Black ’47 (2018)

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Soon a Celt will be as rare in Ireland as a Red Indian on the shores of Manhattan. Martin Feeney (James Frecheville) is an Irish Ranger returning to Connemara from the British Empire’s war in Afghanistan to discover his family home destroyed like that of other tenant farmers and everyone dead from starvation, his brother having been hanged for stabbing the bailiff during the family’s eviction. He stays with his brother’s widow Ellie (Sarah Greene) and her children in the property where they’re squatting, making plans for everyone to emigrate to America, until the Anglo-Irish landlord sends in the bailiffs to remove them and Feeney’s nephew is killed.  Feeney is taken away for questioning and burns down the barracks. He returns to find Ellie and her daughter dead from exposure and swears revenge but murderous British Army vet and RIC officer Hannah (Hugo Weaving) is ordered along with Colonel Pope (Freddie Fox) to apprehend him.  Hannah and Feeney served together in Afghanistan and it transpires that Feeney is a deserter but Hannah acknowledges that his former colleague is the best soldier he ever met.  Hannah’s wiles are tested when Feeney goes on the run leaving a trail of grisly destruction behind him and when they encounter Lord Kilmichael (Jim Broadbent) they find they are the ones being chased … The peasants are all the same. No appreciation of beauty.  Described elsewhere as a revenge western, this is a generically apposite form for a story that seeks to describe the psychological wound and schematic genocide caused by the famine enforced by British occupying powers in Ireland 170 years ago as well as delivering a revisionist resistance punch to the oppressors in entertaining fashion. We see the bodies dead from starvation mounting up in corners; food is held under armed guard before being exported to Britain;  we understand that the term ‘taking the soup’ derives from people who really were served broth to convert to Protestantism in a countrywide evangelical drive.  The Famine has featured recently in British TV series Victoria but this is the first time it’s been properly dramatised on the big screen, a strange fate for such a significant disaster that lives as trauma in the folk memory. The title is based on this fact:  in 1847 4,000 ships exported food from Ireland while 400,000 Irish men women and children starved to death during a blight on the potato crop which was their sole food.  The disease affected whole swathes of Europe but Ireland’s position was far worse than that of other countries due to the geographical island location and the British occupation. Taking the action movie approach to this emotive history is smart because it immediately personalises the motivation in an easily digestible narrative that fulfills a kind of empathetic nationalist fantasy about a horrific political crime. While it mostly moves like the clappers in several action sequences, there are almost surreal expressions of violence. There are two rather irksome elements:  the decision to use subtitles that bob about distractingly all over the image; and the failure to engage a major Irish star in the lead. This may seem like cavil but Frecheville’s dour expression isn’t assisted either by a huge ginger beard that wouldn’t look out of place on Santa Claus and camouflages him. And it’s an odd choice in a film that is ultimately speaking an historical truth to power when your protagonist is Australian, no matter how good Frecheville is in the Clint Eastwood role, the ranger turncoat; but Stephen Rea does his usual thing as tracker/guide Conneely, while rising stars Barry Keoghan and Moe Dunford get extremely good supporting parts; and Broadbent is brutally effective as the vicious absentee landlord inspired by an ancestor of the notorious Lord Lucan. Weaving is typically good and the ending at a crossroads is apt for a story rooted in a nation permanently playing both ends against the middle with tragic outcomes. It’s not perfect but it’s gripping and who ever knew there were so many shades of grey before Declan Quinn photographed those Galway skies?! Some compositions could be out of a Paul Henry painting. Adapted by P.J. Dillon and Pierce Ryan from their short film An Ranger with further writing from director Lance Daly and Eugene O’Brien. Everyone’s starving and they’re putting food on boats

Gunga Din (1939)

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You will never leave here. Already your graves are dug! British army sergeants Tommy Ballantine (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), Archibald Cutter (Cary Grant) and Mac MacChesney (Victor McLaglen) serve in India on the North West Frontier during the 1880s, along with their native water-bearer, Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe). While completing a dangerous telegraph-repair mission, they unearth evidence of the suppressed Thuggee cult. When Gunga Din tells the sergeants about a secret temple made of gold, the fortune-hunting Cutter is captured by the Thuggees, and it’s up to his friends to rescue him before the Thuggees run rampage across the territory... Ever since time began, they’ve called mad all the great soldiers in this world. Mad? We shall see what wisdom lies within my madness. Loosely adapted from Rudyard Kipling’s poem and his short story collection Soldiers Three, Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur’s story has a central conflict closely related to their play The Front Page. The screenplay by Joel Sayre and Fred Guiol with uncredited additions by Anthony Veiller, Lester Cohen, John Colton, Dudley Nichols, Vincent Lawrence and William Faulkner (if only we knew!) is a ripping yarn, classical Hollywood at its finest, with George Stevens at the helm. Redolent with wit, fun, danger and charm – Grant even has a way with an elephant! – and his and McLaglen’s reactions to Fairbanks’ marriage to Joan Fontaine are highly amusing. This is a marvellous action adventure, reeking of camaraderie and derring-do and good old-fashioned brio. Reginald Sheffield appears uncredited as Kipling. Lone Pine CA and Yuma AZ stand in for India! You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din 

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

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Now listen to me you benighted muckers. We’re going to teach you soldiering. The world’s noblest profession. When we’re done with you, you’ll be able to slaughter your enemies like civilised men.  The exploits of Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) and Danny Dravot (Sean Connery), a  pair of English military officers stationed in India in the 1880s. Tired of life as soldiers, the two travel to the isolated land of Kafiristan, barely known since it was conquered by Alexander the Great, where they are ultimately embraced by the people and revered as rulers. After a series of misunderstandings, the natives come to believe that Dravot is a god, but he and Carnehan can’t keep up their deception forever and when Dravot takes a fancy to local beauty Roxanne (Shakira Caine) his god-like demeanour is finally unmasked…  He wants to know if you are gods./Not Gods – Englishmen. The next best thing. This adaptation of a short story by Rudyard Kipling is one of the very best action adventures ever made: characterful, funny, brilliantly staged and performed. Director John Huston had wanted to make it so long that he had hoped to film it with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Indeed, there are clear connections with this and his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as well as Gunga Din. The imperialist story is really a parody of the desire for power. This country isn’t big enough for these good-natured overreachers! Their friendship is wittily explored and Christopher Plummer as Kipling is easily a match for the well-cast leads while Saeed Jaffrey makes for a marvellous Billy Fish, the sole Gurkha soldier remaining of a failed British expedition. Deftly told with non-stop action, this is a vivid, spirited and sublime, self-aware entertainment.  Adapted by Huston and his long-time collaborator, Gladys Hill.  Now Peachy, different countries, different ways. Tell Ootah we have vowed not to take a woman until all his enemies are vanquished

Golden Salamander (1950)

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You defeat evil not by ignoring it but by going to meet it. English archaeologist David Redfern (Trevor Howard) is sent to Tunisia to recover artifacts from a shipwreck. He arrives during a storm and encounters a landslide which stops his hire car in its tracks, witnessing a transaction involving gunrunners that include Rankl (Herbert Lom). While romancing the lovely Anna (Anouk Aimée) whom he meets in the hotel where he’s staying he runs afoul of what amounts to a criminal conspiracy led by Serafis (Walter Rilla) and Rankl knows he saw what happened in the landslide. Torn between minding his own business and completing his job, and the opportunity to overthrow the criminals who are terrorising the locals, Redfern takes on the near-impossible task of bringing the gun runners to justice when young Max (Jacques Sernas) is murdered … Victor Canning’s novel gets a poorly paced adaptation but still manages to work because of the plot and the performances – Aimée is impossibly young to be Howard’s love interest and she’s ridiculously striking compared with his relative ordinariness. The action in unexpectedly florid African settings and on treacherous cliff faces compensates for shortcomings in the structure and there’s Wilfrid Hyde-White trying to do Hoagy Carmichael in the Casablanca-knock off bar scenes. Rilla makes a great impression as the villain – in real life he wrote a very good manual on screenwriting. What a shame this rare British film shot on African locations wasn’t made in colour! Directed by Ronald Neame who co-wrote the screenplay with Canning and Leslie Storm.

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

Out of Africa (1985)

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I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

Victoria & Abdul (2017)

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Look at me – a fat silly lame impotent old woman.  Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) is a prison clerk in 1887 India, sent by some accident of position to bring a valuable coin to Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) in her jubilee year. She is sick and tired of her situation and fawning household courtiers and takes a fancy to Abdul, elevating him to be her Munshi, a sort of spiritual guide and teacher of all things Indian. His travelling companion Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) is kept on as his servant. She thinks Abdul is Hindu but he’s actually a Moslem. When the Queen realises Abdul has a wife she sends for her and she arrives with her mother, both clad in veils. Everyone in the house resents his increasing influence and when Prince Bertie (Eddie Izzard) arrives home from his feckless life in Monte Carlo expecting his mother’s death any day soon, he sets the staff on a course of revenge … Dench is in fine fettle as a naughty old woman just dying to let rip rather than having to endure endless official engagements and report on her bowel movements to doctors concerned with her poor diet. Lee Hall adapted the book by Shrabani Basu and Stephen Frears lends the material his customary sceptic’s eye particularly in the early stages where the comedy is high and the culture clash constant. The relationship at the story’s core is wonderfully played. Very entertaining return to the role for Dench, with apt mention of John Brown (Mrs Brown was released 19 years ago!) in another tale of Victoria’s unusual friendships and curses aplenty hurled at awful Scotland.  Funny, humane and good-natured with the inevitable bad ending wrought by the dastardly Bertie, the man who should never have been King.

Odd Man Out (1947)

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If you get back to your friends, you’ll tell ’em I helped you. Me, Gin Jimmy. But if the police get you, you won’t mention my name, huh?  Johnny McQueen (James Mason) has been in hiding in Kathleen Sullivan’s (Kathleen Ryan) home for the past six months since his escape from prison. He’s the leader of a political group (the Organisation, code for the IRA) that needs funds although his compatriots think he’s not up to the task:  he believes negotiating with the other side might get them further than attacking them.  Nonetheless he takes part in a raid on a bank but it goes wrong and he’s shot as he kills a cashier. Pat (Cyril Cusack) drives off before Johnny can get into the getaway car and the gang are the subject of a manhunt while Johnny is left to struggle on his own relying on help from passing strangers …  R.C. Sheriff adapted F.L. Green’s novel and while it’s not named, this is clearly set in Belfast. Mason is rivetting as the terrorist who’s experiencing his delirious last long night of the soul in a film that is equal parts documentary and pretentious psychological thriller, with wonderfully atmospheric canted angles and shadows from Robert Krasker’s cinematography. The supporting players are largely drawn from the ranks of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre – including Robert Beatty, W.G. Fay, Joseph Tomelty, Noel Purcell, Eddie Byrne and Dan O’Herlihy. Albert Sharpe (presumably fresh off Finian’s Rainbow on Broadway, where he made his fortune) plays a bus conductor. Robert Newton impresses as the wild philosophising artist painting Johnny. While some exteriors were shot in Belfast it would appear a great many scenes were done in London including a reproduction of the famous Crown Bar, which was actually a set at D&P Studios. A powerful and gripping drama, this remains one of the great British films, an unconventional, potent and poetic treatise on compromise, brutality, daring and death centering on a passive protagonist around whom much of the plot revolves. Out of the ordinary. Directed by Carol Reed. MM #1800.

Born Free (1966)

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We spent the day in agony like the parents of a teenage girl out on her first date. At a national park in Kenya, English game warden George Adamson (Bill Travers) and his wife, Joy (Virginia McKenna), care for three orphaned lion cubs. After the two larger lions are shipped off to a zoo in the Netherlands, the smallest of the three, Elsa, stays with the couple. When Elsa is blamed for causing an elephant stampede in the nearby village, head warden John Kendall (Geoffrey Keen) demands the young lion either be trained to survive in the wilds of the Serengeti or be sent to a zoo… Joy Adamson’s 1960 book caused a sensation and was part of the beginning of a widespread conservation movement that radically informed westerners about the problems in maintaining wild populations on the continent of Africa. On a more personal level, this is an extremely moving story about her own romance with the wonderful lioness who became part of her life and how hard it was to let her go and live the life she’d been meant to have. Adapted by blacklisted Lester Cole (under the pseudonym Gerald L.C. Copley) this is a wonderfully made, utterly engrossing true story with all the jeopardy you’d expect given the setting which is tantalisingly photographed by Kenneth Talbot.  The co-stars are Girl, Boy, Ugas, Henrietta, Mara and the Cubs and they are completely fabulous. Even my little Graymalkin didn’t evince a shred of jealousy toward her large African cousins and she’s the flyingest supercat around. The soundtrack and theme song by John Barry (with lyrics by Don Black and performed over the end credits by the incomparable Matt Monro) will bring you to tears if the unsentimental drama does not (reader I blubbed all through it, all over again – I do it every time. ) The credits thank Hailie Selassie I among others. Golly. The making of the film transformed the lives of its stars, a real-life married couple who had previously co-starred in The Smallest Show on Earth. They started the Born Free Foundation which you can support here:  http://www.bornfree.org.uk/. The outcome for the Adamsons was rather different:  they were both murdered. By humans. Directed by documentary maker James Hill with uncredited work by Tom McGowan.