PNP, angering JLP supporters.
Interviews with family members and intimates are sprinkled unobtrusively throughout the film, which mainly concentrates on Marley and the music. Incredibly, Macdonald talks with Mrs. James, Bob’s grade school teacher when he lived in his rural hometown of St. Ann, who remembers his musicality. After Bob and his mother moved to a Kingston slum called Trench Town, Bob met aspiring musician Desmond Dekker. Jimmy Cliff recalls auditioning and recording Dekker, and then being approached by Marley. He immediately noted Bob’s use of lyrics to convey a message, recalling Marley’s first recording “Judge Not” as an assertion of his human rights; Macdonald shows a young boy looking stern and punching the air as the song plays in the background.
Thus, the interviews become voiceovers with scenes that illustrate what the speakers are discussing, for example, a tall Rastafarian walking along a street in Trench Town with his enormous dreadlocks piled high under a knit hat and Marley’s song “Knotty Dread” playing under the voiceover. A result of this “reenactment” is that we get a sense of Bob Marley’s life as it was lived, a visual representation of his inspiration, and lively and colorful images that invite audiences to participate rather than nod off to a wall of words. Amusing and interesting capsule facts are scrawled on the screen as well, such as that there is no record that “Captain” Norval Marley ever rose above the rank of private.
Each step in Marley’s rise to superstardom is given attention, with remembrances from such figures in his life as childhood friend and original band member Neville “Bunny” Livingston; Chris Blackwell, who signed the Wailers to Island Records; and manager Danny Simms. Simms recalls how ambitious Marley was, agreeing to open for The Commodores in Madison Square Garden less than a year before his death so that American radio stations would play his records. Marley may have thought that the concert and radio plays would find him an audience among African Americans, which seemed as indifferent to Marley as white audiences were enraptured by him. The film is chock-full of concert footage and music, charting his career in a way any fan will absolutely adore.
Marley’s personal life adds to the film’s well-rounded portrait of the artist. Cindy Breakspeare, Miss World 1976 and Marley’s most famous lover, figures prominently in the film; when asked why Marley attracted so many women, she says incredulously, “Look at him!” Rita Marley seems to have had a laissez-faire attitude to Bob’s lovers and their children (she took lovers of her own), and thought that the key to his romantic success was that he was shy, recalling their own courtship. Cedella Marley, Rita and Bob’s daughter, is not so forgiving of the free love that pervaded her parents’ life, asserting that her mother was made unhappy by Bob’s philandering. In truth, Cedella seems the most unhappy with her father, complaining throughout the film of his lack of attention and even a lack of time alone with him in the days before his death.
Most informative and touching for me was an account of Marley’s final illness. I had always heard he had brain cancer, the joke going around that the ganga got him. In fact, in 1977, he was spiked in the toe while playing soccer, and when he went to have it looked at, the doctors diagnosed him with melanoma in the nail bed. Marley refused advice to have the toe amputated, worrying that he would not be able to dance or play soccer. In 1980, after a run in Central Park, Marley collapsed. When he was taken to the hospital, he was found to be riddled with cancer. Without real hope for recovery, he played his last concert in Pittsburgh, lost his dreadlocks to chemotherapy, and vainly sought relief at a holistic clinic in Germany. The film concludes by showing his burial site in St. Ann and surveying Marley’s lasting influence on world culture.
There is a lot of information out there about Bob Marley, much of it false or half-true. Marley is a treasure to fans and future generations who want as accurate and big a picture as may be possible on film of a man who freed a lot of people with his music.
Live concert audio from The Quiet Knight in Chicago, 1975
More than 50 years after Robert Hamer, director of such classic British films as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Long Memory (1952), directed a faithful adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel The Scapegoat, another well-regarded British director, Charles Sturridge (“Brideshead Revisited”), has given the story another go. Moving it from France to England and slightly tweaking the motivation of the central characters has yielded a less schematic, more psychologically true rendering of the identity-switch theme at the center of the tale.
Unlike the original, in which a schoolteacher has his fateful meeting with his doppelganger while on vacation, in this tale, John Standing (Matthew Rhys) is a Greek teacher in a primary school who is let go because conversational French is thought to be a more useful subject for the languages department to offer. With prospects for another job dim because of his obsolete skill, he literally decides to drift, that is, take a walking tour of England. Thus, when he meets his double, Johnny Spence (Rhys), in a pub, gets drunk with him, and wakes up to find all of his belongings missing and Johnny’s chauffeur George (Pip Torrens) waiting to take him back to his estate in a Rolls Royce, John has no circumstantial ties that bind him to the truth.
Naturally, one small lie leads to another, as he is introduced to “his” family—his wife Frances (Alice Orr-Ewing), his daughter Mary Louise (Eloise Webb), his sister Blanche (Jodhi May), his brother and sister-in-law Paul and Nina (Andrew Scott and Sheridan Smith), and his mother Lady Spence (Eileen Atkins). The imperious housekeeper Charlotte (Phoebe Nicholls) shuttles John from one person to the next, and the poor man has to stumble through conversations that mean nothing to him and try to locate his mother’s room in the vast mansion, blundering into Nina’s room at one point. Her embrace indicates that she and Johnny were having an affair.
It becomes apparent fairly quickly that Johnny has wrecked his family and made a complete hash of the foundry business that built their fortune; his inability to negotiate a badly needed contract sealed his determination to flee from his life. Once John gets the lay of the land and starts to insinuate himself into the Spence household, he learns that Johnny and Lady Spence engineered his loveless marriage to Frances to get their hands on her trust fund—one that will not be settled because she has not produced a male heir or died. Lady Spence, shrewd and bitter, has taken to her bed where she is attended by her priest, Father McReady (Anton Lesser), and Charlotte, and uses morphine supplied by Johnny to provide her only slice of happiness. Paul’s confidence has been sapped by his mother’s hectoring putdowns and preference for Johnny, and Blanche hates Johnny with every fiber of her being for a variety of reasons.
The idea of the good versus evil twin, or dark versus light, has been explored in works as disparate as the various versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the melodrama A Stolen Life (1948), and the Star Wars franchise. The influence of a good nature, however, is more the thrust of this film as it downplays the thriller aspects of the Du Maurier novel. However, John isn’t exactly Pollyanna playing the glad game to cheer everyone up. Instead, he uses the gentle patience he developed as a teacher and his desire for the loving family he doesn’t have, echoing the feelings of the orphaned Joey in the family drama In the Family (2011), to fall in love with the Spences and give them what Johnny never could. He owns up to the lies he told out of ignorance, the most important of which is that he landed the contract, but offers his ideas to put the business back on the right track after doing his homework about the financial situation and business plan. He lets Paul take the spotlight, encourages Lady Spence to get out of bed by telling her the house needs her, and shows a deep understanding for Blanche’s rage and grief by saying he wants to make things right.
One has to work to suspend disbelief not only that John can put things to right in only a week, but also that none of the Spences suspects John’s deception. Only Johnny’s French mistress (Sylvie Testud) and Charlotte guess that John is a fraud, perhaps highlighting how blind the upper class is to the reality around them. However, George and the foundry manager never suspect him either, so it’s anyone’s guess whether Sturridge intended to imply this subtext. On the other hand, making John a potential member of the permanently unemployed was a stroke of genius in driving his decisions in this film, though the film tends to underplay the obvious material appeal of impersonating an aristocrat, even one whose business is in trouble.
Welsh actor Matthew Rhys is unfamiliar to me, but he has a strong, but mutable physical bearing that can move easily from a sacked teacher to a lord of the manor, thus largely getting over one improbable hurdle this story poses. He adopts a different spine for John and Johnny, and is impressive in both, making me wonder if the film actually had identical twins in the two roles. As can normally be expected of a British cast, the performances are uniformly wonderful, though they fall just short of being the cohesive ensemble of other films. The look of the film is appropriately rarified and atmospheric, and fans of PBS’s Masterpiece dramas and such prestige films as The King’s Speech (2010) will lap The Scapegoat up, particularly as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II forms an underlying rationale for John’s final decision to stay or go. The Scapegoat is a finely crafted, if somewhat superficial character study that is engrossing to the end.
The Scapegoat screens Thursday, October 18, at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, October 21, at 1:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
Tey: Telling the story of one day—the last day—in the life of a young man, a fact known, celebrated, and mourned throughout his community, this film confronts our peculiarly human tragedy of knowing we will die, and gives us a few answers about coping with that frightening inevitability. (Senegal)
Mr. Sophistication: A familiar story of a comedian trying to make a comeback is made compelling by great performances, an intelligent script, and deft direction and camerawork. (USA)
The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni: The life of Egyptian movie star Soad Hosni, a cultural icon and touchpoint for unity in the Middle East, is interpreted in a biopic using nothing but footage from her 82 films. (Lebanon)
Shun Li and the Poet:A tone poem of a film depicting the longings of a Chinese emigrant to Italy and the loving friendship she forms with an elderly Yugoslavian man in a small fishing village near Venice. (Italy)
The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)
The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)
My mom was born in 1926 on the Near West Side of Chicago. She went to grade school and high school in Chicago, and moved to the Near North suburbs along with many of her friends and relatives in the 1950s. She and my dad still had friends from their school days, and after he died, she and her childhood friends became constant companions. She spoke to me about their quirks, especially Shirley, whose mind was starting to wander and who would repeat things over and over again and yell at waitresses for hot coffee when she finally took a sip only to find it had gone cold while she rambled on. My mother had some complaints about the people from the old days and her early days in the suburbs who had come with her into old age, but never was she discourteous to any of them, never did she think of giving them the heave-ho, and never were they less than friends.
You don’t have to be past 50 to appreciate Another Year, Mike Leigh’s most subdued, cohesive film in years, but it helps. My memory of my parents’ friendships has helped me internalize their values of loyalty and acceptance of human frailty, particularly as I get older. I sense that younger, Internet-age viewers may have a very different take on friendship, and much more difficulty finding the kind of acceptance my parents’ generation—and even mine—were generous with. I’ve seen a number of youthful film critics criticize the central married couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri Hepple (Ruth Sheen), as smug and condescending to their unhappy, unattached friends Ken (Peter Wight) and Mary (Lesley Manville). In my opinion, this view says rather more about the critics than it does about the characters. All I see are two people who have room in their hearts and lives for the people they have known for many years and provide them with a soft place to fall when life has dealt them the hard knocks Tom and Gerri have been fortunate to avoid by dint of luck, love, and commitment.
A deeply pessimistic note is set during the film’s prologue. A very sour-faced woman (Imelda Staunton) is having trouble sleeping and has gone to her local clinic for some sleeping tablets. Tanya (Michele Austin), the pregnant doctor tending to her, sees her obvious anger and depression. Tanya writes her a short-term prescription, but suggests she see a counselor at the clinic to get at the underlying cause of her sleeplessness. The counselor turns out to be Gerri. Gerri’s affinity for helping depressives may explain why she and Mary, an administrative assistant at the clinic, have remained friends for 20 years, all through Mary’s financially ruinous divorce and long-term affair and break-up with a married man. But Gerri has an energetic, partying streak in her, as evidenced by a seven-month trip she and Tom took from Australia back to England early in their lives and some hell-raising she remembers when talking with Ken; in the early years of their friendship, Mary would have been a natural fit for Gerri, and their bond seems genuine.
Because he loves Gerri and is an amiable person, Tom also befriends Mary, a frequent dinner guest and occasional overnight lodger when she’s had too much wine to drink. Gerri returns the favor with Tom’s old friend Ken, a civil servant who’d retire if he had anything to do with his free time, and whose gluttonous eating and endless beer guzzling fill the void left by his bitterly ended relationships and the deaths of his closest friends. He rails against the young people who have taken over his favorite pub, feeling as the aged often do, that he and all he values are being discarded and forgotten. Tom and Gerri try to remind him that they were once loud and obnoxious, too, to help him see that every generation has its day.
Leigh literally pushes the notion of “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” by dividing his narrative into the four growing seasons, beginning in the spring as Tom and Gerri plant their crops in a community garden and ending with the plow-over in winter. Other new beginnings in “Spring” include Mary’s decision to buy a car that she expects to change her life and Gerri and Tom’s 30-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman) heading to Dublin to attend the wedding of yet another friend. “Summer” sees the birth of Tanya’s baby, and love is on Mary’s mind, as she rejects the good-hearted, but physically revolting Ken at a garden party at Gerri and Tom’s to make an awkward, understated play for Joe. Mary’s new life curdles fast in “Autumn” when her car turns out to be a costly fixer-upper and her traffic and parking fines mount up. Worse, Joe brings home his girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez) to meet his parents for the first time on a day Mary is scheduled to come by. Mary’s romantic disappointment comes out in extreme rudeness to Katie. “Winter” brings endings as Tom’s brother Ronnie (David Bradley) and the rest of family mourn Ronnie’s wife Linda, the deep-freeze Mary has been in with Gerri since her rude behavior finally thaws, and Mary’s “glass half full” finally empties in a closing shot of her thousand-mile stare into the abyss of her sadness.
As is obvious from this synopsis, nothing terribly dramatic occurs onscreen, or offscreen, for that matter. The film is, to use Tom’s word, “inexorably” about life. Leigh and his actors have emerged from the months-long creation of their characters with rounded, relatable human beings. None of the characters got where they are overnight, and they’ll move forward inexorably as well. We learn their histories in bits and pieces, in remembrances, cold glances, a warm pat on the bottom. They have work they perform onscreen and talk about in their off hours: Mary, Gerri, and Tanya at the clinic, Tom at a building site where he works as a engineering geologist, Joe advising an Indian immigrant at a public-aid office. There is conflict, for example, when Ronnie’s resentful and long-absent son Carl (Martin Savage) comes late to Linda’s funeral and quarrels with his father and Tom back at Ronnie’s house. Yet nothing horrible happens—Carl rudely tells Linda’s coworkers who have come to pay their respects to leave and then flees himself, while Ronnie packs a bag and goes to stay with Tom and Gerri for a few days. The emotion of a funeral is there and real, but mainly in a dislocated, quiet way. Even Carl never gets very loud; he seems genuinely distressed in his prickish way.
Many of the performers, like Wight, Broadbent, Savage, Sheen, and Manville, have worked with Leigh over the years, and the family feeling of an ad hoc repertory company greatly enhances the deep emotional resonance of the film. Broadbent and Sheen work so harmoniously that one might mistake them for a married couple offscreen. I was particularly taken with their teamwork in the garden, perhaps reflecting on my own experiences with the hubby in our community garden. It all was so familiar, so real. Leigh’s regular cinematographer Dick Pope outdid himself in this film, creating an ambience for each season that strongly communicates the passage of time. In “Spring,” for instance, his camera seems to so capture the dampness and fecundity of the soil that I could practically smell the mulch and feel the relief of a hot cup of tea Gerri clutched to warm her from a sudden rain. Similarly, the first shot of “Summer” is a landscape of gold, with Gerri turning her face upward to gather in the sun’s warmth. Indeed, from the way she is photographed to the plush sweaters she favors, Gerri is a fully realized creature of warmth, a fitting flame for the rest of the characters to fly to.
Lesley Manville, however, really seems to be at the core of this film. That may be due to her fearlessly vulnerable performance that shines just a bit brighter than anyone else in the magnificent cast. Mary is infuriating, but impossible to resist. One wants to slap her for the horrid way she treats poor Ken, but Manville never lets us lose sympathy for Mary, a lost soul if ever there was one. My sympathy for her increased exponentially after Joe’s cruel treatment of her when she flirts with him at the garden party. He leads Mary on, agreeing with her that they “click,” playing a teasing sexual game about naming his body parts, and then telling Mary when she asks him how old she looks “…. 60 …. 70.” She assumes after he says 70 that he’s goofing on her, but her initial shock at “60” reveals Joe to be, as Katie says, a “dark horse,” that is, more cruel than his genial facade would suggest. This scene is a master class in acting, with Manville and Maltman hitting their beats with exquisite timing, Joe’s yielding impenetrability deflecting Mary’s tired feints and faded hope. The scene also encapsulates the indifference of time to the pain of the old and weary; Mary deserved more out of life, but time waits for no one, and youth will laugh as it pushes age over the side of the ark.
Films that not only capture aged adults moving off the main highway of life, but also treat them with good-natured sympathy are rare indeed—as rare as friendships that last a lifetime. I wonder what will happen to the ascendant generation that is so heavily invested in virtual friendships when it is their turn to move along. Whatever it is, I hope they meet up with some of the kindness and acceptance found in Another Year.
Hammer Studios first moved into making films in the cinefantastique genres with adaptations of Nigel Kneale’s epochal TV serials in the mid ’50s. But Kneale had surprisingly little to do with the studio, except for adapting his own work with the 1957 film The Abominable Snowman, and penning the script for this ripping mid-’60s work that sports one of the House of Horror’s few imported star turns, in the person of Joan Fontaine. Director Cyril Frankel’s name doesn’t conjure many associations, which perhaps partly explains why this film has fallen under the radar: after initial film work, he acted chiefly as a TV director. But The Witches is a delicious slice of classic British genre fare offers much the same deeply neurotic mood of repression and explosive release that also marks out other great, thematically similar British horror films like Night of the Eagle (1961) and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). It anticipates, in many ways, The Wicker Man’s ironic contrast of idyllic hamlets and uncanny threats, if without the calculated inversions of story expectations, and looks forward to more modern studies on similar material like Wake Wood (2010) and the satiric landscape of Hot Fuzz (2007).
The Witches is an adaptation of a novel by Norah Lofts, who also provided the source material for John Ford’s last feature film, shot the same year, 7 Women, an equally interesting revision of genre film with a female-centric viewpoint. Here, a bizarre and jarring prologue immediately hits a note of frantic alarmism, as it offers a fin-de-siecle twist on colonial do-gooder tales like The Nun’s Story (1959). Fontaine’s character, Gwen Mayfield, running a school in a colony beset by a Mau-Mau-like uprising, tries to pack up and flee before the menace comes calling. Her native assistants are so frightened by the curse of the local Juju man they finally abandon Gwen. The door is bashed in, and the Juju men, one wearing a colossal tribal mask, enter, presumably to rape and abuse our heroine.
After the credits, Gwen reappears in London three years later. She’s patched herself back together but is still bearing signs of trauma, fending off an attack of nerves as she’s interviewed by the pleasant, but fusty eccentric Alan Bax (Alec McCowen) for a job teaching at small, rural school of which he’s a patron. Gwen’s new position takes her to the hamlet of Heddaby. Alan and his sister Stephanie (Kay Walsh) are the wealthiest people in the area, and the town is a backwater without a government school, which is why the Baxes fund their own. Gwen shares duties with another teacher, Sally Benson (Ann Bell), and begins to settle into her job, until the romance of two of her adolescent students, Ronnie Dowsett (Martin Stephens) and Linda Rigg (Ingrid Boulting), is discovered. Linda’s guardian “Granny” Rigg (Gwen Ffrangcon Davies) objects to this coupling, and Gwen finds herself called upon to find a way of keeping them apart. She encourages Ronnie’s talents, and soon he wins a chance to go to a better school out of town. Rather than send him away, which Gwen thinks will make him unhappy, she begins personally tutoring him, leaving vulnerable to secret forces that control the village that want to protect Linda’s virginity. Ronnie falls into a coma one night and is hospitalised.
A disturbing discovery—a male doll Ronnie had bought for Linda as a suggestive partner for her own perpetually carried female figure, hidden in the crook of a tree with its head removed and riddled with pins—stirs Gwen’s suspicions that she’s dealing with something she has encountered before. Ronnie’s mother (Carmel McSharry) flees town with her son when he recovers, and her husband (John Collin) visits Gwen one night in the schoolhouse stinking drunk, distraught at the collapse of his life. When Gwen lets slip that she suspects Granny Rigg might have cursed Ronnie in some way, he goes to visit her, but turns up drowned in a nearby lake. Before she can report her story at the inquest, Gwen, staying overnight at the Bax’s house, is stricken down with a vision of the Juju mask and she awakens in a nursing home, having completely lost her memory of the past three years.
Like many great horror films, The Witches cunningly uses other, more humdrum genres and everyday familiarities as a starting point; although the prologue announces things are going to be sensational and garish, most of the first half is deceptively casual and evokes a traditional depiction of an English village that might have stumbled out of soap operas from The Archers through to Heartbeat. It avoids even the signposted oddness of The Wicker Man, with only a slightly tweaked atmosphere of estrangement, apparent in touches like the cheery brutality of the local butcher Bob Curd (Duncan Lamont), beaming with overemphatic friendliness as he rips the skin off a rabbit, the coolly unexaggerated bigotry of the local mothers aimed at Ronnie because of his father’s reputation as a layabout, and the discomfort Gwen experiences in trying to negotiate small-town politics. She plays the beneficent teacher helping give the poor young lad a leg up in a victimising world, almost a prototype for Kes (1969).
Frankel’s unmannered, clear-eyed direction helps the film walk a tightrope of tone, only skewing from the realistic in such odd moments as Granny Rigg telling her grey cat to follow Gwen, and a slow manifesting sense of more than usual evil lurking under the surface, as Ronnie tries to alert Gwen to his having seen Linda being punished by having her hand jammed in a clothes wringer by Granny Rigg. Ronnie’s romancing of Linda isn’t just verboten because she’s important to a witches’ rite, but also because his mother isn’t local: the other children are all so in-bred, as Sally says, it’s hard to distinguish the variations on the “Heddaby face.” Frankel wields Hitchcockian technique as Gwen notices details like the many bare footprints scattered in the mud by the lake where Dowsett drowned, only to be erased as a flock of sheep charges through, panicked by Stephanie’s dogs; it’s a moment clearly reminiscent of the erasing of Miss Froy’s dust-written name in The Lady Vanishes (1938).
Perhaps another reason The Witches isn’t as well known to Hammer fans as it ought to be is because it mostly eschews the studio’s usual gothic stylistics, preferring crisper, restrained hues in the photography to the usual saturated tones. It also sports an uncommonly good cast of actors not at all associated with the genre, redolent of an attempt to elevate studio fare that was beginning to slide into the blood and boobs formula of the later Dracula films, et al. In addition to Walsh and McCowen, Leonard Rossiter turns up late in the piece as a smug, yet hapless doctor who takes Gwen in charge after she suffers a second breakdown after being hexed. The comely Boulting was a daughter of film director John Boulting whose most recognisable role was the mysterious object of affection in Elia Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976).
Witchcraft has often been one of the more neglected fields for horror films to draw on, in part because it often demands suggestion of unseen forces at odds with the declarative demands of genre cinema, and also because the modern mind is largely inclined to give witches the benefit of the doubt. Frankel doesn’t draw out fulminating sensuality and neurotic energy like Terence Fisher or Don Sharp at their best, but he does master the necessary rhythm of slowly composing strangeness leading into outright nuttiness. Whereas Fisher’s tackling of similar notions in the following year’s The Devil Rides Out is a lushly orchestrated spectacle, Frankel and Kneale’s film builds toward something like black comedy in its depiction of dowdy villagers suddenly hurling themselves with joyous, countercultural energy into satanic rites and orgiastic preludes.
The Witches partners squarely with the same year’s Plague of the Zombies, though not played in a period setting, by invoking similar motifs: the secret link between colonialist horrors and malevolence infecting the coloniser’s homeland, an evil manipulated by the mansion on the hill, and virtually surreal visions of atavistic rites within the supposedly staid and settled English order of things. True weirdness finally, explictly manifests when Gwen ventures into the cave where the coven meets, discovering a cabalistic dial on the ground upon which a strange doll-like object seems to dance spontaneously—it’s actually got Granny Rigg’s familiar-like cat sewed up inside, and has a photo of Linda’s face pinned to it.
The Witches is fundamentally a good yarn, but it required a compelling lead performance to give the drama true pep, and Fontaine delivers. Her Gwen is shaky, but intelligent and dogged, fighting against her own brittle nerves and fear of the unknown. She is severely contrasted by the film’s other major female figure, Stephanie, a popular newspaper writer whose bracing, slightly unctuous bravado contrasts her brother’s air of tragic failure. He had wanted to be a priest, and as well as dressing as one, spends much of his time locked away in private playing church bell and choir music and drifting away in melancholy distraction when trying to explain his fixations to Gwen. Fontaine offers, in a way, a bookend to her career-making part as the heroine of Rebecca (1940), considerably older and wiser, but equally perplexed by the workings of the world where, be it in Africa or rural England, irrational, cryptic, boding forces work to annihilate or assimilate anything that disrupts their cohesive fabric.
When Gwen presents the pin-stuck doll to her, Stephanie slashes heartily through the pretences of witchcraft in describing its practitioners as mostly repressed yokels looking for an orgy. Of course, she is really the secret head of the coven, which she found operating in the town and has taken over for her own purposes: convinced of her own brilliance as a force that could heal the world’s ills, she’s looking for a way to renew herself, and has found it, planning to claim Linda’s body to transplant her soul into. Walsh’s Stephanie is posited at first as a less damaged, more outgoing version of Gwen, radiating cosmopolitan intellectual confidence and, more subtly, a hint of lesbian charisma, all but licking her lips in joy at having Fontaine under her thumb as dominated, unwilling confidant. But she’s also a colossal egomaniac with a hale and aggressive energy that operates a little like an energy vampire against those close to her, even before she reveals her true status and her ultimate intent, which is to slice off Linda’s skin and wear it as a cloak of youth.
The attraction and tension between Fontaine’s and Walsh’s differing editions of middle-aged, woman-of-the-world, strength of purpose then sustains the drama, with Gwen starting off on the back foot thanks to her traumatic experiences and ignorance of the lay of the land in Heddaby, but slowly gathering resolve in trying to penetrate the mystery. When she’s stuck in a nursing home, stricken with amnesia, her memory returns in a cathartic moment, but she’s able to keep anyone from realising it until she can get a chance to escape. She’s soon snatched and forcibly inducted into the coven. Between the women stands the castrated Alan, whose defence mechanism against his monstrous sister is to isolate himself with the apparel of the church: Gwen’s appeal to him to give aid proves ineffectual as he locks himself away again: he is as much damsel in distress as Linda. Only Gwen is capable of standing up to Stephanie.
The film’s climax is also its major set-piece, as Gwen is forced to watch over a mesmerised Linda as Stephanie whips her coven into a sensual frenzy, orchestrating their gyrations as they perform the ritual dances. The tawdry sexual element Stephanie mocked comes out, the villagers, clad in rags, beat drums and blow horns with comic intensity, Gwen is held prone by two of the village men who can’t wait to induct her properly, and the rest cavort like they’ve been choreographed by an enterprising high school dance teacher. But the latent power and fascinating intensity of the rituals also begin to assert themselves as Stephanie, wearing deer horns on her head when clad in her witch’s garb, evokes the most ancient religions, and Linda, as she enters the coven, catalyses through her body the unnerving force she represents as an adolescent female, completely unfettered, a different kind of crucible that offers manifold promises of ecstatic delights. The coven smear themselves in juice squeezed from fruits, rubbing themselves and each other down, including one moment of homoerotic punch as two of the village males gleefully caress each other. Stephanie serves up a magical glop that look like excrement to be eaten in frenzied joy, and she leaves them twitching on the floor as if in a mass epileptic convulsion.
Meanwhile Stephanie’s monstrous egotism is configured in her literally conducting her coven like a puppeteer, sensually grasping Linda from behind and guiding her like a tuned instrument. Fittingly, then, the film’s corkscrewing narrative seems to find in the ritual acts of the coven a metaphor for the genre itself, a carefully orchestrated eruption of elements other worldviews frantically suppress or ignore, and where the dichotomous choice is to grasp or destroy the young female. Fittingly, Stephanie’s arrogance proves her undoing as her reading of the ritual procedure to Gwen earlier in the film gives Gwen the knowledge to wreck the ritual right at its climax, stabbing herself in the arm and soiling Stephanie’s cloak with it, bringing down the offended power of the dark gods on her: Stephanie drops dead and the coven’s power is broken.
The appended coda is a happy ending that’s rather disorienting in its disarmingly cheery tone even as it encompasses some strange implications. A happy Alan sets about aiding Gwen as her liberated potential romantic partner, the town is suddenly dragged into the 20th century as the general store is replaced by a supermarket and the old residents scatter after the coven’s is broken, and Gwen’s students flock in to celebrate her goodness. The shattering of a corrupt order seems to have meant also throwing away that cosy insularity so often fetishized in retrospect in modern British life. In any event, The Witches is a delicious diversion for fans of offbeat horror.
Directors/Screenwriters: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
By Roderick Heath
Almost all of the famous films made by “The Archers” team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger came in a blinding whirl of creativity in the 1940s, including The Thief of Baghdad (1940), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (1945), Black Narcissus (1946), and The Red Shoes (1948). By contrast, although the creative partnership continued until 1958 (and resumed again in 1966 for Powell’s Australian adventure They’re A Weird Mob), their output in the 1950s has little of the same reputation or visibility. Perhaps that was because of a shift in audience tastes and the narrowing of expressive options which characterised the period, and also perhaps because Powell and Pressburger’s partnership, which seemed in the earlier decade informed by an almost messianic passion for sustaining the spirit of individualism and creative zest in the face of the glummest of epochs, began to turn inward and distinctly darker. Some of their works, like the impressive but lumpy Tales of Hoffmann (1953), seem a drift toward the total stylisation and historical fantasy that parts of The Red Shoes presaged. The duo tried, wielding their characteristic eccentricity and playful discursiveness, in The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1958), to cater to the appetite for retrograde wartime heroism. Gone to Earth, on the other hand, channels the darker fairytale notes of The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann and anticipates elements of the psychosexual neurosis of Michael Powell’s solo effort Peeping Tom (1960). Also apparent is Powell’s fascination with obscure regional settings and their peculiarities, a recurring quirk in his work since as far back as The Phantom Light (1935) and The Edge of the World (1937).
Gone to Earth’s status as a secret treasure was enforced by the film’s poor box office, and then by its being released in the U.S. in a badly mutilated form, thanks to coproducer David Selznick. Gone to Earth has striking similarities with another film by a great British director losing his previously steady grip on moviegoers, David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970), in depicting a wilful heroine caught up in an adulterous passion. The differences are as marked as you’d expect between The Archers and Lean, of course: Lean’s expansive pantheism and elemental expressionism is altogether distinct to Powell and Pressburger’s more overtly psycho-spiritual use of landscape. The rural Welsh borderlands of the later Victorian era that Powell creates is an ironic realm full of examples of human frailty and the limitations of reality. Yet it’s also a mystical world where the Green Man seems to lurk in the woodland shadows, fairies may hide in the leaves, and the mountains are primal temples reserved for mystic rites, whilst the valleys are the preserve of domesticated Christianity and stalked by the masculine Hunter who chases little foxes down. Jennifer Jones plays Hazel Woodus, a half-gypsy girl who lives with her father Abel (Esmond Knight, the Archers’ do-anything character actor) in a thatch-roofed yeoman house in a secluded corner of Shropshire. Hazel has a pet fox, Foxy, which she protects from the local hunters and keeps close to her so obsessively that it starts to resemble one of the animal daemons from Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and with a similar meaning. In the film’s peculiar, sparse, menacing opening, Hazel plucks Foxy out of the grass as the hunters’ horns echo about the hills, and she runs back home where she sits before the fire with her faintly unhinged father tuning the harp from which he makes part of his living, with Hazel as his singer. A sign on the front gate lists his roster of services as “Beeman, Harping For Every Occasion, Wreaths, Coffins.”
Hazel, with her old dress falling apart, travels into the nearby town of Much Wenlock and buys a new, fancy replacement. She tantalises her already smitten cousin Albert (George Cole), but also invites the sniffy disdain of her Aunt Prowde (Beatrice Varley). Angered, Hazel storms out of their house after Albert had invited her to stay, and, walking home in the dark, she is first frightened on the road and almost run over by the carriage of Jack Reddin (David Farrar), a local squire and one of the local hunters. Reddin takes her back to his house, a practically medieval abode studded with the trophies of thousands of hunts and as much a relic of another, different England as her own house, with a general isolation and dilapidation that is eloquent of exhausted treasuries and fetid devolution. Nonetheless Hazel and Reddin’s status as people who seem slightly out of time and place in the placid, smug atmosphere of Victorian rural England blends nimbly with their identity as icons of Freudian gender warfare, the masculine hunter and the little fox. Reddin aggressively tries to seduce Hazel, but she flees, aided by Reddin’s old, sarcastic, ineffectually moral caretaker Andrew Vessons (Hugh Griffith), who gives her a quiet place to sleep for the night and takes her back to her father in the morning. Reddin remains fixated on her and gallops all around the countryside in an attempt to track her down. When Hazel and her father perform at a church gathering, she is introduced to the local pastor, Rev. Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack), who, in his own seemingly serene, impassive fashion, is immediately besotted with her.
Mary Webb’s source novel, which was neglected on first release just after World War I but then became hugely popular in the late ’20s, reputedly inspired Stella Gibbons’ famous “something nasty in the woodshed” satire Cold Comfort Farm. Nonetheless, the story has obvious thematic parallels with Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (which the Archers could have made a hell of a movie out of) and lying within the same effervescent strand of high Anglican romanticism. Unsurprisingly, Powell and Pressburger transform it into the sort of film only they seemed to be able to make, blending an almost neorealist sense of precision toward locale and behaviour—the supporting cast was made up of many Shropshire locals, and even Jones gives herself up to the peculiar syntax and slang of the region—with dashes of wilful fantasy, a heady psychosomatic fairy tale with a solid, grounded heart. It makes a corner of rural England as exotic as the Hindu Kush of Black Narcissus, a constant and recurring theme in the Archers’ work, in the way backwaters become distorted mirrors to the values of mainstream cultures. The film’s driving motif of two men pursuing a woman clearly echoes the gentle iteration in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and the fiercer variation in The Red Shoes, whilst the sustained note of sexuality bubbling beneath prim surfaces and drawn out by an aggressive male evokes Black Narcissus, but with a more emphatic sense of feminine desire. Hazel, unlike the mad Sister Ruth of that film, is swayed by desire but not destroyed by it, but rather by the hysterical response to that desire.
One of the most fascinating, tantalising, and often disquieting traits of the Powell and Pressburger oeuvre is their fascination with jarringly divergent impulses and systems of thought that grip characters and, by implication, sometimes whole cultures. Rather than try to resolve those tensions like more familiar kinds of drama do, the duo practically revelled in the breakdown of order, the surrender to wild impulse and glorious insanity. Gone to Earth is one of the more particularly infernal examples of this strand, as Hazel is caught between the varieties of masculinity, the milky Marston and the grasping Reddin. Yet within each man is more than a few shades of contradiction: when provoked, Marston reveals a surprisingly tough and sensually forceful man, whereas Reddin quickly collapses when faced with real resistance. Hazel’s bizarre father, in a fit of amused pique, goads her into promising to marry the first man who should ask her, and the first man proves to be Marston. Marston, gently courting Hazel in his peculiar yet equally unshakeable fashion, vows to God, whom he sees in the pastoral landscape about him as surely as Hazel sees spirits and elves, not to approach her sexually until she asks him to. This proves a major blunder, for the intuitive Hazel feels rather spurned and is unable to shake off the terrible, hypnotic force of Reddin and the constant thrumming of his horse on the roads, hunting her down inexorably. As usual, too, for the Archers, they skip with surprising skill around the limitations of censorship to get their point across.
The most immediate stumbling block of entering into Gone to Earth’s world is Jones’ constantly slipping accent, and yet soon enough one becomes infinitely more concerned with what she’s doing; her vulpine quality, let off the leash in Duel in the Sun (1947), is here exploited to the utmost in a marvellously intuitive performance. Whereas Farrar is fine in a less cagey, more entitled variation on his Black Narcissus role, Cusack is fascinatingly cast as Marston (perhaps the only time in his career he played a romantic lead), his visage and apparel calling to mind Robert Helpmann as the lover turned priest in the core ballet sequence of The Red Shoes. Indeed, the film as a whole has a quality of being an explication of that vignette. And yet the tone and method of Gone to Earth is far from the ebullient, supercharged artistry of the ’40s Archers films, being far more dominated by mysterious, intense quiet filled with unspoken tension and awareness, punctuated by strobing passages of extraordinary, yet restrained artistry: Hazel’s flight through the woods with eyes peering out from trees, or the moments when the sound of Reddin’s horse moving through the roads becomes a kind of demonic reminder of fate, and the sequence in which Hazel ascends to the top of a nearby mount to perform a piece of witchery and await the decision of the fairies about which of her men she will find her fate with, silhouetted against the twilight sky with a blanket that provides a map of colour in an otherwise grey and unearthly space. As ever, the Archers’ sense of colour is like visual music (though Christopher Challis had taken over as the team’s cinematographer from Jack Cardiff), down to the inevitable emotive reds flooding the screen at intervals throughout, when Reddin is on the hunt, and in the climactic confrontation between the central trio.
The deeply concerted rhythm and quietly composing elements that give Gone to Earth its hypnotic intensity is visible in one of the mostly unobtrusively brilliant scenes, that of the church picnic, where congregants listen to her singing, rhythmically switching between the momentarily uplifted faces of the parishioners with Hazel framed against the sky, an angel doomed to fall. The collective then settle down to mundane activities, from Marston’s haughty, secretly jealous mother (Sybil Thorndyke) cautioning him against girls not of his class, to the fatuous senior deacon Mr. James (Edward Chapman), having been kept from hoarding all of the pastries, mumbling irritably during Marston’s saying Grace, “I have not received tartlets…I am not thankful!” This fillip of amusing blasphemy and several other small gestures in the scene pay off in later, more volcanic moments. Powell and Pressburger stretch their symbolic acuity here to new limits, especially in their handling of Foxy as the emblem of Hazel’s sexuality, encapsulating the sex-is-death motif in a mordant scene where Hazel helps her father carry one of his coffins from their house, placing Foxy within the casket for the trip, a motif prefigured when Hazel first enters her own home in the film, plunging through the door to be visually entrapped by the frame for a coffin her father is making. Later, when she marries Marston, she keeps Foxy on a leash at her side through the ceremony, a decision others object to but that Marston acquiesces to with a well-aimed Biblical quote. Freudian analysts could have a field day with this film, particularly the vaginal chasm of a mine shaft that Hazel nearly stumbles into on her way to that fateful church picnic, and, gazing down into unknowable depths, becomes aware that one day she will die.
The world that the different characters and the forces they represent and channel is the same zone of oft-idyllic pastoral beauties—the low, sharply rolling hills, the woods in the hollows, and the fresh grassy peaks—yet is filled with multitudinous perspectives on the same thing. Even the mountain that dominates the locale is called “God’s Mountain” and yet is crowned by the “Devil’s Chair.” Hazel and Reddin trail associations of a faded English landscape of entitled lords and saucy wenches, the sort that made for jolly good yarns in then-recent British films like The Wicked Lady (1945) and Blanche Fury (1947). When Reddin first takes Hazel back to his house, he tries to get her changed out of muddied clothes and into one of the low-cut Regency dresses jammed in a trunk. He then literally chases her around and then over the kitchen table, finally actually catching her atop it and kissing her. Each is subsequently unable or unwilling to break out of an almost primal, Lawrentian game where the conscious self is entirely in thrall to basic drives and timeless patterns of behaviour. The virginal Vessons channels his feelings into carefully clipping a tree into the shape of a swan and furiously shooting birds when he’s mad at his master. Marston seems a pillar of Victorian bourgeois establishmentarianism, and his sternly critical mother has hooks of emotional vampirism in her son. Soon, however, he reveals himself to be a deeply contradictory figure who plainly hungers for what Hazel offers—contact with the flipside of his own, spiritual sense of the landscape. The first time Reddin and Marston meet, it comes literally at a crossroads, and Marston deflects Reddin for a time from his relentless search for Hazel.
Class tension, of course percolates, along with psychosexual strain and gender schisms, in this clash of realms, but again Hazel and Reddin represent extremes that somehow lie distinct and therefore unified apart from the Victorian town. As the drama unfolds, Marston amusingly reveals the degree to which he actually hates his environment. Marston seems in fact closer kin to Sister Ruth, dedicating himself selflessly and purely to his wife but slowly driven to lose his upright composure when confronted with her eventual infidelity. whilst castigating himself for spurning Hazel, he also seems to take permission from her infidelity to unleash both his own sensuality and his contempt for his world, tossing a dish of jam at the wall when his mother tries to talk him out of his depression, and not spurning Hazel but rather confronting, if only momentarily, the tacit permission he feels to treat her as a purely sexual object: “Never mind,” he snarls, “I’m not particular!” His peculiar equanimity of outlook is signalled throughout with his indulgence of Foxy at the wedding and his unruffled fascination with Hazel’s maternal inheritance, a notebook filled with obscure spells that encapsulate potent metaphors of feminine and outsider lore, especially the warning about keeping clear of the “black hunter” unless you want to “drop down dead.” Such lore is filled with meaning for a sensible mind, but Hazel’s is not a sensible mind; she takes things literally and ascends in the night to perform her atavistic rites on the Devil’s Chair. She hears the revelatory music that signals she should go to Reddin, but in a blackly witty cutaway, it’s revealed this music is actually her father playing his harp in the moonlit solitude of the woods.
The film’s slow burn pays off in the climactic moments, when Marston goes to reclaim Hazel from Reddin, who has snatched Foxy from his cage at Marston’s house, and drops him writhing in a sack at Hazel’s feet, viciously smug with his triumph, as Hazel wrestles with him and Marston tries to untie the bag. The married couple return home, only for Marston to have to reject his mother in order to keep Hazel: his mother moves out, as does the housekeeper, segueing into the telling sight of Hazel the next morning trying to arrange the breakfast into a paragon of bourgeois decorum. But the deacons barge in to confront Marston, demanding he put Hazel out, and James claims to speaking for the Lord. Hazel berates them for persecuting him, and Marston retorts by stating he’s leaving the ministry and delivers a memorable harangue: “How do you know it was Hazel’s fault?…It was mine…I’d like to flog you off the Mountain, James…But you rule this world, little smug pot-bellied gods!” Marston deflects the challenge for a moment and the couple have a moment of triumph. But then Hazel goes looking for Foxy, and finds him on the mountain just as Reddin and the others hunters have gotten his scent. Hazel tries to flee back to Marston with Foxy in her arms, chased down by the hounds and by Reddin trying desperately to snatch the animal from her arms to lead the animals away. This genuinely hair-raising ending caps a film that isn’t just an underrated work by some major filmmakers, but a true capstone for one of the most amazing runs of cinematic brilliance in the medium’s history.
Ken Russell’s death last week at age 84 felt like the last in an endless series of cheats the director had suffered in his lifetime. The eternally puckish Russell had been until quite recently continuing to amuse and instruct in newspaper columns, belying his advanced years with a still-guttering mental fire, and thus his death cheated him, and us, of hope of a last good film. Also, it comes at a time when something like Russell’s due was finally coming to him. Lately, Russell has begun to be celebrated as the great British rebel he was, and like many great British rebels, ended up exemplifying something about the society he fell into struggle with. In that regard he resembled D. H. Lawrence, the writer Russell adapted for his third, and first truly, personally definitive feature film, Women in Love. Purely by living long enough, Russell became an elder statesman of British film, an unlikely end as there was a time not so long ago when Russell’s audacious, rampantly energetic, entirely wilful cinema was a byword for something nasty and crazy and degraded. Indeed, some of Russell’s essential aesthetic beliefs – that creative passion was superior to refined style, that interpretative vibrancy was more important than fidelity, that the erotic and the vulgar had a deeper and more vital place in art than they had been allowed – were red rags to the bulls of cultural guardianship, especially as one of Russell’s favourite creative guerrilla tactics was to remind us of the compost out of which much great art grows. During the 1970s, when most of his generational fellows tried to carve out places for themselves in Hollywood and British cinema almost died from a lack of passion and confidence, Russell didn’t always stay home, but he did try to stay true to his creed, and continued to shake things up until his career began to stall in the late 1980s.
Women in Love came after Russell had reentered cinema with Billion Dollar Brain (1968), the third of Michael Caine’s delicious series of Harry Palmer spy flicks, but also after he had excited audiences and attentive minds with a series of electrifying TV movies and shorts in the previous few years. Women in Love came amidst a steady flow of highbrow literary classics tackled by the young heathens of British cinema in the ’60s, some flagrantly modernist and playful, like Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), some elegiac and expansive, like John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). Russell’s take on Lawrence’s novel was something else again. Russell doesn’t seem to be filming Lawrence’s book so much as trying to live it out page by page. The superficially uncouth yet poetic, symbolic writer who tried to find the comprehensibility in things normally thought of as primal and vice versa, has been digested and defecated, reshaped into the literality of images and of feeling by Russell, who also poured his own emotional reflexes into it, and extracted in turn the potential in Lawrence’s material, true as he saw it when he wrote the book in the 1910s, to capture things nascent in the late ‘60s zeitgeist. Feminism in the form of Glenda Jackson’s ground-breaking performance and her character’s arc from frustrated parochial nonconformist to self-actualising femme du monde; frank homoeroticism in the infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates; and sundry other fragments replete with satire, social observation, and philosophical yammering, which capture and distil that sense of import in the moment which distinguished the era. Would certain great cultural institutions survive as their foundations seemed now rotten? What was the future of human relations, between classes, between genders, when so much had gone wrong with them? Lawrence had tried to make the questions palpable, and Russell tried to capture with authenticity the way the questions had found new momentum.
In terms of actual story, of course, there’s an element of soap opera to Women in Love, depicting as it does two concurrent love affairs, one of which involves shattering social classes and ends in near-murder and then suicide. The soapy element is however what gives the intellectualism flesh. Some criticism was levelled at Women in Love for, however, keeping intact Lawrence’s loopy anti-realistic dialogue, but to adapt such a novel without trying to capture its depth of thought would have reduced it to a sex farce. Russell for the most part keeps them ably counterpointed with his animated, dynamic camera, a visual entity that reproduces the thrashing sense of life found in the characters. One of Russell and screenwriter-producer Larry Kramer’s more contentious touches was to relocate the novel to after the First World War, whereas Lawrence had been writing about the fin-de-siecle mood of bohemian boundary-stretching of the Edwardian era, and which the war had been used as a justification for repressing, a cultural war which Lawrence and his novel had been caught up in. But Russell makes this work for him, using the official pieties of dedicating war memorials and visions of mangled, poverty-stricken and begging veterans, to give immediacy and mordant pep to Rupert Birkin’s (Bates) oft-satirical, always frantic attempts to synthesise a modern kind of living, and the inevitable translation of this into terms of the film’s Vietnam-era anti-war mood. Russell also depicts flapper styles and jazz-age rags beginning to infest the hidebound British landscape, as its heroines in their wilfully colourful garb strut through grey and grimy streets and filth-clad working-class men, like Birds of Paradise nesting in Mordor.
These exotic birds are Gudrun (Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden), daughters of a schoolteacher who are themselves now teachers. Except that as members of their mining town’s small intelligentsia, they become intimate with some of its flashier figures, including Gerald Crich (Reed), son of the mine’s owner (Alan Webb), his friend Rupert, who works as a school inspector, through which capacity he first meets Ursula, and his pretentious aristocratic lover Hermione Roddice (Eleanor Bron). Rupert and Hermione’s relationship is foundering as he becomes increasingly cold and sarcastic about her affectations and greed for attention, coming to a head when he breaks up a self-indulgent dance she performs whilst trying to overshadow Gudrun and Ursula, by getting the accompanist to start bashing out a Charleston rag. Hermione, enraged by his scorn and her offended pretence to cultural imperium, tries to beat his head in with a paperweight, but he survives and runs away. Gerald, intrigued by the sisters, invites them to an annual party the Criches throw for their workers and other townsfolk, but during the party his younger sister Laura (Sharon Gurney) and her newlywed husband Tibby Lupton (Christopher Gable) drown whilst swimming naked in the estate lake. This tragedy catalyses both Ursula and Rupert’s and Gudrun and Gerald’s affairs, and also deepens Rupert and Gerald’s bond. But these relationships are fated to run very different courses, as Ursula’s conventional concept of love slowly reins in Rupert’s yearnings for multifarious relationships, whilst Gerald pours grief and anger into his partnering with Gudrun, who in turn drifts into an intellectual bond with a gay German artist, Loerke (Vladek Sheybal), when the quartet head off for a holiday in the Alps. In a nihilistic rage, Gerald strangles Gudrun almost to death, but then wanders off to freeze to death in the mountains.
Like Lawrence’s novel, most of the captivating, invigorating illustrative vignettes in Russell’s film are loaded into the first half: Tibby and Laura racing each other to the church on their wedding day; Gudrun dancing before bulls like a Cretan priestess, oblivious to danger and given up to art as life in the moment; Hermione’s assault on Rupert and his ritual-like stripping and self-cleansing afterwards in the forest; the fatal drowning of the couple and Rupert and Ursula’s frantic copulation in the bushes, transmuting death-angst into life-spark as the lake is drained to reveal the drowned bodies, the living and dead couples wrapped around each other identically; Gerald wielding the same controlling instinct he pushes on his workers on his horse, in forcing it to remain close to a speeding train; his crazed mother releasing guard dogs on workmen coming to the family mansion. It helps that Lawrence provided such episodes that stick like burrs in the imagination and gave a filmmaker such naturally intense images. Women in Love presents a panoply of thematic tropes and visual motifs Russell would play about with in increasingly effusive and unique terms, and it stands as a definite prototypical work for Russell, who would achieve his most personal and intense extremes in the likes of Ken Russell’s Film of Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), Savage Messiah (1972), and Mahler (1974).
Russell did his best work when he was fighting against limitations of not only censorship and cultural expectations but also assumptions of technical competence and traditions of quality – the tension between the formal beauty his traditionally trained cinematographers, editors, and studio hands could give his films and his own anarchic impulses was in fine balance in his ‘70s works. Here Russell’s filmmaking, with the incomparable aid of the great cinematographer Billy Williams, attacks with physical force. They often employ hand-held camerawork, not affected like so much modern wobble-cam stuff, but charged with sweeping energy, to give the film a hungry, compulsive feel. Russell did some of the hand-held work himself in trying to upset the classic delicacies of movie photography. The sense of production detail is impeccable in recreating the ‘20s, with much of the costuming authentic stuff picked up in op shops and thrift stores. Despite this, or maybe because of this, there’s a resistance to the sort of precious, muted air that afflicts most such historical movies, an effect deepened by the material, which in part subverts our stereotypes of the era’s behaviour and personal world-views, whilst also offering up shots like the Crichs’ golden car knifing its way through knots of filthy mine workers, a concise visual nugget that reminds us what all the bohemian cavorting is being supported by. There’s Russell’s own satirical jab back at Lawrence, who, trying to wrestle his way out of the usual class presumptions and rhetoric of his time, seemed to yearn to belong to the upper class bohemians of the Bloomsbury group he nonetheless satirised mercilessly in the novel.
One irony of Women in Love is of course that it could as easily have been called Men in Love, for Rupert and Gerald dominate as much as the two sisters, and Rupert’s channelling of Lawrence’s philosophical articulateness especially, in the first half. Rupert hopes overtly for a kind of deep platonic partnership to counterbalance the familiar man-woman marriage, wanting to establish a kind of blutbrüderschaft with Gerald, expressed after the pair beat hell out of each other in a bout of Japanese-style wrestling as Rupert encourages Gerald to release his emotions following his sister’s death. The nude wrestling scene is famous for some obvious reasons – it was the first time a mainstream English-language feature allowed frontal male nudity, and two big-name actors to boot. But what makes it still a riveting scene is how unabashedly the men carry it out, and how Russell shoots it, even given that he’d worked closely with the censor chief to carefully tweak light levels and framings, nonetheless the scene doesn’t feel especially self-conscious when British cinema had been notoriously clumsy with erotic themes and nudity. Instead Russell here does some of his most vivid editing, ending with the two men entwined like lovers even in inflicting violence on each-other, and indeed the violence takes the place of sexual and emotional release. Russell ratchets up the flicker of homosexual bonding between the pair, apparent in Rupert’s glitter-eyed attempts to get the stiff-necked Gerald to understand his offer of a kind of love. The male romance counterpoints the two more traditional romances, and also the crack-up of Rupert and Hermione’s affair, which mirrors what later happens with Gerald and Gudrun, but with the gender roles reversed.
Although it’s certainly a film with a director’s powerful imprint on it, much of the force and beauty of Women in Love comes from the cast, an almost perfect confluence of talent. Jackson won the Oscar, but the film offers ensemble work of a high character, although I feel Linden’s Ursula is more distinctly whiny and petty than she should be. Amongst the supporting cast, comprising many of Russell’s stock company of actors, Bron is a stand-out. She inhabits Hermione with a mixture of gruesome egotism and defined pathos, particularly excellent in the lengthy dance scene where she both displays physical deftness, but also puts across the peculiar form of violence she’s inflicting on her so-called friends and lover, before her own exclamation of aggrieved disbelief when Rupert tells her he didn’t mean to spoil her dance, “My arse!” Bates, whom Russell reported identified deeply with Lawrence, is fantastic as Rupert, a difficult part to play at the best of times, bringing out the emotional charge, hints of drunkenness, desperation, and bisexual longing throbbing beneath his airy pronouncements: whereas Jackson’s Gudrun communicates the thrill of wilful self-liberation, Rupert suffers from a darker knowledge, of knowing new human paradigms have to be invented to survive. Bates might be at his keenest in the moment when he expounds a lengthy comparison of the fig with femininity, a scene charged with multiple levels of character revelation and tension, as the metaphor means different things to each of the people listening to it. This moment encapsulates indirectly the shift of Rupert’s affections from Hermione to Ursula, as Rupert is being honest, witty, and caddish all at the same time.
Similarly riveting are Russell’s two signal muses, Jackson and Reed, whom he would later often try to replace but usually unsuccessfully. A more different pair in terms of personal outlook is hard to imagine, but both had gusto, fearlessness, and a confrontational style, that well matched Russell’s own. Reed, whom Russell had cast before in several of his telemovies including The Debussy Film (1966) and Dante’s Inferno (1965), and would use again in The Devils (1971) and other films, became an ideal vessel for his self-projection, for, as well as bearing a certain resemblance to Russell, he could exude a quality of poeticism filtered through a primitive bluntness. This is exactly correct for portraying Gerald, who in spite of his upper class background and machine-age ambitions, retains a kind of savage volatility in him which first seeks relief in Gudrun’s arms and then begins to metaphorically and then literally throttle her. One of the film’s most riveting scenes comes when, after his father dies and his mad mother has humiliated him, he stalks through the night, dressed as a working man, squeezing the mud from his father’s grave between his fingers and then sneaking into the Brangwen house, where he finds his oblivion in her bed. The next morning, in a marvellous volte face of point of view, she awakens with his bulk upon her, trapping her in bed.
Gudrun takes on Gerald as the only man fearsome enough to take her on, and she the only woman filled with enough energy for both creation and destruction to engage his innermost impulses. Early in the film as he parades about with hookers in one of town’s working class pubs, he encounters her slumming, taunting and despising the working men, one of whom she easily rattles by answering his come-ons with a stated desire to “drown in flesh.” Jackson, who would give another galvanising performance for Russell in The Music Lovers, seems to condense all of the other characters within herself, as well as a total intelligence that refuses to be pinned down, even as she chafes and occasionally shrinks before a world largely hostile to her, which she answers with prickly arrogance. Gudrun’s dance before the cattle, and her gestures throughout, channels the style of Isadora Duncan, about whom Russell had made a telemovie in in 1966. Russell almost always included a dance or mime sequence in his films. This recurring, crucial actualisation of the kinetic-creative force in his characters reflects Russell’s own adolescent training as a ballet dancer, and it’s often through such sequences that his truest, more elegiac impulses, and sometimes also his most humorous and surreal ideas, are communicated. A certain amount of homosexual panic, which underlies Gerald’s simultaneous closeness with and rejection of Rupert, erupts in him as Gudrun, who already tempts something destructive in him, drifts closer to Loerke. But Gerald’s world-view and private madness also can only finally find a sense of conclusion in a totally nihilistic gesture, leaving the film poised in an aspect of depletion and incompleteness, true to the novel, even as the characters all, in a way, find what they’ve been looking for. Of course, in Gerald’s case it’s a tragic end, but one that satisfies and takes to a limit his own impulses, and for the others there is a sense of cost and longing still inflecting their happily ever afters. Women in Love doesn’t so much end as stop, questions still in the air, the unease of the times still heavy upon characters, artists, and audience.
British director Steve McQueen seems drawn to examine human beings in extremis. His debut film Hunger (2008) deals with a subject about as out there as they come—the hunger strike unto death of Bobby Sands of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Maze Prison, Belfast. The deep commitment of Sands and his fellow hunger strikers to protest their treatment as criminals instead of as political prisoners and keep alive the question of Irish independence and reclamation of the counties of Northern Ireland into the whole of Ireland offers an extreme reaction to an intolerable situation for them.
With his second feature, Shame, McQueen turns his focus to another Irishman, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender, who played Bobby Sands in Hunger), whose extreme reaction to an internal pain the film never reveals is a severe sex addiction. Brandon, who lives in New York City, works for a company, perhaps an ad agency, where high-concept talk, client-landing, and young-turk partying are daily occurrences. However, it appears that he spends a lot of his work day consuming Internet porn and masturbating in a bathroom stall. He continues with same at home and adds visits from prostitutes, barroom pick-ups, and street cruising to the mix. Aside from listening to vinyl records or running, we don’t observe him doing much of anything not related to his obsession.
Two potential problems arise. Brandon’s company has detected Internet porn use at his IP address and confiscates his computer to wipe the filth and investigate how it got there, and Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a needy, suicidal cabaret singer whom Brandon has been avoiding for years, shows up looking for a place to stay. We overhear Sissy pleading with a lover on the phone; she hasn’t divorced emotional from physical intimacy the way Brandon has, and in fact, makes more of it than it is. So, it seems that Sissy’s role is to challenge her brother’s numbness with her neediness. That she’s willing to slit her wrists to get it doesn’t really offer a positive incentive, but nonetheless, Brandon makes a bid to change his ways, tossing out his entire porn collection and even his laptop. Given the enormity of Brandon’s addiction—almost the entire film comprises his sexual activities—it isn’t likely that either bump in the road will set him on a new course, but there is always a chance. He tries and quickly fails to start a relationship with coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), the only woman he can’t seem to have sex with, and a second chance at a sexual encounter he ran after near the beginning of the film is the cliffhanger with which McQueen ends his film.
With no real plot and no big reveal about Brandon and Sissy’s past, what Shame offers is a portrait of a sex addict. The very first image of the film is startlingly brilliant—Fassbender lying naked on his back, a blue sheet covering his pelvis, his hand resting low on his stomach as though he either just finished or is getting ready to masturbate. But he lays there in utter stillness, his eyes wide open and blank. I questioned out loud whether he might be dead until a small eye movement broke the spell. The image is as erotic and frightening as anything Caravaggio might have painted, and it perfectly sets the tone for a film in which the “little death” of orgasm seems a longing for true annihilation.
I found the rituals of anonymous sex interesting, though certainly not unique in my film-going experience. A prostitute (MariAnge Ramirez) comes to Brandon’s apartment and counts out the cash he gives her, ending with a satisfied “OK.” When she starts to undress, he tells her to go slow as he watches. We see the same almost expression-free face in this encounter as we do when he is looking at porn on his computer. It’s just something he does, like checking his Facebook page or e-mail. I was also fascinated by Brandon the quiet predator. Early in the film, he locks eyes with a married woman (Lucy Walters) on the subway; she is clearly turned on by his gaze. She flirts wordlessly with him and gets him to pursue her off the train, disappearing before he can clear the crowd to reach her. Sexual longing is in her face, but his remains inscrutable, almost sociopathic and dangerous—a clear sexual turn-on for some women. In another example, Brandon is out with his married-but-flexible boss David (James Badge Dale) at a high-end bar. David tries to pick up a beautiful blonde (Elizabeth Masucci) who is out with two of her girlfriends, but he’s all bluster and blunder. He goes home blind drunk, and Brandon, who has said almost nothing all night, is propositioned by the blonde out on the street and screws her in an alley.
Shame is loaded with nudity and sex of nearly every stripe, but it is joyless sex, anti-erotic, in fact. Fassbender is handsome, inviting, but a complete puzzle. He tries to pick up a woman whose boyfriend is a mean-looking biker; he knows he’s going to get his ass kicked, and it’s pretty clear that’s what he’s looking for. During a threesome, McQueen isolates Brandon’s face when a look of anguish is plastered across it—virtually the only true emotion Fassbender allows to escape. His performance is courageous, committed, and will prove frustrating for viewers who want to know why he is how he is. Of course, if we knew that about sex addicts, then perhaps there would be many fewer of them.
Carey Mulligan’s casting in this film is rather baffling. She plays the kind of mess Jennifer Jason Leigh patented in her career, but the veneer does not sit comfortably on Mulligan’s kewpie-doll face. McQueen had to shoot her in harsh lighting to bring some tired lines to the surface, but in almost an apology for making her look puffy, he offers caressing close-ups of her singing a very slowed-down version of “New York, New York” at a downtown nightclub. This scene is clearly an attempt to make her into some kind of tragic Judy Garlandesque icon rather than reveal character, since that’s the only song she sings in a show Brandon and David make a special trip to see. Basically, I didn’t see any need for the character of Sissy to be in this film other than to provide a bit of plot.
Shame is a terrific-looking film, one I would expect from a talented film school graduate like McQueen. McQueen seems to be a fan of Italian cinema, evoking the documentary style of the Neorealists and the alienation of Antonioni’s oeuvre with his modernist cityscapes and portentously lit night scenes. But he didn’t quite figure out how to make his closely observed film add up. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the reason for Brandon’s addiction unexplained, leaving the title to stand for the emotion of the film, just as Melancholia stood for the atmosphere of depression in Lars von Trier’s 2011 film. Unlike von Trier, McQueen distances us from Brandon’s pain, choosing to show us the symptoms without allowing us to empathize. If it were not for Fassbender’s spellbinding portrayal of this tormented man, there would be nothing to hold onto at all. As much as I admire the craft of this film and acknowledge the talent it took to bring it to life on the screen, I’m not sure I took anything important away from it. And because I think McQueen meant me to, I have to count this as a near miss.
Eerie, gritty, unpredictable, and brilliant in flashes, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is one of the best horror films of the ‘70s, and could have been even better. It’s a work that outdid Hammer Studios at their own game, presents a bridging point between ‘60s Gothic horror and the inversions of The Wicker Man (1973), as well as the darker body-centric horrors of the next few decades in the genre, and also develops on elements introduced to the British horror film by Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1969). Director Piers Haggard belongs to a category including Robin Hardy, John Hough, Hans Geissendoerfer, Jorge Grau, John Hancock, José Larraz, Alfred Sole, and other directors to take a sojourn into the horror cinema in the late ‘60s and ‘70s and suggest great talent but achieve only a ragged and stuttering subsequent career. In Haggard’s case, this meant later making the half-assed Jaws riff Venom (1981). The aesthetic control Haggard exercises over this film is nonetheless consistently striking, as he weaves a pungent atmosphere out of an interestingly naturalistic, freshly tactile depiction of a rural period England. The Blood on Satan’s Claw is, amongst other things, a classic example of the filmmaking of its era now much fetishized by genre fans, with a lustrous yet gamy physicality in the cinematography and unvarnished production style that seems unreproducible with today’s so-slick ways of shooting and editing films. Whilst there are rudimentary makeup effects, shot through with a pungent sense of realism and reckoning, the malefic is communicated almost entirely through behaviour and environment.
At the outset, young yeoman farmer, Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews), turns up strange gnarled remains of something that’s neither human nor animal in the line of his plough. He tries to alert the most important local personages, his employer Mistress Isobel Banham (Avice Landone), and her friend, and long-ago suitor, the Judge (Patrick Wymark), but when the Judge inspects the furrow, the creature has vanished, and the magistrate dismisses Ralph’s story. That night, Isobel’s nephew Peter Edmonton (Simon Williams) brings home the girl he intends to elope with, Rosalind Barton (Tamara Ustinov), much to the Mistress’s indignation, and she stows Rosalind away to sleep in an attic room. During the night, Rosalind hears something stirring under the floorboards, and then the household is awoken by her hysterical screams. When Peter, Isobel, and the Judge break down the attic door, she attacks Isobel and scratches her face in a mad frenzy, and the men hurriedly nail the door shut until she can be hauled away in the morning to a Bedlam: as she’s bustled out, she smiles evilly at Peter, who notices that she’s growing claws from one of her hands. A trio of local adolescents, including Ralph’s lady love Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury) and her friend Angel Blake (Linda Hayden), inspect the furrow, and Angel retrieves a similar claw.
Soon Angel’s passing this relic about amongst her fellows in the Sunday School class run by the local clergyman, Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley), and an insidious influence begins to spread amongst the people of the small hamlet, as sundry inhabitants are stricken with pains that prove to be patches of grotesque alien skin and fur growing like tumours upon their bodies. Mistress Isobel after falling into a daze following being scratched, vanishes without trace. Peter, trying to work out what drove Rosalind crazy, spends the night in the attic room, and he too hears something moving under the floorboards. A misshapen hand grabs Peter’s wrist through a trap door, which Peter seals by weighing it down after pulling free. Later Peter awakens from his sleep with the alien hand trying to strangle him. Peter hacks it off with a knife, but when the Judge bursts in it proves he’s actually cut off his own hand in a hallucinatory rage. Angel and a growing band of locals, mostly youths but also including elderly members, form a coven that meets in the woods and lures chosen victims, including Cathy’s brother Mark (Robin Davies) and then Cathy herself, in order to harvest the growths which are gradually reconstituting the devilish creature Ralph uncovered.
The horror genre as it has been defined ever since the first Gothic novels of the late 1700s has consistently been about a disparity between a modern rationalist, sceptical sensibility, and the tendency of semi-repressed anxieties to rupture through that rationalism, clad in demonic guises. Whilst horror films still regularly invoke such guises sourced in mythology from before the Industrial Revolution, like vampires, werewolves, and zombies, nonetheless few venture back into the remoter contexts from which those creatures spring, for just that reason; the genre feeds, ironically, on our simultaneous lack of credulity yet also our willingness to on some level recognise the fears and fantasies they embody, and fascination in seeing the two attitudes collide. The Blood on Satan’s Claw, on the other hand, belongs to the intriguingly small number of horror movies set in that older world, if still shy of a genuinely medieval setting. It takes place instead at the turn of the eighteenth century, the cusp of the age of Enlightenment. As in Ken Russell’s near-concurrent The Devils, this is a world perched between the assumptions of an era in which evidence of witchcraft would have been met with immediate prosecution, and a modern sensibility that would dismiss it, as indeed the Judge does, and yet it presents a ready channel for insidious impulses within the characters and the worlds they represent. Whilst the satanic force that overtakes Haggard’s story, unlike in Russell’s, is genuine, there is a similarly feverish depiction of rampant release and hysterical indulgence permeating the increasingly perverted and cruel events, and innocence is quickly crushed between the opposing forces. As Russell’s nuns and priests erupt in orgiastic behaviour in hunting down the devil, so too Haggard’s villagers are swiftly swept away in a love/death cult where gruesome physical curtailing is the price for release from chains of social and sexual oppression.
The period English hamlet where the drama takes place and its surrounds appear on one level fitting recreations of William Blake’s idealised rural Edens of England’s past. Yet low grey clouds oppress every vista and crows peer out from above tangled forests, hinting at the malevolence as well as bounty offered by nature, which a human world, sustained in far more perilous equilibrium between survival and annihilation than we’re used to, must contend with. The Judge is characterised as both the pillar of the local establishment, and yet also a subversive element, a Catholic with an attachment to the exiled James III, son of the king dethroned in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. When he becomes convinced that something supernatural and invidious might indeed be alive in the village, the Judge sets out as a prototypical rationalist and ruthless political agent to find a way to cleanse the evil and then cut it out. His first advice, before leaving on a search for knowledge, is to let the evil spread, and it’s suggested that the Judge’s knowledge of political sedition and reactionary method, rather than religious matters, is what really gives him potency in such a situation, even as he eventually pays attention to the contents of a grimoire to understand how to destroy the beast. The shape of the social assumptions glimpsed throughout has not yet been despoiled by the effects of the various revolutions, political, scientific, and philosophical of the 18th century, and yet, as one character states outright, the bad old days of fulminating irrationalism and belief in invisible malefic influence are supposed to be fading. Fallowfield, the representative of official religion, is an amateur naturalist first glimpsed chasing after a snake, the serpent in this demi-paradise tamed and catalogued, and attempts to carefully corral the budding sexuality in his young charges in school, only to be frustrated as they pass the retrieved totem of the forbidden around, keeping him from glimpsing it and locking it away.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw dabbles in an idea The Wicker Man was to enlarge upon, transmuting the licentiousness of the hippie era into a meditation on a return to a pagan Britain based in an earthy, unfettered, inescapably corporeal creed, where bodies are the truest barometer of spirituality in substance. In a concept later stolen by movies like The Mummy (1999), Satan is literally assembled bit by bit from the pieces grown on sundry villagers, some willing converts to Angel’s cult, others innocent bystanders. Ralph’s initial discovery of the beast buried within earth releases a long-dormant yet sustained and readily infectious pagan force which seems indivisible from the scenery, and when Angel’s coven is glimpsed it comes garbed not in black cloaks and stygian paraphernalia but in nature-child garlands of flowers. The rampant miasma of sexuality sees the unholy mark spreading on the locals like the tell-tale stigmata of venereal diseases. Hayden, who gained initial stature as a horror starlet in Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969) playing a respectable Victorian daughter turned into a vessel of vengeful sexuality to punish a hypocritical father, here plays the teenage girl as the embodiment of everything destructive to the settled order.
Satan’s Claw clearly channels a deliberately paranoid vision of the counterculture, presenting anti-heroine Angel as a sort of homicidal hippie chick and distaff Charles Manson who whips up a flock of flower-bedecked folk into a cabal of Satan-worshipping, organ-harvesting fiends. In such a fashion, Satan’s Claw anticipates The Exorcist (1973) in purposefully burrowing into an unease and guilt in the contemporary mindset that maybe those recherché religious notions and stereotypes have something to them after all. Haggard’s film hits the same themes far more squarely in the process, not hiding the fear of emergent, insolent sexuality in a pre-pubescent but in Angel, a roaring erotic force obviously chafing from the start against decency in her toey play with friends and swift readiness to challenge Fallowfield. Simultaneously there is more than a hint, in the images of severed limbs and misshapen humanity, of the way the emphasis of the genre was already shifting in the next decade to one of an assault on the coherence of the body, from serial killer hack-fests to David Lynch and David Cronenberg’s myths of perverted flesh, as repression gave way to erotic anxiety. The images of characters exhorted to hack bits off themselves in order to gain social inclusion, sexual gratification, or simply survival, takes on a predicative dimension, familiar to us in an age where plastic surgery and bodily self-hate infuse a world and desirability has become, not so subtly, linked with economic worth. The scene late in the film where Ralph is tempted to cut off his leg by a nude dancing girl is tangibly erotic, of course, but actually after initial viewings takes on another meaning: Ralph, a working man, is drawn to pervert his own form in order to gain a material pleasure, a notion that again takes on an economic ramification. Satan repeatedly tempts with sex whilst demanding a steeper price, self-mutilation, redolent of class warfare, as per a theory, articulated by artists as different as E.L. Doctorow and Gang of Four, linking commercialised sex with the anaesthetising of the exploited.
The minister’s name squarely designates him as something infertile, contrasting the field from which the devil springs and the subsequent linkages of sex, pillaging, and obscenity that corrode the human world. Angel’s attempt to seduce Fallowfield sees her confront him naked in his own church, provoking him to admit her beauty even as he condemns her shamelessness. Angel’s seduction is a failure, so she attempts to destroy him instead by claiming he raped her and killed Mark. The immediately credulous local squire Middleton (James Hayter) arrests the priest, raising the spectre of something that’s become even more relevant in recent years: the dichotomous way authority figures like teachers and ministers are given a completely unfettered trust role in forming the young and the absolute fury unleashed when they’re seen to violate that trust which always contains a hint of fulfilled expectation. Ironically Fallowfield lives up to his ideals and is soon exonerated, and yet proves a complete bust in counteracting evil. When the Judge finally returns after a long sojourn in London researching the problem, he comes armed with a colossal sacred sword and an unswerving purpose that sees him threaten one of Angel’s coven, Margaret (Michele Dotrice) with being torn to pieces by dogs if she won’t give him information he needs, a moment that coldly and precisely captures that mood we’re familiar with these days which demands terror be answered with terror.
Haggard builds mood with a rigour that mostly papers over the gaps in the narrative, caused when Haggard was called upon to rewrite Robert Wynne-Simmons’s script, which was originally written as an omnibus film on the theme of demonic manifestation, and stitch it into a contiguous narrative. The gaps are evident in the way some characters seem to vanish or appear out of nowhere, making the film inevitably awkward at a few junctures. But in another way these fault lines actually give the film extra force, making the timeframe difficult to judge, so the drama seems sustained over months, and also more ambiguous and unsettling. The script is also notably cold-blooded in its wilful assault on expectation: both of the film’s major romantic couplings come to singularly grim ends, and the sweetly unpretentious Cathy, paramour to Ralph, is butchered by the cultists. Ralph himself is less a traditional hero, than an everyman who finds himself at the centre of mad events he’s powerless to control. He even finds his leg has become the last necessary part of the demon’s reconstitution, after he’s intervened to prevent the cult from harvesting a patch on the leg of Margaret, and is dragged off to the coven to be tempted by that dancing girl.
The film’s thematic judiciousness wouldn’t count for much if it wasn’t well articulated, and Haggard builds some spellbinding scenes, as in Peter’s lonely vigil in the attic, awaiting the fiend that drove his lover mad, and finally hacking off his own limb in desperate distraction. Likewise, there’s a wince-worthy portrayal of physical reckoning in which Margaret, who is almost drowned by witch duckers, is rescued by Ralph and he has the local doctor (Howard Goorney) slice off the patch of satanic skin on her leg. The Judge uses this to give his dogs the scent and chase Margaret through the woods. She finishes up with a bear trap about her leg, left to suffer and be torn to pieces by the animals by Angel when she discovers Margaret’s surgery. It’s really in one central scene however that The Blood on Satan’s Claw hits an extraordinary note of practical perfection in the genre, when Cathy is lured to an abandoned church in the midst of the woods by two lads pretending to be playing a game. There the cult await her, springing out of the woods, laughing, massed wearing wreaths of flowers and commencing their giddy nature-rites in swooning Pre-Raphaelite hues in the most festive of occasions. Except that as Cathy looks closer, she notices how they’ve all got pieces missing from their bodies, bandaged hands and heads, stained red. A mood of growing terror and outright frenzy builds as Cathy is held prostrate, her back with its patch of furred skin bared to all, she’s raped by one of the cult, and Angel stabs her to death as she and other women in the cult gyrate in auto-erotic frenzies.
This is a startling, vicious, horrifically beautiful scene, not only in capturing the shock of someone like Cathy suddenly becoming a fetish for newly fiendish friends, penetrated by the men but with the girls like Angel and Margaret clearly the ones really getting their rocks off, but in the way it channels and inverts the prettified flower-child and nature-worship tropes into a portrait of total degradation, watched over by the half-finished devil sitting in the corner, groaning hoarsely for “my skiiiiiiinnnnn!” The finale is nearly as vividly bizarre, with Angel now, make-up lending her an increasingly satanic visage herself with each passing scene, actually canoodling with the beast and finishing up skewered on a pitchfork by assaulting villagers, and the Judge making his heroic tilt at the devil, who still only has one leg to stand on, stabbing the fiend and casting him into a bonfire. Haggard brings the film to a screaming halt fixing on the Judge’s war face, gritting teeth as the flames consume his enemy and light his own face, as if the Judge himself and not the devil is the real overlord of perdition, personification of a vengeful god.
I vividly recall the first time I saw this initial adaptation of Susan Hill’s 1982 novel. It was in high school, on one of those afternoons where for whatever reason we had no class. A substitute teacher stuck a VHS tape grabbed from the English staff room in the video to give us something to do with our eyes and less to do with our mouths. The film took its time getting our attention, but when it did, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a room full of teenagers go quite so quiet before or since. The Woman in Black is one of the few truly successful examples of pure mood-piece horror made in the past quarter century, all the more admirable for being a telemovie, made with the no-nonsense sense of functional craft that distinguished British television for so many years. The title is a deliberate play on Wilkie Collins’ famous Victorian-era mystery novel The Woman in White, as Hill’s narrative portrays the gnawing legacy of oppressive generational values and resurgent maternal vengeance roaring out from beyond the grave in the most insidious and crazed of guises, and the act of burrowing into forbidden enigmas only stirs the grimmest of retaliations.
The cult affection for both novel and telemovie has only grown over the years. Now there’s a new feature film version on the way, starring Daniel Radcliffe, and it’s amusing to note that Radcliffe’s role is played in the original by his on-screen Harry Potter father, Adrian Rawlins. The screenplay for the ’89 version was composed by Nigel Kneale, and whilst he took liberties with Hill’s work, he had practically written the book on how to intrigue and scare the hell out of TV audiences with his Quatermass serials and excellent telemovies like The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) and The Stone Tape (1972), and he confirmed here he had lost none of his touch for weaving richly engaging supernatural mysteries. Set in the 1920s, The Woman in Black depicts a junior member of a London law firm, Arthur Kidd (Rawlins), a stolid but conscientious young professional pressured to take on the more fiddly, annoying, and time-consuming case work that stern senior partner Josiah Freston (David Daker) doesn’t deign to do, in spite of the fact that Arthur has a wife, Stella (Clare Holman), and two young children who take up all his spare time.
Arthur is thus easily compelled, for the sake of his career, to go to the seaside town of Crythin Gifford, to finalise the estate of a recently deceased woman, Alice Drablow. Upon arriving at the town, he soon begins perceiving odd phenomena. At the old lady’s funeral, Arthur observes only one mourner apart from himself and local solicitor Keckwick (William Simons), being a woman dressed in black, gazing balefully from the back of the church, and across the graveyard outside from amongst the tombstones. When Arthur tries to alert Keckwick to this, the solicitor refuses to look at her. Everyone, even the avuncular local landowner Sam Toovey (Bernard Hepton) whom Arthur struck up a friendship with on the train from London, seems uneasy when he mentions Marsh House, Drablow’s home, which is perched on the far end of a long, perilous causeway stretching across a tidal plain. Amidst the tumult of the town’s market day, a young gypsy girl is pinned and injured when a load of wood falls off a cart: Arthur dashes in and snatches her out of the road before she’s crushed by a huge log.
When he’s taken out to Alice’s residence, Marsh House, to begin organising her papers and readying the house for sale, Arthur encounters the black-clad woman again, in an old family plot abutting the house. She glares at him with a feverish intensity so suggestively malevolent that she scares Arthur into fleeing inside, bolting the doors, and turning on every light in the house. Soon after, he experiences a torturous aural manifestation that documents a heartrending event: the sound of a carriage crashing into the water off the causeway, and a young child and his mother screaming in panic as they sink to their deaths. He hears this repeatedly during his time at the house, to the point where he can’t distinguish its early passages from the sound of a real carriage coming over the causeway, a detail the film then exploits for all it’s worth. Returning to town, Arthur begins to perceive the way these seemingly distinct incidents are part of a pattern, permeating the locale and all its inhabitants, as he recognises that both Keckwick and Toovey share similar tragedies in their recent past, as do many others in the vicinity, in having lost young children in accidents or illness. Arthur’s intervening to save the gypsy girl now takes on a new slant, for he has snatched another intended victim of the curse out of harm’s way, but possibly to no good end. Against Toovey’s advice and his own good sense, Arthur decides to move into Marsh House to complete his work and to delve into the mystery, which, thanks to Alice Drablow’s cylinder recordings, he begins to realise is sourced in a tragic series of events that consumed members of Alice’s family. Alone overnight with Toovey’s dog Spider as his only company, Arthur is lured upstairs to a perpetually locked room by a thumping sound and seems to perceive another haunting presence, that of a small laughing boy who plants a tiny tin soldier in Arthur’s hand.
In spite of some formidable competition from the likes of The Haunting (1963), The Legend of Hell House (1973), and The Others (2001), this first version of The Woman in Black is, alongside The Shining (1981) quite simply, the best “haunting” movie ever made, outstripping all other rivals for concisely sketched mood and slow-mounting tension. It’s very much the made-for-TV modesty of it that makes it so indelible, with no temptations to indulge in showy camerawork or special effects to distort narrative essentials. It’s also all the better for rarely trying to overtly frighten, being much more about generating tension and eeriness, making the film’s few moments of urgency and shock brilliantly effective. The story develops some familiar themes, yet expected narrative pay-offs are forestalled, only to rush in when least expected, with maximum, disorienting impact. Director Herbert Wise was a veteran television director whose very first work, ironically, was a TV version of The Woman in White (1957), and whose credits since the mid-‘50s had included stand-out telemovies like I, Claudius (1976) and Skokie (1981).
Here, Wise conjures an exactly honed sense of atmosphere, in the bustle of the law offices and the small town, the domestic warmth of Arthur’s home life, and, eventually, the mood of desolate loneliness in the remote location of Marsh House, where he alternates between agoraphobia-inducing external spaces and claustrophobic interiors, and a tingling sense of threat pervades. The film was shot almost entirely on location, and the resulting three-dimensional realism quality it credibility. The woman’s appearances are often simply matters of cunning framing as the camera dollies back and forth, her spindly figure casually appearing in the rear of shots she wasn’t in a few seconds before. In one particularly excellent moment, the one that first truly makes Arthur understand he’s in a situation beyond his ken, sees Arthur, sensing an alien presence, abruptly feel the hairs on his neck stand up, and he whips about to glimpse the woman only a few feet away, glowering at him with what he describes as a kind of hunger turned to hate, possessed of radiating power.
The paraphernalia of the superlative ghost story is expertly laid out in both script and direction: the eerie visitations of the female wraith with her faintly greenish pallor and red-rimmed eyes burning with prosecutorial loathing; the remote haunted house; the omnipresent fogs sweeping over the death-trap causeway and mysterious noises thudding out during the night; the air of secrecy weighing upon the populace of the backwater; and, lurking behind it all, a powerful source of emotional anguish that drives the ghost in her relentless program of punishing the living for her loss. The use of sound as a particular source of torment is felicitous, in the overt disquiet of the accident anguish, and also in the sound of Alice’s voice on the cylinders, giving its own tantalisingly ghostly hints, of years spent being haunted by a malignant phantom, of fending off her hate and persecution in the night, every night, for half a century. Arthur is an exemplary hero, likeable, generous, a good father and hardworking, gutsy, intelligent man.
All his qualities don’t mean a thing, however, as he’s completely outmatched in his battle with the supernatural force he unwittingly challenges and is victimised by, even as he musters an uncommon determination and bravery in venturing back to Marsh House and trying to unravel the mystery. His failure to respect the tenuous balance of the situation, rather than beginning, as in most such stories, a journey towards finding resolution for it, sees Arthur instead place himself directly in the sights of the woman’s vengeance. Arthur is steadily worn down by his experiences to a pale, feverish, hysterical wreck, as his most charming traits, his love of children and ready empathy, prove to be magnets for the ghost’s most sadistic impulses. In the final phases of the story he’s so desperate to rid himself of the last totems of Marsh House that he haphazardly piles up papers retrieved from the house in his office and sets fire to them with paraffin, nearly incinerating the law firm in the process. He also almost strangles Freston, in realising that his boss sent him to Marsh House because Freston knew about the haunting and was absolutely terrified of it.
Hill’s story essentially transfers the Latin American folk figure of La Llorona, the inconsolable weeping mother of a lost child whose appearance forebodes death and disaster, to an English setting, and invests her with a specific, wilful destructive authority. As such it represents a dark antithesis to the Victorian cult of motherhood and industry, and Hill knew it very well. This meshes with Kneale’s familiar fascination for locations that have become deeply invested by malefic influence, without his usual interest in exploring the edges of scientific credulity, except that Arthur’s pronouncement that the repetition of the accident resembles a recording calls to mind that motif in The Stone Tape. Arthur does uncover the wraith’s identity: she was Alice’s sister Jennet, who had a child out of wedlock. Alice and her husband had adopted the boy to cover up the disgrace, leaving Jennet to become increasingly unhinged. Toovey recalls her wandering the streets in anguish when he was young, and he murmurs with acidic knowing when he fingers a photo of the Drablows and the adopted boy, “Happy families!”
The horrible accident which Arthur is forced to continuously listen to on the marsh occurred when Jennet tried to snatch back her child, and then crashed whilst fleeing. The locked room was actually the boy’s bedroom. The real sting of this event, which Arthur recognises, is the taunting ambiguity of the boy’s cries for his mother: nobody, neither the living nor the dead Jennet, can know if he was calling for her or Alice, and this is the real spur to her venomous haunting. Now she is a living embodiment of rage against Victorian familial pretensions and veils of hypocrisy and lies, still maintaining a reign of terror against all family happiness in the town even as the twentieth century is slowly penetrating its environs. Marsh House has an electrical generator which has an unpleasant habit of conking out at the most hair-raising moments: Arthur’s frantic efforts to get it going, his diligence in trying to keep the house’s lights blazing, and use of the recording device, all indicate a desperate belief that the trappings of the modern world can stave off the miasma of evil and exile the phantom of past wrongs.
As suggestive as the drama of The Woman in Black is, what makes it riveting is the watchmaker’s sense of form and bastard cunning with which Kneale and Wise make it work on screen. Equally vital is the creepy music score by Rachel Portman, long before she became an Oscar-winner. Drama and music work in perfect accord at a crucial moment when Arthur is confronted with disturbing manifestations in the boy’s bedroom, the generator fails, and his panic to get the power back on again is palpable as Portman’s shrieking Psycho-esque strings blare. The film’s most memorable sequence comes when Arthur has been brought back from the house and is sleeping in a hotel, seemingly having dodged the lurking threat, except that he awakens in the middle of the night to the sound of the boy’s laughter, the tin soldier under his pillow. Arthur sits up and tries to communicate with the spirit, only for Jennet to loom over him as a shrieking, fire-eyed demon, implacable in her otherworldly abhorrence for anyone presumptuous enough to enter her domain. The primal scream Arthur releases as she swoops down on him recalls many moments in Kneale’s oeuvre.
When one is well prepared for this moment, it’s delicious and a little campy, but coming out of nowhere as it does on a first viewing it’s genuinely chilling and surprising: otherwise stalwart adults have reported being terrified by it. Similarly powerful is the very finale, when Arthur and his wife and baby take a weekend sojourn in a rowboat. Arthur finally seems to be regaining some peace of mind, only to spy the wraith standing upon the lake surface, smiling with queasy triumph as a tree breaks and crashes down upon the family, racking up three more sacrifices for her unquenchable, perverted sense of justice. It’s as bleak as conclusions come, but The Woman in Black is relishable to its last frame precisely because, like the title character, it plays a merciless game with a showman’s sense of timing.
On a desolate plain at a forest’s edge, caked in polar snow, an aptly primeval scene unfolds: a fur-clad hunter aims to bring down a reindeer for food. Skewering it with an arrow, the hunter, revealed to be an adolescent girl, says apologetically over the animal’s collapsed, slow-expiring body, “I just missed your heart.” The girl is Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), and with her utterance, the film immediately segues to her name emblazoned on the screen in big Godardian white-on-red letters. Hanna is being raised in a remote cabin in a state of complete removal from a modern world that hovers about the edges of this still-wild and ahistorical zone: when she sees an aircraft fly low overhead, Hanna screams in ecstatic fear.
Hanna’s father, former American-employed German spy Erik Heller (Eric Bana), has trained her in everything from martial arts to speaking dozens of languages, and given her a complete, if purely abstract knowledge of the outside world thanks to reading encyclopaedias to her every night. Slowly, the reasons behind this strange upbringing emerge. Erik is keeping Hanna secret from the world, and specifically, from ferocious CIA bigwig Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). Erik digs up and presents to Hanna a transmitting device that will, if set in operation, draw American special forces down on them. Because Erik knows that they will have no chance of surviving out there in the world, Hanna’s very first act in the world of modern humans must be to grow up in an instant and undertake Marissa’s murder.
On the face of it, Hanna sounds like a remake of Kick-Ass (2010), divested of comic book satire to concentrate on the dissonant notion of a lethal teenage girl at large in a world completely at odds with her alien perspective. It also represents a jarring U-turn for Joe Wright, in seeming determination to leave behind period and prestige flick affectations. Since Wright culled a surprising gem from the hoariest of source material for his cinematic debut, 2005’s fleet-footed and beguiling Pride and Prejudice, he’s been emerging as a worthy rival for fellow Brit Michael Winterbottom as a metamorphic stylist, suggesting great talent, yet without quite nailing a great film. Atonement (2007), in spite of excellent scenes and casting, struggled to overcome the limitations of its own source material in remoulding litterateur pizzazz as tragic epic, and The Soloist (2009) didn’t find much of the Oscar favour it seemed to court.
The result of this boundary pushing is Wright’s best film to date, a flashy, visually inventive, fiercely controlled and stylised piece of utterly contemporary cinema—even if it does in its way pay tributes to pulp and pop art of the past—amazingly layered and moving at a lightning pace. Hanna doesn’t seek to subvert genre so much as twist it to its own purpose, simultaneously aspiring to evoke mythical mystique, political fable, and gritty action flick with an edge of cinematic freebasing. The eerie, yet warmly intimate qualities of the opening scenes segue into a curious, magic-realist portrait of life on Earth, in which Hanna sees everything imbued with secret beauty and delirious strangeness. Berber washerwomen, camel traders, flamenco artists, clubbing young Euro hipsters, punks, and magicians form a sprawl of humanity who, as seen through Hanna’s eyes, seem genuinely, blessedly peculiar and all the more real because she’s literally seeing them for the first time.
On a basic level, Hanna works similarly to the Jason Bourne series with its super-skilled protagonist keeping a step ahead of the forces of neofascism, and yet it’s closer in some ways to Being There (1979) or Bad Boy Bubby (1991), delighting in its heroine’s complete innocence to all experience,while simultaneously being a deadly weapon who can kill without blinking. Hanna has distinct links to an increasing contemporary strain of pseudo-thriller, using the structure of the globe-trotting actioner to expose the simultaneous fragmentation and openness of the modern world, full of beauties and terrors almost unaware of each other’s existence.
The Godardian pretence of the title card is not unjustified: like the New Wavers in their early work, Wright takes genre material and twists it with visual invention and thematic radicalism. Marissa, ensconced in a citadel of technological imperialism, contrasts the peripatetic world of hippies and good-time teens where Hanna finds herself once she escapes Marissa’s clutches. Erik’s plan was for Hanna to be captured, and when taken to Marissa, kill her before escaping and making her way to a rendezvous in Germany. Hanna pulls this off, but she mistakenly snaps the neck of a decoy (Michelle Dockery) sent into Hanna’s cell as a stand-in for the Texan-accented redhead. The escape is a feverishly staged sequence in which The Chemical Brothers’ terrific pulsating score infuse Wright’s trippy images, the lighting effects and polymorphic environs reminiscent of the likes of the original The Prisoner TV series, whilst offering strange overscaled sets and wild edits evocative of Orson Welles, an influence which is again suggested in a fight in a shipping terminal reminiscent of Confidential Report (1956), and in the very finale, a death-duel in a rundown amusement park that calls to mind The Lady from Shanghai (1946).
Hanna seems such an unstoppable rogue that one agent lets her shut him in his locker, and she finally, in a moment that evokes the end of THX-1138 (1971), emerges from the secret base to find herself in the midst a Moroccan desert. Hanna’s herculean physicality allows her to flee on the underside of a Hummer, finally finishing up in the middle of nowhere, only to meet garrulous British teen Sophie (Jessica Barden) and her kid brother Miles (Aldo Maland). They’re travelling with their counterculture flame-keeper parents Rachel (Olivia Williams) and Sebastian (Jason Flemyng), on a camping journey, and Hanna sneaks into their van to make the journey across into Spain.
Hanna’s voyage of discovery is imbued with a sense of personal wonder, as Wright brilliantly manages to pack the film with a physical lustre that captures Hanna’s essential naivete, in spite of her fearsome capacities. Hanna is a genuine primitive in the sense that she has all the gifts required for survival and absolutely no sense of the corruption in the human world: she is simultaneously completely open and utterly indestructible. Wright constructs a strikingly orchestrated little scene in which Hanna, who is not familiar with any kind of technology, spends a night in a grotty Moroccan hotel room where all the manifestations of the electricity-run world vibrate with menace and rapture. A boiling electric kettle seems to contain demons, the telephone won’t obey the remote control like the television does, and Hanna, who has been curious about music, having never actually heard it, hears it for the first time on a TV station playing Arabic vibes. She’s used to surviving off the land, and so drinks water from a hotel swimming pool, and stuns her hippie adopters by catching and slapping down before them some freshly skinned rabbits for breakfast. Hanna has carefully memorised personal details for a life she hasn’t lived as taught to her by Erik, which she emits in a ready stream when provoked, but beyond this, she has only a distinctive mix of guileless purity and an honesty so total, even the determinedly alternative Rachel and Sebastian are stunned when she answers Rachel’s question about how her mother died: “three bullets.”
Hanna forms a friendship with Sophie and Miles in spite of the Brit girl’s lippy adolescent sarcasm, venturing out together to a Spanish party with boys, leading to Hanna’s first encounter with a member of the opposite sex. It finishes up with her pummelling him into submission when he’s just about to kiss her. “Should I let him go?” she asks Sophie, who retorts, “As opposed to what?” The stirring erotic edge to life freaks Hanna out right at the point where lips touch, registering the frisson of attraction as electric danger, but later, in a moment reminiscent of the sisterly under-the-covers moments of Pride and Prejudice, she kisses Sophie in an innocent fashion, which nonetheless seems subtly charged with a new awareness of physical proximity and intimacy.
Part of the pleasure of Hanna is that it evokes multiple levels of narrative awareness and texture without belabouring any of it: it’s a road movie, a coming-of-age comedy, a walloping action flick, a psychedelic-tinged satire, an existential fairytale. It’s also impossible to shake its political overtones as a dig at the worst excesses of the War on Terror, as Wright tries to portray the porous nature of the modern world where greatly different cultures are just a few hours’ drive apart, all humming with the same multitudinous vibrancy; the possibility of living “off the map” as Erik has managed undercuts fantasies of total control. At one point, a scrawled graffiti message takes a dig at “One Nation Under CCTV,” calling to mind the agitprop methods of Lindsay Anderson. The story is arguably a parable for how secrecy and violence tend to breed blowback; Hanna is the living embodiment of Marissa’s attempt to get the genie back in the bottle. At the same time, Hanna is clearly never intended to be realistic, taking on a wilfully fantastic quality at points as Hanna defies human limitations; Wright seems to enjoy the sight of the willowy-haired, petite blonde beating the crap out of guys far larger than herself. There’s actually a clever reason for this, as there finally proves to be a science-fiction element to the story: Hanna is not Erik’s daughter at all, but the result of genetic research to produce a superhuman, research Marissa tried to erase, but managing only to kill Erik’s fellow agent Johanna Zadek (Vicky Krieps).
In a touch more definitely reminiscent of John Le Carré, Marissa has to play a risky game trying to stall the CIA, and hires sleazy German nightclub manager and assassin Isaacs (Tom Hollander) because she has to keep her own secrets. Isaacs runs a nightclub/brothel, and he announces to Marissa that his new star dancer has “male and female genitalia,” part of his proud efforts to give people what they want. Hollander must have enjoyed being cast as a nasty bugger with a hands-on approach to violence, as Isaacs and his two goons stalk Hanna from Morocco to Germany, parading around like evil clowns ready to beat and bash information out of the British family. Wright and the screenplay by Seth Lochhead and David Farr make overt references throughout Hanna to Grimm Brothers’ tales (a popular motif in this year’s movies), casting Hanna as an all-action Gretel or Snow White to Marissa’s wicked stepmother/evil witch: the code message that Hanna sends to Erik to confirm she killed Marissa reads, “The witch is dead,” and in the finale, Marissa strides from within the maw of a giant fake wolf’s head. Wright stages one of his now-familiar epic tracking shots when Erik arrives in Germany. Bana strides through a bus station as Marissa’s spooks lurk in readiness to corner him, finally converging on him in an underground car-park where Erik unleashes his tremendous survival skills and bests his attackers in a dazzling blend of showmanship from actors and camera operators, with a little tweaking from the FX guys too.
It’s a little bit disconcerting to see two Aussies—Bana and Blanchett—playing a German and a Texan in an international action thriller. Bana delivers one of his best bits of acting since hitting the big time, a pithy and stripped-back performance evoking his part in Munich (2005), barren of all idealism and hope whilst clinging to steely purpose. Blanchett plays a perfect inversion to her villainess in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and is at her most menacing and technically impressive in a sequence in which she appears in the apartment of Johanna’s mother (Gudrun Ritter) and carries on a long conversation entirely in German before shooting the old woman in the back of the head with wintry calm. There’s a terrific scene late in the film in which Erik almost corners Marissa in her hotel room: Wright offers a grimly funny and well-framed shot as in the foreground Marissa talks on the phone with Erik, the penny dropping that he’s just outside a moment before his bullets smack through the door and take out her deputy. Marissa, floundering on the floor as Erik riddles the room with bullets and starts kicking the door in, is momentarily huddled in shock with her gun in a recess, before commanding herself, “Move!” and fleeing the room.
But the film belongs to Ronan, whom Wright discovered for Atonement. She pulls off Hanna’s lack of hatefulness even when shooting and cracking bones, whilst mindful that innocence can have a blithe viciousness to it. When Erik finally does battle with Isaacs and his two goons, who resemble rejects from a skinhead oompa band, it happens in a children’s park in the midst of a council estate littered with postindustrial detritus, redolent of modern history’s conflicts reduced to a playground squabble, as the men viciously beat each other to pieces. Marissa performs a coup de grace on Erik, who, answering her bewildered question, “Why now?” replies, “Kids grow up.” The playground motif repeats when Marissa, skewered by an arrow fired her way by Hanna, ends up sliding down a slippery-dip before being put down in an Ourobouros repeat of the opening. Hanna is a product, punishment, and messiah of a new age, and her film could be the most aesthetically and thematically rich thriller of the year.
Producer Ishmail Merchant and director James Ivory are the Kublai Khans of film, building their stately pleasure domes for the cinematic Xanadus of the world. Appreciating one of their films is like being a tourist strolling through the Louvre; you get a chance to suck in a little culture while showing off your good taste to your companions and acquiring a few pearls to drop into conversations back home. The “quality” films of Merchant/Ivory are like the ones the French New Wave rebelled against, but given the British origins of the creative team and the times—the rise of neoconservatism in Britain and the United States—these paeans to elegant elitism became among the most watched and honored of their time.
I don’t want to sound like a reverse snob—I have enjoyed the elegant craftsmanship of these films, and I certainly have nothing against their literary source material. Howards End (1992) is one of my favorite films, as is The Bostonians (1984)—is it more than a coincidence that Vanessa Redgrave stars in both? But the reverential tone of many of their films makes me feel less like I am entering a pleasure dome than an Orthodox synagogue. In films, there is such a thing as too much class. I’m happy to say, however, that before they became Merchant/Ivory, they were merchant/ivory, given to a certain amount of wit as they assayed the classics. The Europeans, an earlier work of the team, benefits greatly from its mid 19th century American setting—the pair and their regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala seem at home with Henry James—and its low budget. Without the means to dazzle us with European finery, Merchant and Ivory created a gentle comedy of manners that unintentionally, but presciently, comments on the before and after phases of their careers.
The Europeans are Felix Young (Tim Woodward) and his sister Eugenia (Lee Remick). They have crossed the Atlantic to call on their wealthy cousins, the Wentworths, at their estate in a suburb of Boston. We are prepared in the opening scene for the attitudes their arrival will arouse. Gertrude Wentworth (Lisa Eichhorn) is idly appreciating the beauty of the grounds around her empty home; this being Sunday, her father (Wesley Addy), her sister Charlotte (Nancy New), and her brother Clifford (Tim Choate) are on their way to church. Mr. Brand (Norman Snow), a young preacher, appears and and asks if he may accompany her to church. Gertrude says she is not going. When asked why, she replies, “Because the sky is such a beautiful shade of blue.” Mr. Brand tries unsuccessfully to plight his troth to her—apparently a regular occurrence—but she refuses to allow him to speak and sends him on his way while she repairs to the gazebo to read a romantic novel. It’s easy to see that when Felix and Eugenia enter their lives, Gertrude will be enchanted and Mr. Brand and the rest of the Wentworth household will be wary.
Felix finds Gertrude at the gazebo after knocking on the door of the vacant house and wandering around the grounds. He has walked the entire distance from Boston—seven and a half miles says Gertrude—so we know instantly that he hasn’t the money to afford a carriage. That luxury is saved for Eugenia so that she can make her grand entrance the next day and act on the intelligence Felix has gathered about the household, particularly the information that another cousin, Robert Acton (Robin Ellis), is single and wealthy. In a scene of comic awkwardness, Eugenia flits about in a gossipy, flirtatious manner, dropping backhanded compliments left and right to the befuddled silence of the modest, upright Wentworths. Robert and his sister Lizzie (Kristin Griffith) are more worldly—Robert has traveled to Africa!—and unlike the reflexively cautious Wentworths, are also more knowingly suspicious of the Youngs. After Felix and Eugenia have left, the family debates what to do. Since they are relatives, they must be offered some hospitality. But invite them to stay in the big house? Charity only goes so far; they are given the small cottage.
Eugenia is in full flutter as she gleefully helps her French maid (Gedda Petry) unpack and surveys the curious denizens of the big house gathering below, as though waiting for the first volley of her assault on Puritan temperance. Her campaign to win Acton is obvious and fairly graceless, even to Robert, but he allows himself to be charmed and relishes the chance to bask in her beautiful frivolity. After all, Eugenia isn’t the only one who is bored by the “blessed” quiet of the country. Gertrude, too, is quite bewitched by Felix, and he is just enough of a boy to be sincere in returning her affections and wanting to marry her—that he will be able to help his sister if she should fail in her quest to become mistress of the Acton estate is something perhaps only she, and we, have calculated.
The Europeans has a lovely hint of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to it. Spring fever is in the air, even though the practical Charlotte protests to Gertrude that it is autumn, and sensible romantic arrangements are cast aside for moments of pleasurable abandon. Repression of emotional and sensual urges is a common enough theme in Henry James, and one that Merchant/Ivory will return to with a riot of rectitude in The Remains of the Day (1993). Here, however, the pair lets idleness have its due, as Clifford laps at Eugenia’s heels and resolutely fails to learn any manners from her at all—a more amusingly crude creature you never will find in any M/I production—and Mr. Wentworth turns out to be almost as feckless as any father of daughters Jane Austen could have created. There are small moments of physical comedy that are inspired, the best of which has Felix imploring Charlotte to soften her father’s heart toward his marriage to Gertrude. He sits next to her and animatedly leans in and out as he speaks, while Charlotte bobs back and forth so as not to touch him. The movements are not overstated, but still manage to leave one in tears of laughter by the scene’s finish.
Merchant and Ivory also had the inspired idea to shoot inside actual period homes. The smallish, low-ceilinged rooms seem to encourage the retiring manner of their inhabitants while closing in on the expansive personality of Eugenia. When she takes in the fall colors for which New England is rightly famous without making a sound, it appears she understands that America has its own kind of crown jewels, but whether she will be able to accustom herself to them seems very much in doubt. Yankee wisdom may need to save her from her own artificial desires.
With the exception of the radiant and ever-fascinating Lee Remick, the cast is largely unknown. I enjoyed Addy’s sober silliness, and Nancy New was a delightful discovery. Lisa Eichhorn did not deliver in a crucial role, but Tim Woodward’s jolly ardency made their scenes together work. Robin Ellis was a convincing foil for Remick, willing to be pleased, but slightly enigmatic, like the rest of the American characters. Indeed, these Americans seem a bit like aliens whose customs and manners look familiar but not natural. While I think Ivory could have made more of this strange affect in the way of comedic moments, that is a quibble. The Europeans is a fair wind in the musty Merchant/Ivory oeuvre.
A fantasy 10 years in execution, wildly popular as both a book series and film-adaptation franchise, can bear a multitude of commentary. So, while my colleague Rod has tackled the finale of the Harry Potter saga with his usual brilliant description and analysis, I thought I might give it a go myself.
In contrast with Rod’s comment that adult Potter fans were generally in the closet when the series began, I found myself knowing several very enthusiastic adult readers of the series. My generation, especially in the United States, was characterized by a search for the kingdom of heaven within ourselves; if you hadn’t read Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy when you were in your teens or early 20s, you were out of it, living in a backwater away from popular culture and consciousness. Consequently, although I did not read J. K. Rowling’s books, I was more than up for seeing the films, hoping Harry’s lightning bolt Mark of Cain would strike me the same way Star Wars did when I saw it in 1977.
I was not disappointed. The tale the Harry Potter films tells is perhaps the most extraordinary coming-of-age story in cinematic history. A baby orphaned and marked for a dramatic destiny while still in the crib, Harry would have a relatively miserable childhood with his Muggle (human) aunt and uncle, constantly being put down in favor of the smallest accomplishment by his atrocious cousin Dudley, and always feeling out of place. Hasn’t every child felt this way, felt like they were kidnapped at birth from their rightful home where surely they would be appreciated as the extraordinary person they really are? The first Potter film, which many people think superficial and light, is, to my mind, the perfect world for a young audience looking to escape from the torments of family and school and travel to a place where they are special. I was personally enchanted by Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a very special English public school familiar in many ways from books and films like Tom Brown’s School Days and The Browning Version, but filled with the kind of wonder children have when they learn how to unlock the mysteries of their own potential.
Of course, children grow up, and Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) start to discover what hurts in their world, what betrayals await them—from a carelessly obtuse Ron failing to notice Hermione’s major crush on him to Harry betraying himself and his entire cause by allowing Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) to enter his thoughts and discover his plans. Destruction, repression, and death—not a magical future for kids whose ability to cast spells and make their wands an extension of their wishes would seem to mark them out for a charmed life. I admit to being a bit disappointed as the dark clouds descended, preferring to extend the buoyant feeling of the first film ad infinitum, but the progression better serves the young readers and viewers who are looking for the signposts that match their own lives. Unsurprisingly, adults like me watching the Potter films were perhaps served less well than adolescent audiences because there are certainly more relevant, mature films to help us deal with the vagaries of life, and a certain amount of tedium with the plot set in for me, though the fine filmcraft and performances kept me highly engaged to the bitterly triumphant end.
As it turns out, Harry’s lightning bolt truly was the Mark of Cain, though not one involving a blood tie. Harry’s strange link with Voldemort was finally accounted for in the finale: Harry had a piece of Voldemort’s soul locked inside him in infancy from the rebound of the hex the Dark Lord used to kill Harry’s mother. Alien though this fragment might have been, Harry was marked from the beginning as the slayer of a part of himself. Unlike the followers of the dark arts or even the good guys in Dumbledore’s army, Harry recognized Voldemort as the Buddha in the road and killed him in good New Age, if not Buddhist, fashion.
But, of course, philosophies are never simple in modern mythologies, exposed as we are now to influences from around the world that become grafted on to our established belief systems. Harry Potter is inflected with the concerns of a religiously conflicted Christian woman growing up in a country whose memories of the Blitz and Hitler were alive for years after the end of the war. Voldemort and his minions are certainly an embodiment of the maniacal thirst for absolute power and racial purity of Nazism, including the destruction of any impure (half-human) wizards and witches and the general enslavement of the human race to the needs of the elite. Harry’s discovery that his death is needed to render Voldemort mortal certainly smacks of the passion of the Christ, yet resurrection requires Harry only to believe in himself.
It is perhaps this egotism that bothers me the most about the Harry Potter finale and that points to the mediocrity awaiting Harry and his loyal friends 19 years after their defeat of Voldemort, a development Rod took issue with as well. Satisfied with revenge and the preservation of Hogswarts and its generally sunny way of life, Harry, famous and extraordinary during his entire youth, abandons the greater good. He settles into middle-class normalcy with his witch wife, Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright), and assures his Hogwarts-bound, hellbent-to-be-a Gryffindor son that even if the Sorting Hat thinks he belongs in Slytherin, it offers some wiggle room by taking the wishes of the student into consideration. Not much, mind you—England is as trapped in its class distinctions as ever, and I have to wonder if billionaire Rowling has discovered that money will never buy her the privilege of respect a blueblood automatically achieves, and thus written about geneology as destiny in more ways than one. Harry could have ended the clannishness of the system—he united all to the cause of defeating Voldemort—but he seems content to ride out his days in the quiet comfort of tradition.
From a cinematic perspective, my druthers for this final film would have included the epic struggle the trio of friends experienced in finding and destroying the “horcruxes” that contained fractions of Voldemort’s soul—present in the penultimate film, but not in this one. Simply stabbing the generally compliant horcruxes with a snake tooth was so perfunctory as to make the task seem hardly worth the effort. Generally speaking, if the filmmakers knew they were going to split the ending into two parts before production, why not make a full movie at the end? Even if they didn’t, surely there must have been ample opportunity to flesh out some of the more interesting aspects of the narrative, from the horcrux hunt to how the battle might have affected the Muggle world. While some scenes work beautifully, for example, the infiltration of Gringott’s and the climbing, crashing escape of the captive dragon that guarded its vaults, the feeling of sprinting to the finish line dropped this film a bit below the high watermark of careful, full-bodied construction I have associated with other entries in the series.
The appearance of Dumbledore’s brother (Ciaran Hinds) leaves me trembling with trepidation that Warner Bros. may try to spin off another series featuring Potter fils and Ron and Hermione’s youngsters. Certainly the battle between good and evil will never end, but as for Harry Potter, this ending was well done, fitting, and conclusive.
A decade and many dollars later, the Harry Potter saga comes to an end, and I found myself looking back on why I even got interested in the series in the first place. I can actually pinpoint it to a TV ad for the first film, a glimpse of the inside of Gringott’s, the goblin bank, with John Williams’ inspired drunken-waltz theme ringing out. There was something about the mix of sound and vision that hooked me and the satiric strangeness of the image, and the promise of a revival of the spit-polish Spielbergian production style I had grown up with powerful enough to draw me into a movie theatre at a time when adult Harry Potter fans were still mostly in the closet. When I partook of this last installment, three-quarters of the audience were over 20. All of us, the kids and adults who first went to see that film, and especially the actors portraying the young heroes—Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton, Matthew Lewis, Bonnie Wright, and many others—are different people to those of a decade ago, and what a 10 years it has been. I felt gratified that a major set-piece returns to Gringott’s with a vision of those malevolent little goblin bureaucrats now having their world turned upside down by a rampaging dragon. If that’s not a metaphor for the current global financial crisis, it might as well be.
Looking back on it, the early ’00s were something of a promising golden age for fans of the cinefantastique, for we had the mighty Lord of the Rings films, the second Star Wars trilogy, the early and better X-Men and Spider-Man films, and hell, even the middle installment of The Matrix series; all promised good things ahead, even if crushing disappointment sometimes resulted. The Potter series is pretty well the last of them, the dark horse that might have remained the overdrawn gee-whiz kid’s stuff Chris Columbus served up in his first two films. But the series has more than paid off the initial promise to grow up along with its audience and up the stakes of the drama. With these films gone, I suppose we’ll have to grit our teeth and get used to being pulverised by Michael Bay, Guy Ritchie, and the other cinematic Voldemorts.
Recently, when I sat down and watched the series right through again, I had to give the filmmakers their propers. Even given the pudgy, overdrawn aspects of Columbus’ entries and the sometimes fragmented narratives of later ones, very few film series have sustained such a level of intricacy blended with scale over such a canvas. That’s partly enabled by the relatively stolid, parochial values they espouse—when boiled, down these films are just about friends sticking together and fighting threats from without. I couldn’t help but notice the disparity between Helena Bonham Carter’s brilliance as Bellatrix Lestrange, clad like a neo-Victorian goth sweeping all before her, and Emma Watson, who finishes up clad in the same get-up while disguised as Bellatrix. This makes an unexpected comment on the final vision of our heroes at the end of the saga, settled comfortably into bland, parental middle age and looking entirely like normal suburbanites, sexless and paunchy—suddenly my empathy for the Death Eaters, who seem to genuinely enjoy being bizarre, brilliant outsiders, skyrocketed. After years of bloodcurdling battle, was it really only so our hero could turn into David Brent? The Harry Potter stories do seem just a little too determined to lull their fans into a sense of comfortable normalcy rather than celebrating uniqueness, and the damage the heroes continually wreak on the settled order is generally only to ensure it’s pieced back together properly. I’m being churlish, I know, but still I feel it’s worth interrogating the material on this level, if only because it’s so damn good in so many other respects.
I wasn’t one of those who disliked the first half of the adaptation of J. K. Rowling’s final novel, party because I dug its dark, eerie, forlorn tone and appreciated how much heavy lifting Yates had done in clearing the decks surrounding character relationships, which pays off in spades here. Part Two begins in the same bleak, shell-shocked key as its predecessor precisely where we left off: Harry, Ron, and Hermione are hunting down the horcruxes in which villain Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) has hidden portions of his soul to ensure his survival. They enlist the aid of Gringott’s employee Griphook (Warwick Davis, splendidly mordant, who does double duty as Professor Flitwick) to break into the bank to steal away a horcrux kept in Bellatrix’s vault. This requires penetrating the elaborate defences of Gringott’s and then getting out again. Hermione has the lunatic, brilliant idea of fleeing on the back of a dragon kept as watchdog, which thrashes its way across the rooftops of London before the heroes leap from its back into a Scottish loch. They sneak into Hogwarts School with the aid of Aberforth (Ciaran Hinds), the bitter, peevish brother of the late headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), and when they meet up again with their friends from Dumbledore’s army, including Harry’s current flame Ginny (Wright), former flame Cho (Katie Leung), the awkward, good-natured Neville Longbottom (Lewis), serenely daffy Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), and all the others, the mood of loss and alienation that so permeated Part One instantly melts away. The young folk of Hogwarts finally get to make good on all that education.
It’s almost impossible, then, with the weight of emotion and ballet of stories that have built up to this moment, not to be carried away with the thrill of the Hogwarts staff and student body revolting against the grimly fascistic regime that has descended on the school. Neville sports black eyes because he refused to participate in the new school training method of practising torture curses on first-year students. Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, offering a marvelous capper to his series-long turn full of arch aggression and sullen feeling), the new headmaster and secret triple agent, flees rather than face the furious magic unleashed on him by McGonagall (Maggie Smith), only to die treacherously at the hands of Voldemort. Voldemort by now has recognised the threat to his peculiar life insurance scheme, and musters an army of followers to smash through the defences of Hogwarts and battle the determined resisters within as if this is some fantasy lovechild of If… (1968) and the school sequences in Pink Floyd The Wall (1982). Harry and Co. search for the remaining horcruxes, only to learn through Snape’s siphoned memories that Harry is one himself and must die.
Of course, it’s not as simple as that, but here the overt Christ parables snap into focus as death and resurrection result. Fortunately, muscular Christianity is the point here. Thrilling snatched visions and apocalyptic anarchy sprawl across Yates’ expertly controlled widescreen framing: there’s none of Bay’s flagrant visual bullshit here. Neville actually becomes the most compelling figure in the battle, bravely luring Voldemort’s soldiers into a trap on a disintegrating bridge, and standing up with a Churchillian speech and show of defiance to heckling bad guys about to get the shock of their lives.
If there’s a loss with this incident-packed grand finale, it’s of those dryly funny little set-pieces that have come to truly mark Yates’ contributions to the series, offering nothing quite as weirdly funny as the spider funeral in The Half-Blood Prince (2009) and the Nick Cave dance in The Deathly Hallows: Part One, and few of the more intimate character moments that had featured since Alfonso Cuaron’s The Prisoner of Azkaban (2003). There is, however, a last-minute breath of the wispy sensuality that has often pervaded the series, as Harry attempts to appease the ghost of Helena Ravenclaw (Kelly Macdonald, along with Hinds, the only major new blood), a vision of angry, melancholic beauty guarding the permeable gates of life, love, and death. This mood floats up again in a flashback revealing the tragic history of Snape’s love for Harry’s mother, when he delighted her with levitating flowers and bawled in pain over her dead body. Such is a timely reminder of the moral and emotional cost of Voldemort’s predations that echo on through generations and inspire depths of hatred and determination of quite supernatural intensity. There’s an action set-piece in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione battle Draco Malfoy (Felton) and his goons in the Room of Requirement, concluding in a firestorm that is spectacular, but gilds the lily a bit. The same can be said, though in a different sense, for a scene in which Harry, before offering himself up Christ-like for Voldemort, chats with the shades of his parents (Adrian Rawlins and Geraldine Somerville), Lupin (David Thewlis), and Sirius (Gary Oldman): the point of the scene has been endlessly reiterated throughout the series, and seems more an excuse just to squeeze those actors in again.
But Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves successfully patch up some of the awkward narrative motion of Rowling’s book. Her familiar structural motif—to limit most of the drama to the immediate viewpoint of Harry—which she manipulated so well in the early novels, proved more than a bit clunky on the epic canvas of the finale. Yates and Kloves even manage to make the crucial sequence of Harry learning of Snape’s (Alan Rickman) motivations and the terrible truth about himself in the process seem a grimly beautiful narrative switchback, rather than an awkward bit of storytelling. The incredible sprawl of British character actors sees some greats reduced to a few scant lines of dialogue, but those can be made to count: Jim Broadbent’s Horace Slughorn seemed able to wring belly-laughs from audience members around me with every wheezy exclamation. Michael Gambon comes back for a few salutary moments in the afterlife, which resembles King’s Cross railway station. In general, this climax is, and I say this with all due diligence and restraint as a sober film critic, pretty damn awesome. It’s just as intense, heroic, bloodthirsty, and wildly cinematic as you want it to be. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a movie audience go as quiet as during the scene in which Harry marches towards his doom under his eternal foil Voldemort’s wand, and at the end they were clapping—it’s been years since I’ve seen an audience applaud a movie outside a festival setting.
Yates has successfully maintained continuity in the series with a vivid tradition of British fantasy. Big finishes to huge movie series are notoriously difficult to pull off. Even the points where it stops for breath and stock-taking become part of a genuinely tense anticipation. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) is, in spite of its longuers, pretty much the gold standard of that sort of thing, though I tended to think back more to Return of the Jedi (1983), the underrated series closer of the Star Wars saga, as one of the better examples that, in spite of the Ewoks and lazy plotting, managed to sustain and contrast three different levels and types of conflict. It’s in this regard that Yates stumbles a bit in moving between focal points in his colossal final battles, which lack the sorts of varied, rapidly intercut vignettes that make for great battle scenes. I had expected Yates to expand upon the snippets Rowling provided, but he rather disappointingly doesn’t. Molly Weasley’s (Julie Walters) death duel with Bellatrix, perhaps the most relishable and unexpected scene in the novel, makes the cut, but it’s poorly set-up and weirdly jagged, as if Yates sensed everyone would be ticked off if he didn’t include it. This appears to be evidence that the constant pressure to keep everything moving makes the editing occasionally too tight. But still, these are fairly minor quibbles.
I recall an acquaintance predicting half of the cast would be dead by the time this film rolled around, which has thankfully not come true. As much as I love Gambon as an actor, he never quite erased the memory of Richard Harris’ pitch-perfect turn as Dumbledore, but Harris has been, thankfully, the only major loss. I suspect Smith, Rickman, and a few others, however, will be glad to kick back now. If some of the familiar series stalwarts fade into the background, like Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid, it’s because, appropriately, Harry is characterised through his firm moments of newly adult, genuine leader’s resolve, keeping his eye on the prize no matter what injury befalls those around him, a sadly necessary evolution. The quality of these films’ cast has always been a secret weapon, even if sometimes the weapons go fizz. Here Fiennes’ villainy finally gets some space to strut. If there’s a problem with Voldemort, it’s that he’s so completely and utterly a bad guy, treating even his suppliant first lady Bellatrix with rampant contempt, that he doesn’t quite infuriate as much as, say, the cutesy-poo sadist Dolores Umbridge, so reminiscent of bad schoolteachers the world over. But Fiennes knows how to play bad guys, and he manages to give Voldemort cheerless, numbingly arrogant grandeur, and a kind of pathos, thanks to the void in his soul that his relentless efforts never fill. This is cruelly exposed when he tries to hug Draco in a congratulatory moment—the Charles Montgomery Burns of dark wizards.
It’s apt then that Yates compensates for his other hesitations in offering a bristling, thrilling, proper duel between Harry and Voldemort, something Rowling didn’t quite deliver on. This is especially gratifying in that it involves the clear spectacle of Voldemort not simply being outsmarted, as on the page, but taken down not just a few pegs, but every peg. Here Harry evokes Shakespearean grit as he grabs hold of Voldemort and hurls them both from the Hogwarts battlements, hand in hand to hell, only to streak through the sky before crashing into the courtyard for a final duel that results in the villain disintegrating into a shower of gossamer ash flakes, a fascinatingly delicate dissolution for a supervillain. Yates’ sense of the grandeur in stillness finally resolves in a moving moment of exhausted quiet, as Harry, Ron, and Hermione stand with the flaming ruins of Hogwarts behind them, filled with the quiet elation of survival.
Perhaps Graham Greene’s best-known novel, 1938’s Brighton Rock, was filmed first in 1947 by John Boulting and proved a foundation stone for the British strand of film noir. Greene’s survival and ascension to become one of the most recognised and admired writers from his era says something about the durability of Greene’s blend of no-nonsense prose and capacity to blend serious thematic and psychological investigation with solid storytelling. Perhaps Greene’s durability depends in part on the fact that he knew the cinema well and adjudged its likely impact on audiences for literature as well, sensing intuitively how the two arts would eventually help define each other. Boulting’s film hinged on the capacity of young star Richard Attenborough to project baby-faced menace and oily charm in equal measure. The new version of Brighton Rock seems much more a work laden with a self-conscious sense of legacies—of Greene, of British and classic film noir history, and of director Rowan Joffe, the son of ill-fated faux-auteur Roland Joffe. Joffe fils makes his feature directing debut with the film after two telemovies and some strong screenwriting work, like his admirably curt script for Anton Corbijn’s The American (2010). Joffe’s script retains the storyline and moral permeations of Greene’s novel, but his cinematic tone is rather different to the sort of dry, unadorned compactness Greene specialised in.
Sam Riley, the young star of Corbijn’s overrated, but sturdy Control (2009), takes over Attenborough’s role as Pinkie Brown, young psychopath and emblem of troubled youth and Catholic angst. Joffe’s adaptation is reset in 1964, the year of the infamous Mod-Rocker riot previously depicted in Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979). Pinkie is the sort of youth who keeps a drawer full of weapons of pain and carries a vial of acid in his pocket. Initially, he’s an minor stand-over man for a bookie, Bell (Danny Banks), who is semi-accidentally stabbed to death in the opening scene by rival hoods led by Colleoni (Andy Serkis). That opening is shot in boldly expressionistic style by Joffe, with rain, abstracted architecture, silhouettes, and pooled source lighting, and punctuated with blasts of menacing Inception-style horns that suggest things of great and terrible import are about to occur. Here Joffe announces his seeming intent to return a bit of old-school cinematic vigour to the contemporary screen.
Bell’s small crew, including the aging, vexed Spicer (Phil Davis) and hulking Dallow (Nonso Anozie), plan moderated revenge upon Bell’s killer, Hale (Sean Harris). Pinkie finds Hale in a public toilet, but his hesitation allows Hale to fake him out and then disarm him. Pinkie and the rest of the crew track him to Brighton Pier, where he is chasing girls and trying to pick up mousy Rose Wilson (Andrea Riseborough). When Spicer finds him, he, Hale, and Rose are snapped by a pier photographer, who gives Rose a ticket to claim the picture later. When Pinkie chases down Hale and gets a cut on the face from his knife, Pinkie tackles him and beats his head in with a rock. Shocked, Spicer orders Pinkie to get close to Rose so he can steal the ticket to claim the photograph.
Rose works as a waitress in the tea shop of Ida (Helen Mirren), a hardened, independent woman. A friend of Hale’s and of independent bookie Phil Corkery (John Hurt), Ida catches wind of Pinkie’s killing of Hale and sets out to nail him, especially when she learns of Rose’s swiftly forming infatuation for him. Rose is immediately compelled by Pinkie’s air of intensity and because he appeals to a budding masochistic streak in her: “You can keep doing that…if you like it,” she whispers as he fiercely twists the skin on her hand in a moment of pique. Rose quickly enough realises Pinkie’s outlaw status, but digs it: chafing against the dowdy parsimony of working-class life, she interestingly contrasts Ida, a woman with a wholehearted, yet unwholesome romanticism. The change in milieu then interestingly reconfigures the asocial impulses of Greene’s young characters from the ’30s, where they were violently out of place, into one in which they fit, if darkly—the ’60s youth movement. Pinkie and Rose contrast their older doubles, Spicer and Ida, whose dreams and expectations are small-scale self-realisation: Spicer wants to own a pub in the north, and Ida enjoys her no-strings coterie of “gentleman friends” that excludes the sort of transcendent ardour and emotional outlet the younger folk seek at all costs.
It’s peculiarly telling then that Joffe’s version of Brighton Rock sees Rose rather than Pinkie become its most affecting character. That’s not entirely deliberate: both Joffe’s awkward script and Riley’s surprisingly one-note characterisation conspire to limit what ought to be Pinkie’s impact, considering that he was the prototypical version of Alex DeLarge, the main figure of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, as lightning rod for everything sexy and amoral about dangerous youth. Whilst he’s effective enough in early scenes as Pinkie begins to grow swiftly in sensing his power—legally endangered and religiously damned and yet psychically liberated by his killing of Hale—Riley spurns the vulnerable, quicksilver sensitivity he showed in his performance as Ian Curtis in Control, which might have effectively permeated this role. It becomes hard to see just why Rose falls so heavily for him: he’s just too much the knit-browed young psycho. The result eventually seems cartoonish in portraying pathetic neediness and masochistic impulse meeting a perfect illusion-spinning antihero.
This lack of finesse is apparent on several levels in Brighton Rock as it quickly proves that Joffe has less an inherent sense of the classic film styles he tries to evoke, and more a serious case of that tragic malady known as The Director Thinks They’re Hitchcock Syndrome, a disease that strikes one out of ten young directors. Pointlessly florid crane and tracking shots, and hammy Herrmann-esque orchestral sounds threaten to drown the felicities of his better ideas. Joffe’s film school cinema embroiders but hardly suits the carbolic hiss of Greene’s writing, which was far better put across on screen by cold-blooded bastards like Carol Reed and Otto Preminger.
Rather inevitably, but in a well-staged fashion, a riot features in a set-piece sequence. This comes when Pinkie decides to have Spicer killed after he rats him out to the police (the excellent actor Maurice Roëves appears for about 30 seconds as Pinkie’s grilling police detective). Having received and accepted an offer of partnership from Colleoni, a smoothed-over overlord ensconced in the Brighton Grand Hotel, Pinkie arranges to have Colleoni’s men kill Spicer under the pier. But the mods are streaming into town, and in Joffe’s best moment, Pinkie gives Spicer a lift to what he thinks will be a business meeting on his scooter and finds himself surrounded by a flotilla of such vehicles, menacing music droning as the oncoming tide of dark energy enfolds and briefly includes Pinkie’s life arc. But he swiftly finds himself outside it again as Colleoni’s boys try to kill him as well, and he finishes up fleeing stiletto-wielding thugs amidst a landscape of convulsive violence as the youth armies begin to battle. Such a moment nods to both Roddam and also the equally helter-skelter depiction of the collapse of Cambodia in papa Roland’s The Killing Fields (1984).
The film introduces early on Pinkie’s strange version of Catholicism where Hell is much more vivid and literal to him than any notion of paradise, willing on perdition and the resulting sensation of gloriously evil he gains from this notion and which Rose is attracted to. “I don’t want to be good!” she shouts at Pinkie, to his retort, “No, I’m bad, and you’re good. We’re made for each other.” Sadly, Joffe underscores the point in a sequence in which they get married, with Pinkie cast in shadows and Rose aglow in a shaft of sun. An equally snigger-worthy interlude comes when Rose visits church and Joffe indulges the inevitable Catholic fetishism with massed candles. It’s like an early Madonna video.
The incapacity of Joffe to get a solid grip on the deeper dimensions of the story, which are pretty old-hat at the best of times, and the way both Pinkie and Rose get off on their calculated blasphemies, mean that his film never successfully elevates itself above relatively factotum bad-boy melodrama. Brighton Rock offers the standard refrains of the British gangster flick in which the scary-sexy monster compels and alarms those around him but located in a quaint period setting. Those refrains were probably largely instituted by Greene’s work and its influence on Burgess’s, but with strands going back to Oliver Twist’s Bill Sykes and Nancy, and reproduced in quite a lot of British gangster films in recent years, including Sexy Beast, Essex Boys, and Gangster No. 1, all from 2000. Still, Joffe and Riseborough conspire to pull off one excellent moment late in the film, in which Rose succumbs to temptation and steals ₤10 to buy herself a hip dress, twirling with oblivious, pitiable pleasure before Pinkie, who’s furious at a visit from Ida and who is becoming convinced Rose will sell him out. Joffe also at least does right in his recreations of period squalor and depression, particularly in a scene in which Rose takes Pinkie to meet her father (Steve Evets), from whom he basically buys Rose for ₤150. This is the shitty world hidden behind the glitz of the Brighton waterfront and the castlelike Grand Hotel which keeps its toffy clients well protected from the grim grittiness of the street and which gives ambient context to the rage and frustration of the kids who aren’t alright.
The usually reliable Serkis unfortunately delivers a sorry piece of archness in his appearances as Colleoni, seated upon a chaise lounge and petting its fabric with erotic menace. Mirren’s role and performance are both rather clichéd, indicating Joffe fell prey to the problems of celebrity casting. Joffe utilises a vicious couplet of sequences added by Greene to the script of the 1947 film, and recreates them almost exactly the way Boulting shot them. Rose, beaming with hopeful ignorance through the glass of a recording booth in which Pinkie, cajoled by her to put his voice on vinyl, records a gruesomely abusive message for her; she can’t listen to the message because neither of them has a record player. When Rose finally gets hold of a player at the end, after she’s been cast into a borstal for her complicity in Pinkie’s crimes, the disc skips and keeps repeating a part of the message, “I love you,” over and over. In the 1947 film, this was clearly linked to a rather cute but affecting piece of transcendental reassurance on the behalf of a nun; here the ramification is much less clear, suggesting that Rose is more a hopeless self-deluder and emotional junkie, and the very last shot seems weirdly inexact and hammy. The problem of Joffe’s constantly indebted style is finally sharpened to a point; his film comes across like a system of borrowed affectations and meanings without ever quite developing a personality of its own. By the time its rather overwrought finale rolls around, in which Pinkie expires rather fittingly with a face full of his own acid before plunging over a white cliff of Dover, Brighton Rock is already too clearly a failure in ambition, substance, and style. The better scenes, Riseborough’s and Hurt’s excellent performances, and John Mathieson’s lively photography, do suggest what a more mature cinematic talent might have managed.
In life and art, the blackest of humor has always been a part of the Irish sensibility. Although the lace-curtain Irish have fought for respectability against the more anarchic elements that surface regularly from the Irish collective unconscious, their own rioting at the premiere of John M. Synge’s patricidal and immodest Playboy of the Western World shows a nature that simply won’t be denied. Odd Man Out provides another unflattering portrait of the Irish, mixed with the noble image they tend to have of themselves and their struggles. In the end, only love proves honest, if not entirely honorable.
Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is the head of an unnamed organization no one could fail to recognize as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He has barely paused to take a breath following his release after a long stretch in prison before getting back to business, meeting with his compatriots at the Belfast home of Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) to plan a payroll robbery to help fund the organization. Guns are issued, and as Pat (Cyril Cusack) brandishes his buoyantly, Johnny scolds him not to be quick to use it. Johnny’s second in command, Dennis (Robert Beatty), urges him to sit out the robbery, observing that he seems shaky. Kathleen, who is in love with Johnny, agrees with Dennis, but Johnny feels that he needs to assert his command and that his rightful place is alongside those taking the risks.
Johnny and his three co-conspirators walk into the mill they plan to rob and empty the contents of the office safe into their valises. As they make their way down a hall, the alarm sounds. As the others exit and hop into the getaway car, Johnny is momentarily dazzled by the sunlight. A guard catches up with them and wrestles with Johnny, shooting him in the shoulder. Johnny draws his weapon, kills the guard, and is dragged alongside the car by two of his men as Pat speeds away. Pat takes a sharp turn, and Johnny is flung free of the car. As Pat argues with his comrades about his fears of capture if he backs the car up to rescue their fallen leader—making his argument legitimate by wasting oodles of time—Johnny staggers to his feet and disappears around a corner.
Johnny’s gang exemplifies the opposite of the discipline and loyalty that would have characterized the IRA when Johnny and Dennis were coming up. Dennis is aghast that the gang left Johnny behind, but it’s clear that Pat was only thinking of himself. Pat’s lies to Dennis about why Johnny didn’t make it back with them forces Dennis into the streets to find his comrade.
Johnny evades capture when Dennis, having located him, lures the cops away by pretending to be the injured Johnny and rather carelessly sacrificing his own freedom by punching a couple of cops on a crowded bus. Johnny gets past a roadblock in a hansom cab that the police searched earlier. The cabbie (Joseph Tomelty), astonished to see Johnny in his cab, settles him into a washtub discarded in a dump on the edge of town. There Johnny sits, ridiculous, with snow falling around him, until a ratty little man named Shell (F. J. McCormick) finds him and contemplates whether to turn him in to the police to collect the sizeable reward on his head or negotiate with Father Tom (W. G. Fay), the priest the Catholic community turns to when looking out for their own best interests.
At this point, the story veers sharply from the IRA story and transforms into a strange burlesque in which Johnny becomes almost incidental, serving merely as the catalyst by which we view the Irish character as it is constellated by a talented and varied cast. Shell favors amusing, elliptical blarney to communicate his insider information, for example, bringing one of his pet birds to Father Tom and using it to allude to his discovery of Johnny in the washtub. He goes from planning to claim the £50,000 reward to agreeing to come to terms with the priest, though it’s pretty clear that he’ll probably get nothing but a florid thank-you. Is he inept? A fool? A patriot? McCormick dances with the highly literate dialogue provided by F. L. Green, screenwriter and author of the novel on which the film is based, and transforms Shell into a Beckett character, waiting for his ship to come in, yet seeming to conspire to ensure that it won’t.
The other half of this Godot pair is the iconic mad artist, here named Lukey and played broadly by Robert Newton. Lukey lives in the same tenement as Shell and waylays him whenever possible to pose for endless hours as a model for a series of Christ paintings. When he finds out that Shell has a lead on Johnny, Lukey is overcome with the idea of being able to paint the eyes of a dying man. The machinations that get Johnny out of a private booth in the Crown Bar (shot on location in Belfast) and in front of Lukey are too absurd to detail here. The stereotypical Irish thirst for booze and brawling takes the spotlight as Johnny hallucinates the heads of people he’s spoken with during the day in the bubbles of beer spilled on his table.
The outside world is a mixed bag that Reed carefully locates with his set decoration in the various strata of Belfast society. Two women trained in first aid during the war come to Johnny’s aid, and bring him into their thoroughly bourgeois home. Their goodness won’t allow them to turn him in, but they disapprove of him and don’t want to be mixed up in his criminality. War profiteer and vice lord Maudie (Beryl Measor), on the other hand, lives in a resplendently tacky home that has its own phone booth. Maudie is a Mother Courage knock-off—not so far from Reed’s most famous character, Harry Lime—selling Pat and his comrade out to protect her interests with the police. In this sense, what goes around comes around for the selfish and stupid Pat.
You couldn’t ask for a better-looking, more atmospheric film than Odd Man Out. Many noirish elements, including deep shadows, nighttime exteriors, shooting down stairwells, skewed camera angles, cages, and bars mark Johnny as a trapped animal. During Johnny’s fevered meanderings through Belfast, director Carol Reed treats us to frightening and absurd hallucinations, like the aforementioned, surreal “bubble heads,” but more poignantly, Johnny’s hallucination of his jailor as he hides in the air raid shelter and imagines it is his cell. We come to understand Johnny better from his imaginary conversation with this jailor than in many of the real-world interactions he has.
James Mason emphasizes his character’s weakness, not strength, his foolishness, not his resolve. Johnny’s self-defeating pride, his wavering commitment to armed resistance to achieve a united Ireland while failing to take his own advice to Pat, his offhandedness about Kathleen’s love, and his relative passivity as he’s passed around like a hot potato by wary locals make him less a Christlike figure than a pawn, an idea.
But it’s not that he doesn’t have a prayer—in fact, Kathleen intends to escort him to Father Tom while they wait for a boat that will take them to freedom. Of course, the symbolism of the boat signals death (one is reminded of James Mason on another boat—a cursed ship in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), and Kathleen provides an angel’s love to escort him beyond life to a place where she can protect him for all eternity. Kathleen seems to be the moral center of this film because of the purity of her love that seems very motherly (is she chaste as well?), but the life of the guard Johnny killed means nothing to her in the grand scheme of her devotion.
Most of the characters in this film seem quite childish. In an early scene, a group of children are playing soccer in the street when their ball lands at the feet of a grown man. Instead of passing it back to them, he kicks it as hard as he can in the opposite direction—a nice device that eventually will lead to Dennis’ discovery of Johnny, but also a needlessly mean and infantile reaction from the man. Late in the film, Johnny quotes a famous line he learned from Father Tom: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Ironically, Johnny’s pangs of adult conscience and an awareness of mature feelings for Kathleen are only awakened when he is at his most helpless and dependent—in the last hours of his life, after he learned he had killed a man. Odd Man Out is an Irish tragedy indeed.
On the eve of the 2011 American Independence Day celebrations, I shake my head in disgust at the infighting and class warfare that has paralyzed our state and federal governments and caused at least one state government—Minnesota—to shut down this week. Our country seems to be tearing itself apart, and I wonder not only about our future, but also about how we came to this pass only 60-some years after working to end the most devastating conflagration and genocide in history. What has turned our people into stubborn, petty, self-entitled jerks who can’t even come up with a fair budget, when once we were willing to sacrifice our very lives to defeat the idea of an Übermensch? It would be my prescription to every last idiot in every government in this land, from the smallest village to Capitol Hill, to watch Carve Her Name with Pride to remember what human honor, dignity, and sacrifice look like and what they can accomplish.
I didn’t know anything about Carve Her Name with Pride, let alone the true story it tells, before I chose to watch it. I knew it was on a cable station that had commercials (a big minus) and that it would take 2-1/2 hours of my evening from start to finish. But I was attracted to the fact that it was a British film from the ’50s, I am currently reading a book that reproduces first-person accounts of the Blitz from the diaries of the “mass observers” in Britain during WWII, and that the chance to see this film ever again might be very slim. I was floored by the sad, moving, and genuinely inspiring tale that unfolded before my eyes.
Violette Bushell (Virginia McKenna), a pretty 19-year-old, takes her friend Vera (Avice Landone) with her to Hyde Park in London as she looks for a French soldier to invite home for dinner to celebrate Bastille Day, 1940. This rather odd mission is an assignment from her mother, a French woman married to an Englishman she met in Paris during the First World War. The women hook up with a legionnaire, Etienne Szabó (Alain Saury), and it is virtually love at first sight for him and Violette. After an amusing montage of their brief courtship, with Vera the constant chaperone, the lovers marry and spend a few idyllic days in the country before Etienne is to report for duty in North Africa. During this trip, Etienne gives Violette a poem he was inspired to write on the eve of their parting.
The film fast-forwards to 1942. Violette and several neighbor women are gathered at her parents’ home. Violette is tending to Tania (Pauline Challoner), the daughter Etienne has never seen, when a messenger arrives with a telegram announcing that Etienne has been killed in action. Another fast-forward shows Violette going to the government pension bureau six months later, presumably to handle some details regarding her widow’s pension. Instead, she is met by a Mr. Potter (Sydney Tafler), who offers her a job as a secret agent in the Special Operations Executive (SOE). After weighing the sacrifices, particularly with regard to Tania, Violette determines that it’s her turn to do her part for the war effort. The rest of the film details her training and deployment to France on two separate missions to help shattered cells of the French resistance reorganize and carry out sabotage missions, and her capture shortly after D-Day.
Lewis Gilbert is a distinguished director with a very successful track record, including helming three James Bond films (You Only Live Twice , The Spy Who Loved Me , and Moonraker ), and such popular female-centered films as Educating Rita (1983) and Shirley Valentine (1989). While the fanciful 007 stories are worlds away from the workaday depiction of SOE training in Carve Her Name, his confidence in handling female characters who come into their own certainly was presaged by his approach to Violette Szabó’s story. It is Gilbert’s strong focus on Violette, and Virginia McKenna’s brilliant performance, that make this film so compelling.
The film economically and effectively builds Violette’s life and character, centering them around her love and generosity, so that we are quickly drawn into caring about her. There is never a doubt that the love between Etienne and Violette is real. Gilbert frames Etienne as a fine figure of a man in a full-length shot of him in his uniform when Vera first points him out to Violette, a worthy figure of adoration. Their easy, fluent introductions in French cement the perfect fit. Violette’s determination to marry Etienne in the face of her father’s (Jack Warner) initial opposition at their short acquaintance, and then cheerful assent, telegraphs not only her strong personality and depth of feeling, but also the deep bonds of love and mutual support in the Bushell family. While the poem Etienne gives Violette is a bit of dramatic license—in fact, it was a code poem given to the real Violette by SOE cryptographer Leo Marks—its inclusion early on effectively sets the tone of the entire film, creating an indelible impression of eternal love that foreshadows not only the tragedies to befall the Szabós, but also their love of humanity that led to their sacrifices. In a scene where Violette is tortured by her Nazi captors, their attempt to extract the poem from her shows the perversion of humanity that such fascist movements truly are.
Another bit of dramatic license that is superfluous and undercuts somewhat the power of Violette’s love for Etienne is providing Violette with a romantic interest in the form of another SOE agent, Tony Fraser (Paul Scofield). The two agents meet during some wonderfully realistic training sessions, when Violette shores up Tony’s courage during paratrooper practice (he’s afraid of heights) and Tony helps Violette when she hurts her ankle after a hard landing. Tony and Violette are sent together on the two missions the film chronicles, with Violette narrowly evading the Nazis who suspect her of passing secrets to a contact in the underground in Rouen during the first one. She manages to keep her rendezvous with Tony in Paris, where, in a very touching scene, she buys a dress for her daughter as Etienne imagined they would do together after the war. On the second mission, when both are in Nazi hands and being transported to concentration camps in Germany, a gallows declaration of love between the pair seems melodramatic and unreal.
Where the film is most gripping is in its action sequences. Violette’s first mission seems to be a cakewalk until the shadow of danger falls over her as she goes to meet her contact in the underground. Two Gestapo agents follow her to the bicycle shop where her contact informs her that only three of 96 in the maquis cell are still alive or at liberty; when she is picked up and brought to the commander (Harold Lang) in Rouen, he is the same German who invited her to dinner the night before. He lets her go, but informs his agents that he wasn’t fooled by her deceptions. This scene accurately conveys how dangerous her work is and how the outcome of the war was never assured.
Her second mission is even more compelling. From the moment she launches herself from the airplane to be picked up by the French maquis, to her volunteering to serve as a courier among the maquis cells, the tension is almost unbearable. She and her comrade Jacques (Maurice Ronet) are intercepted in a small town by a small battalion of Germans, and dart among the buildings trying to escape. Violette reinjures her ankle as they flee through the woods and holds off the Germans with Sten gun fire while Jacques tries to escape across a river to warn the maquis of the German approach. As the bullets fly toward Violette and Jacques, and Germans drop under Violette’s assault, the inextricable emotions of desperation and courage rise from the remarkable Virginia McKenna.
I can’t even begin to express how full-bodied McKenna’s performance is. Check, for example, a scene where Violette has a chance to escape the train taking her to Germany when it is bombed. Other prisoners beg for water as she crawls through the smoke to an exit. She stops, looks back, and the camera closes in on her face as a dance of hope, indecision, anger, and finally surrender crosses it; she goes to fetch water for the prisoners. It would be easy to criticize Violette for leaving her toddler to go fight a war, but McKenna’s demeanor in this and other scenes refuses such naysaying as her love goes beyond herself. Her concerns about Tania and careful consideration are well rendered, her farewell before her second mission more tormented, but also more practical, as she draws up her will as her personal act of love. I imagined how this scene must have played out thousands, even millions of times in all the warring countries of the world, how tragic that the madness of those in power forces people to make such difficult choices. At the same time, one senses the pride with which Violette goes to the aid of her mother’s countrymen and women, and how her own experiences preparing for German bombing, only hinted at in this film through the use of blackout curtains and her father’s civil defense uniform, steeled her resolve.
The supporting cast are wonderful, from the training sergeant (Bill Owen) through to the other female SOE agents (Anne Leon and Billie Whitelaw) who suffered Violette’s fate with her. Location shooting in London and the surrounding countryside, of course, gives a sense of veracity to the proceedings and serves to fill out the details of Violette’s life and actions. The Germans are almost completely free of the mustache-twisting villainy that often accompanies them in other films, though her interrogator (Noel Willman) dips into the stereotype a bit. Gilbert chose to cut immediately away from tragedy, preferring a more discreet approach, for example, showing Violette look up at her mother through a doorway when Mrs. Bushell comes to inform her about Etienne’s death, or simply showing Violette’s head resting on a desk after she has been tortured by sleep deprivation. Sometimes this cutting away feels a little abrupt, but it offers Szabó’s story an unmitigated dignity that creates the effect Gilbert wished to achieve.
For her part, Virginia McKenna was honored to play Violette and has supported efforts to keep the memory of her service alive. Here is a clip of McKenna reciting the poem that has justly lived on as a tribute to love and sacrifice.
You can watch Carve Her Name with Pride on YouTube starting here.
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