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

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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.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959)

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My head’s been shrunk! Oh the horror! The horror! Anthropologist Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz) believes that the men of his family have been cursed for generations by the native South American tribe he studies. Shortly after his brother, Kenneth (Paul Cavanagh), discovers one of the tribe’s shrunken heads in his house, he’s found murdered and his head goes missing. In pursuit of the tribesman Zutai (Paul Wexler) and a rival scientist (Henry Daniell) who has become a part of the tribe, Drake attempts to end the curse once and for all…  With career best performances by Franz and Daniell, this is a tremendously atmospheric exercise in genre which belies its impoverished production values. Charles Gemora created award-winning shrunken heads in addition to his duties as make-up artist in this parable concerning race relations and the impact of white men on the New World. Written by Orville H. Hampton and directed by the underrated and enigmatic yet prolific B director Edward L. Cahn, this rivals his early collaborations with screenwriter Tom Reed and may well be the best film ever made.

Black Narcissus (1946)

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I told you it was no place to put a nunnery! There’s something in the atmosphere that makes everything seem exaggerated … A group of Anglican nuns, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), are sent to a mountain in the Himalayas. The climate in the region is hostile and the nuns are housed in an odd old palace, home to the Sisters of St Faith and previously home to the concubines of the General in the area. They work to establish a school and a hospital, but slowly their focus shifts. Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) falls for a government worker, Mr. Dean (David Farrar), and begins to question her vow of celibacy. As Sister Ruth obsesses over Mr. Dean, Sister Clodagh becomes immersed in her own memories of love back in Ireland while their conflicts are put into relief by the forbidden desire between The Young General (Sabu) and Kanchi (Jean Simmons) who is of entirely unsuitable caste.  Sister Ruth’s psychological problems devolve into violent madness … Rumer Godden’s story gets the high-velocity melodrama treatment in this extraordinary interpretation of her story about religion in a colonial outpost. Alfred Junge created the illusion of the exotic in Pinewood (and a Surrey garden) with Jack Cardiff’s magical cinematography enhancing the impression of lushness.  The Renaissance light and shadows highlight the growing atmosphere of hysteria. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger crafted an astonishingly sensual portrait of women in hothouse seclusion, lured to their various fates by a man in their midst as they wrestle with issues of conscience, race, sex and vocation. It has not lost its power to bewitch and Byron’s performance is unforgettable.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 

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No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing. Due to his knowledge of the native Bedouin tribes, British Army Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is sent to Arabia to find Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and serve as liaison between the Arabs and the British in their fight against the Turks. With the aid of the native Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence rebels against the orders of his superior officer and strikes out on a daring camel journey across the harsh desert to attack a well-guarded Turkish port… The greatest film ever made? Probably. One of my more shocking cinematic excursions was to see this at London’s Odeon Marble Arch when it was re-released in a new print:  I hared to the early evening screening, thought I was incredibly late when I got my ticket because the foyer was deserted, ran upstairs two steps at a time and took my seat. And realised I was the only person there. This is one of the most feverishly protagonist-led narratives you will ever see, by which I mean that what you are seeing is the world created by Lawrence, whether or not it is true to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the entire facts of the matter or the man.  Like Psycho, everything in it exists to explain his perspective, his character, his essence. And it starts so shockingly, in a way that horrified me when I first saw it on TV one afternoon when I was probably nine years old:  his death in an English country lane on a summer’s day on a motorcycle. This frames an action adventure rooted in archaeology, espionage, politics, propaganda and the division of the vast desert lands and their warring tribes into convenient nation-states. It’s a narrative that is  free of women but includes issues of homosexuality and torture. It uses the trope of the journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) rewriting history as it is being made. It is filled with imagery that pulses through your brain – the arrival of Ali across the shimmering sands;  the (literal) match cut;  Lawrence shot from below in his white Arabic robes, stalking the hijacked train;  the magical appearance of water. I watch this on a regular basis and get lost in it every time. It’s extraordinary, arresting, brilliant, startling, stunning. O’Toole is utterly luminous as this complex man. Blacklisted Michael Wilson and British screenwriter Robert Bolt did drafts of the script and it may not be entirely historically accurate but it is true. Shot by Freddie Young, scored by Maurice Jarre, directed by David Lean. Magnificent. Happy Birthday to me.

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

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It’s not a hangin’ matter to be young… but it maybe should be a hangin’ matter for a – man of middle age – to – try and steal the youth from a young girl. Especially, a man like me and a – girl like you. You were meant for the wide world, Rose. Not this place, not this. Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) is the daughter of publican Tom (Leo McKern) in a small seaside Irish village during World War One where the nationalist locals taunt the British soldiers stationed nearby in the wake of the failed Easter Rising of 1916. Rosy falls for Master Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum) the local widowed schoolteacher and imagines they will have an exciting life but he has no interest in sex. Major Randolph Doryan (Christopher Jones) arrives from the Front crippled and suffering from shellshock. Rosy assists him when he collapses in her father’s pub and they commence a passionate relationship as Charles becomes suspicious and the local halfwit Michael (John Mills) finds Doryan’s medal and wears it around the village. The Irish Republican Brotherhood want to retrieve arms from a wrecked German ship offshore but while the villagers assist, Ryan tips off the British and Doryan and his men are waiting for them.  When the villagers put two and two together they conclude that Rosy is the culprit and wreak revenge …  In a week’s time it’s the 110th anniversary of the great British director David Lean’s birth and this was released 47 years ago this weekend. It’s almost St Patrick’s Day and in honour of our favourite national holiday it’s time to watch this again, the hugely controversial film which caused his career immense difficulties. The British critics reserved a rare kind of contempt for the directors who mastered the visual – as though it were inimical to the cinematic form:  look what they did to Michael Powell. But this elicited ire from the other side of the Atlantic too – Roger Ebert believed the scale of the production was antithetical to the size of the story (as though one’s feelings are supposed to be as controlled as those in Brief Encounter. Someone should have told Shakespeare.) It’s hard to understand why this should be from this vantage point – it’s a women’s picture, as so many of his films were – it looks wonderful, the acting is attractive even if Jones’ chops don’t match up to his good looks and the scenario of a problematic marriage between a young woman and a much older stick in the mud is hardly unusual. In fact it originated in Robert Bolt’s desire to make a version of Madame Bovary to star his wife, Miles. It was Lean who suggested transposing the idea to a different setting using the same kinds of characters and construction. Perhaps it’s the issue of the gloriously melodramatic backdrop – the impact of the First World War and the British Government on a remote Irish seaside village. Perhaps it was the timing. Or perhaps reports from the set alienated the budget-conscious journos – Lean waited a full year to get the right kind of storm and took the unit to South Africa to film it because it never materialised while on location in Kerry and Clare. However this was big at the box office and there are moments and scenes to savour even if you feel that John Mills’ performance as the cretin can make you wince betimes. Surrender to the tragic romance and the feeling of a love worth fighting for in an epic drama scored by Maurice Jarre. It’s David Lean, dammit!

Elephant Walk (1954)

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She is not one of us and her ways are cold and strange. When John Wiley (Peter Finch), an affluent plantation owner, brings his new wife, Ruth (Elizabeth Taylor), to his estate in the jungles of British Ceylon,  she finds she is the only white woman.  She’s overjoyed by the exotic location and luxurious accommodations until it becomes clear her new husband is more interested in palling around with his friends than spending time with her. She is intimidated by houseman Apphuamy (Abraham Sofaer) who is still being bossed by the late Old Man Wiley a rotten individual who has deliberately blocked the elephants from their ancient water source (hence the name). Left alone on the plantation, Ruth strikes up a friendship with American overseer Dick Carver (Dana Andrews), and it isn’t long before a love triangle develops… An old-school colonial romance, the novel by Robert Standish (aka Digby George Gerahty) was adapted by Hollywood vet John Lee Mahin who knew this kind of material from Red Dust two decades earlier. While revelling in the lush jungle landscape and the forbidden desires of Taylor the real story is the haunting of Wiley by his late father whose ghost dominates his life and the plantation. Taylor of course replaced Vivien Leigh who had a nervous breakdown yet whose figure remains in long shots that weren’t repeated and her lover Finch remained in the picture in a role originally intended for Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier. Andrews might not be our idea of a hot extra-marital affair but in a situation like that … It looks rather beautiful courtesy of the marvellous work by cinematographer Loyal Griggs but you might find yourself wanting to see more of the elephants than Taylor such is their pulchritudinous affect. You choose. Directed by William Dieterle.