Elizabeth of Ladymead (1948)

Elizabeth of Ladymead

I want to live here and really feel it’s mine. Liz (Anna Neagle) lives in the beautiful Georgian mansion of Ladymead and awaits the arrival home of her husband  (Hugh Williams) who’s been away for five years fighting in WW2. They soon argue about what he must do – she’s put the house on the market with the intention of returning to London so that he can resume his career in politics, as she and her mother (Isabel Jeans) plan. He however just wants to stay at home and tend the garden. During a fight she walks into a wall she thinks is a door and drifts asleep and dreams about other women who lived in the house who have shared her name and plight. Beth, lives in 1854 London, as the Crimean War rages thousands of miles away. When her husband (Nicholas Phipps) returns he expresses disgruntlement at her ideas that she should even have an opinion about anything. The second, Elizabeth, lives in 1903, just after the Boer war. She has made the farm profitable and embarrassed her husband (Bernard Lee) by becoming a suffragette and sympathising with the Boers. The third, Betty, is a girl of 1919, the year after World War I. She has led a life of such independence she no longer requires a husband (Michael Lawrence) since she has been taking lovers since his departure. Each of the four Elizabeths emerges as a woman of independence while the menfolk are off to war and some of the men do not survive the return … Miss Nightingale is very remarkable but as a woman she’s a freak. From the husband and wife team of producer/director Herbert Wilcox and actress Anna Neagle this is an imaginative way to tackle post-war malaise and the changing roles of the sexes or as the titles inform us, The changing role of the girl he left behind. Adapted by co-star (and regular Wilcox collaborator) Nicholas Phipps from a play by Frank Harvey, the transitions from the framing narrative of post-WW2 dissatisfaction are neatly achieved, Neagle has a range of emotions to play in each incarnation and it’s very well managed from era to era, shot in stunning Technicolor. An intriguing picture of society and how women are perceived as they struggle to attain individuation as part of a married couple. We must put it down to the instability of the female

The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966)

The Great St Trinians Train Robbery

They’re only schoolgirls. “Alphonse of Monte Carolo” aka Alfred Askett (Frankie Howerd) is a hairdresser running ops for a gang of crooks led behind the scenes by an invisible mastermind (voiced by Stratford Johns). He gives instructions to Askett about a new train robbery, Operation Windfall, using a variety of gadgets. The crooks hide the money in Hamingwell Grange, a deserted country mansion, and after waiting for the fuss to die down they return to collect the mailbags which contain £2.5 million (the same amount as in the real Great Train Robbery). However, after the Labour Party win the election, the house has been converted into a new home for St Trinian’s School for Girls because the new Minister for Schools, Sir Horace (Raymond Huntley) is having an affair with the headmistress, Amber Spottiswood (Dora Bryan). The crooks decide to infiltrate the school by enrolling Askett’s delinquent daughters, Lavinia (Susan Jones) and Marcia Mary (Maureen Crombie) as pupils, in order to case the joint and retrieve the loot from its hiding place. The crooks’ attempt to recover the mailbags on Parents’ Day, disguised as caterers, results in a climactic train chase back and forth between the robbers and the girls… If a Labour Government gets in it means the end of all public schools – and that appalling school, St Trinian’s! The fourth and final installment about Ronald Searle’s anarchic schoolgirls under the original authors, Launder and Gilliat, this is a little more episodic than usual, using the recent real-life Great Train Robbery as the starting point, making satirical jibes about the current political situation, spoofing James Bond’s gadgets and that series’ criminal mastermind (the iteration here is voiced by Stratford Johns) and replacing Alastair Sim with Dora Bryan, who performs with gusto in this colour production. Richard Wattis, Terry Scott and George Cole return, and there are new faces familiar to TV comedy fans, like Eric Barker and Arthur Mullard. James Mason’s daughter Portland plays Georgina, one of the kids. Droll fun, with a terrific montage introducing not only the gang members (including Reg Varney as Gilbert the Wheel) but the teachers, including art teacher Susie Naphill played by Margaret Nolan (who was Bond’s masseuse Dink in Goldfinger), doing the real-life striptease she usually did in a Soho club, to music performed by the John Barry Seven! Directed by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder from a screenplay by Gilliat and Ivo Herbert, based on the directors’ story co-written with producer Leslie Gilliat. The final extended chase sequence is a doozy straight out of silent movies. A photograph of these sordid excesses could well unmask this whole imposture

What A Carve Up! (1961)

What a Carve Up

Aka No Place Like Homicide! Ring up Madame Tussaud’s to see if anyone’s missing. Inoffensive Ernie Broughton (Kenneth Connor) is summoned to an isolated rural mansion to spend the night at his family’s ancestral home following the death of his uncle Gabriel. He is accompanied by his gadfly friend Syd Butler (Sid James). They arrive in the fog where they encounter a spooky butler Fisk (Michael Gough) and other members of the squabbling family:  cousin Guy (Dennis Price), lovely Linda (Shirley Eaton), Malcolm (Michael Gwynne) and eccentric aunt Janet (Valerie Taylor).  Sinister solicitor Everett Sloane (!) (Donald Pleasence) reads the will – which has a big surprise. As the night wears on, they find themselves targeted by a killer who seems determined to pick them off one by one until finally a police officer (Philip O’Flynn) arrives from the nearest village … Kindly lower your voice to a scream at least. Almost better known now as the inspiration for Jonathan Coe’s novel of the same name, this cult item from the Carry On team is overshadowed by the legendary Carry on Screaming! five years later but is still nutty fun. You’d expect that from a screenplay co-written by farceur Ray Cooney with Tony Hilton, adapting The Ghoul by Frank King and the only surprise is that the director is the venerable documentarian Pat Jackson.  Indebted to the Ur-narrative of The Cat and the Canary we know that there can never be a reading of a will without a body count and there are lots of cheap laughs as well as well-placed thrills. Connor is terrific as scaredy cat Ernie and there are nice touches, like giving him squeaking shoes when he’s meeting his upper crust family for the first time: Wish I was back in the flat reading The Case of the Battered Blonde. James is good for a dirty laugh – as ever. Lots of fun.  I really must insist on your staying here tonight

 

A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982)

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I didn’t invent the cosmos I just explain it. In the early 1900s in upstate New York wacky inventor Andrew Hobbs (Woody Allen) and his wife Adrian (Mary Steenburgen) invite the priapic internist Maxwell Jordan (Tony Roberts) and his latest lover free-thinking nurse Dulcy Ford(Julie Hagerty) together with Adrian’s cousin, the dry philosophy professor Leopold Sturges (José Ferrer) and his fiancée Ariel Weymouth (Mia Farrow) for a weekend house party. However Andrew was in love with Ariel a long time ago and Maxwell falls for her while it transpires Maxwell and Adrian may know each other a little better than Andrew realises … If marriage is the death of hope then the night before marriage there’s still hope. A bucolic excursion involving three mismatched couples who find sexual joy in each other’s partners, all to the music of Mendelssohn and loosely adapted from Bergman’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night while Gordon Willis delights in the landscape and the endless possibilities of the play of sunlight. A frisky, frothy confection that without any big revelations or confrontations (beyond the use of a skilfully aimed arrow) risks being seen purely as a parody yet in its humorous dealing with matters sexual and intellectual manages to arrive at a few truisms about human behaviour and frailty as well as the idea that there might be some form of existence beyond rational explanation. Or it’s just a nutty sex comedy with a few references to Shakespeare and hints of enchantment via a whirring magic lantern. Steenburgen and Hagerty are both ideally cast while Farrow replaced Diane Keaton and would remain Allen’s muse for another dozen films. Nothing is real but experience

 

September (1987)

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I have no reason to get up tomorrow. Following a suicide attempt, Lane (Mia Farrow) retreats to her summerhouse in Vermont to rest but it’s not the peaceful haven it should be when her visitors disrupt the healing process and everyone present seems to be in love with the wrong person. Lane has difficulty dealing with her obnoxious tactless former actress mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), who is visiting with her stepfather Lloyd (Jack Warden). Lane lusts after struggling writer Peter (Sam Waterston) who is actually interested in her best friend Stephanie (Dianne Wiest) and a friendly neighbour, French teacher Howard (Denholm Elliott) carries a torch for Lane… It’s hell gettin’ older. Especially when you feel 21 inside. One of my fondest moviegoing memories is of watching this in a cinema on W. 57th Street NYC filled with the kind of people I was seeing onscreen – how better to view a Woody Allen film than surrounded by an audience that resembled the actors. I was among his people! It was irresistible and I spent most of my time people-watching, more engaged with the Allen-types, not the drama unspooling in front of me. Allen’s films at this point were apparently split between those aiming for a Fellini-esque feeling (Radio Days) or Bergman-esque interiority, like here, and Autumn Sonata is directly referenced in its plot, its central relationship and even costuming. Owing a lot to Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, it’s a theatrical piece and Stritch makes a meal of her part as the attention-seeking star who wants someone to write a book about her against Lane’s wishes – because Lane supposedly shot her mother’s lover when she was a kid (just like Lana Turner’s daughter …).This was famously shot twice (kinda like the lover!) with Farrow’s own mother Maureen O’Sullivan in the role taken by Stritch, with Charles Durning in the great Jack Warden’s role and Christopher Walken AND Sam Shepard replaced by Waterston. Truly a film that is the sum of its parts, it somehow contrives to look better than it feels. Is there anything more terrifying than the destruction of the world?

Hand in Hand (1960)

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Aka The Star and the Cross. She seems like a nice girl. You’d never know she was Jewish. Nine-year old Michael O’Malley (Philip Needs) attends with his local priest Father Timothy (John Gregson) and tells him he’s killed his best friend … He is an Irish Catholic boy who has formed a close friendship with school pal Rachel Mathias (Loretta Parry), a younger Jewish girl. At first, the two are ignorant of their religious differences until schoolmates raise the issue to Michael and their respective parents keep their own issues with the friendship to themselves. The kids become blood brothers and Michael attends synagogue and Rachel goes to Mass and they realise they have a lot in common. They both want to go to London to meet the Queen and Michael dreams of going big game hunting in Africa and when they have an adventure rafting on a river after crashing into a overhanging branch downstream, Michael thinks Rachel is dead … He’s a Jewish mouse. He’s mine. This kindly sermon on post-war anti-semitism in Britain is nicely handled by director Philip Leacock from a screenplay by Diana Morgan and Sidney Harmo (based on a story by Leopold Atlas), working with a talented young cast. Leacock had done the race drama Take a Giant Step so had a proven interest in social issues and he also previously worked with kids on The Little Kidnappers and The Spanish Gardener and he gets engaging performances here. The problematic scene when Michael is teased that Jews killed Christ and is then told by the boy that his father doesn’t like Catholics either defuses audience tension. Perhaps it’s played too innocent, but it’s about kids and it has a certain charm. God is love

 

You, Me & Him (2017)

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A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, and all that. Forty year old lawyer Olivia (Lucy Punch) is in a relationship with younger lazy pot-smoking artist Alex (Faye Marsay) and she desperately wants to have a baby so has fertility treatment and undergoes artificial insemination without consulting Alex, who really doesn’t want children. Then Alex gets mad drunk at party held by their freshly divorced womanising next door neighbour John (David Tennant) and has sex with him.  When Olivia does a pregnancy test Alex finds she is pregnant too. John wants to play a role in the baby’s life and their lives become incredibly complicated … You have just put my entire life into a salad spinner of fuck! This is a pot pourri of British acting talent. Actress Daisy Aitkens makes her directing debut with her own screenplay, produced by Georgia Moffett (Mrs Tennant) who appears briefly in a horrifying birthing class conducted by Sally Phillips, while another Doctor Who, Moffett’s father Peter Davison, plays a small role as a teacher trainer and her mother Sandra Dickinson appears as part of a jury. Familiar faces pop up everywhere – Sarah Parish is Alex’s friend, Simon Bird is Olivia’s brother while David Warner and Gemma Jones are her parents.  There are some truly squirmy moments as Olivia’s experience of pregnancy evinces all the worst problems – in public. Comedy lurches into tragedy 70 minutes into the running time and there is no signposting. The return to comic drama is slow but not completely unhappy, with a few scenes necessary to recalibrate the shrunken family relationship. Punch is fantastic – she’s such a fine comedienne and she gets more to play here, even if she and Marsay appear to be from very different even incompatible worlds while Tennant raises the stakes of every exchange, trying to figure out how to be the hipster daddy in a couple that has no place for him. Pain is being fisted by a 300lb rich white guy because you haven’t enough money to pay the rent

The MacKintosh Man (1973)

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Put a bag over my head. I’ve been in prison for 15 months! Secret agent Joseph Rearden (Paul Newman) poses as an Australian jewel thief and is quickly convicted of stealing £140,000 of diamonds and imprisoned in order to infiltrate an organisation headed by Home Secretary Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) who organises Rearden’s escape along with that of MI6 intelligence officer Slade (Ian Bannen) who was gaoled as a Soviet mole … I don’t know about you, Slade; I’m not ready for death. The rest I’ll drink to. Adapted by Walter Hill (along with director John Huston and William Fairchild) from Desmond Bagley’s The Freedom Trap, this starts out quietly and continues that way for some time – tricking the susceptible viewer into believing that Rearden himself has been tricked by MI6 into taking the fall for a jewel heist and for more than a half hour it’s a prison movie. However the sleight of hand is revealed as it becomes clear Rearden has gone into deep cover to smoke out a dangerous organisation in this Cold War tale. Of course you will recognise the contours of the real-life story of George Blake, whose daring prison escape is the stuff of legend. For an action film and spy thriller this is a work of smooth surfaces and understated performances, especially by Newman, enhanced by the cinematography of the great Oswald Morris and a beautiful score by Maurice Jarre. The locations around Galway – Oranmore and Roundstone – were local to director Huston who spent much of the Fifties onwards at his house St Cleran’s. The palpable anger and keen sense of duty comes in fits and starts, usually at the conclusion of realistically staged action sequences, including a chase across an Irish bog and using banged up cars rather than Aston Martins. There are also some small gems of supporting appearances – Leo Genn as prosecuting counsel, Jenny Runacre as Gerda the nurse, Noel Purcell and Donal McCann in the Irish scenes. There are also scenes of misogyny and violence (even against a dog) that might shock in this more politically even-handed climate. The strangest character Mrs Smith, played by Une femme douce herself Dominique Sanda, gets an incredible payoff.  You might even say she has the last word. The cool, straightforward approach to treachery, duplicity in the modern state and something of a twist ending just raises more questions, making this a palpable pleasure, a film which tells one simple truth – trust nobody. Produced by John Foreman who had a company first with Newman and then made a cycle of films with Huston. Our deaths would mean little or nothing to anyone, anywhere – only to ourselves

Colette (2018)

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You’ve done something important. You’ve invented a type. After moving to Paris from the rural idyll of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye to marry her much older critic/publisher lover Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) known as ‘Willy’, young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) agrees to ghostwrite a semi-autobiographical novel for him. Its success soon ultimately inspires her to fight for creative ownership while working in his writing factory and overcome the societal constraints of the early 20th century as they share their lover duplicitous Louisiana debutante Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson), making them jealous of each other’s sexual escapades.  Colette has to write more and more to make ends meet as Willy fritters away the earnings made in his name alone. Colette begins a relationship with Missy (Denise Gough), a wealthy Lesbian who cross-dresses and this new lover accompanies Colette on a music hall tour as she attempts to assert her power away from Willy, performing controversial shows as an actress. Her life with Willy is fatally compromised when he sells the rights to her fictional character, ‘Claudine,’ the heroine of the bestselling series of books bearing his name but which are her life and thoughts entirely… You still need a headmaster. An attractive rites of passage narrative evoking a gauzy rural France and the late nineteenth century café society where men and women live radically different lives. That is, until Colette decides she wants what her philandering husband has and rails against the accepted norms even as he smooths and polishes her writing and adds the prurience that the pulp market requires. He is revealed as an increasingly tawdry, jealous type despite having an abundance of charm and social success. Her creative growth is calibrated against their mutual infidelity – interestingly with the same woman and then sated by different people.  The idea of identity and authorship and Willy’s liberal education of his innocent but yearning wife is portrayed as a drama of exploitation that has both profit and loss at its heart. This battle of the sexes biography plays out against the trials of the (re-)writing life and it elicits good performances but never really sparks the kind of emotional notes you would expect considering the astonishing story of this racy belle époque heroine, not to mention the sheer sensual joy of Colette’s body of work which came of age as the world embraced modernity. Written by director Wash Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewica and the late Richard Glatzer to whom the film is dedicated. The one who wields the pen writes history

 

 

 

The Bookshop (2017)

The Bookshop

Dear Mr. Thornton, a good book is the precious distillation of a master’s spirit, embalmed and preserved for the purpose of achieving a life beyond life, which is why it is undoubtedly a necessary commodity. East Anglia, 1959. Young widow Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) risks everything to move into an abandoned building and open up a bookshop – the first such shop in the sleepy seaside town of Hardborough.  This soon brings her fierce enemies: she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers and also crosses Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) the town’s vengeful, embittered alpha female and doyenne of the local scene and earmarked The Old House (as it becomes known) as an arts centre. Only Mr Brundish (Bill Nighy) a reclusive bibiliophile who develops an interest in the novels of Ray Bradbury seems sympathetic to Florence’s business… In the case of biographies, it’s better, I find, if they’re about good people, whereas novels are much more interesting if they are about nasty people. Whatever delicacy or nuance Penelope Fitzgerald’s source novel (a Booker nominee) may possess is simply flattened here by an almost inert style-free interpretation from writer/director Isabel Coixet, inept barely-there directing and some terrible miscasting in a setting that doesn’t look remotely like Norfolk or Suffolk because it’s not, it’s County Down in Northern Ireland and that’s not all that’s wrong with the production design. Mortimer is heroically trying to save a poor choice of material directed with no sense of momentum or invention and the distracting narration (by Julie Christie) is utilised to strike some interest in the premise which would otherwise be almost impenetrable. Nighy has little to do except walk about looking grumpy and Reg Wilson as Clarkson’s retired General husband looks utterly incompetent far beyond the demands of his dim character. James Lance has a good role as the poisonous shop assistant toff but his serpentine ways make the outcome all too predictable; Honor Kneafsey as little Christine the girl who becomes a book lover and gives the story a decent payoff is quite effective as a plot device to explain the narration and bring it up to date. What is good but hardly well dramatised is the way every level of a community moves against a single woman and conspires to totally destroy her utterly unapologetically. A failure but a small one since so few people will have seen it and those who have will have experienced the utter misery of the protagonist for every single second of this film in a rotten adaptation that literally never gets started. How right she was when she said that no one ever feels alone in a bookshop