The Killing of Sister George (1968)

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I’m writing something very obscene about the British Broadcasting Corporation.  June (Beryl Reid) is an actress who portrays the popular Sister George, a district nurse in a popular BBC soap opera. The actress spends her time drinking and engaging in Lesbian sex with her much younger live-in lover, factory worker Alice also called Childie (Susannah York) due to her penchant for baby doll dresses and her devotion to her collection of dolls. A television executive, Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) decides she likes Alice and wants to write Sister George off the show after she’s molested two nuns in the back of a taxi, two Irish Catholic novitiates just off the boat. June watches as her behavior and insecurity and bullying drive Alice away and into the arms of Mercy.  George discovers the only job she is likely to be offered is that of a cow’s voice on a kids’ show … I can hardly put through to the Controller your allegation that you may have been bitten by two nuns. Robert Aldrich and screenwriter Lukas Heller broke new ground with this, made directly after The Dirty Dozen. Aldrich’s regular collaborator, Heller added a sex scene between Childie and Mrs Croft to Frank Marcus’ 1964 play which was responsible for the film’s X rating under the newly instituted censorship system in the US. There were also censorship problems in the UK (the BBFC website states that this has by far the largest file of any film submitted with the sex scene “by far the most explicit scene of lesbian physical love that has ever been submitted [for classification].” ). This was also the first film to show the inside of a Lesbian nightclub.   It fits into the rather cynical ‘hag’ template the pair pioneered with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  and Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte. Beryl Reid’s butch persona (well known from The Belles of St Trinian’s) adds a new twist to the format, with her tweedy randy predator meeting her match in Mrs Croft. Reid had played the role on stage and had its energy and complexity down to a T. This is a confrontational film about ageing, femininity, relationships and career and how they can all converge into a crisis at the whim of an executive’s pen. Fascinating on so many levels, with the central story’s blackly comic claustrophobia expressed through excellent design, this is great entertainment. What’s one looking for then, love and affection?

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The Magus (1968)

The Magus

We have all been cast as the traitor for one simple reason:  we have all failed to love.  Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) takes up a position as schoolteacher on the Greek island of Phraxos where his predecessor has committed suicide. He wants to write and to escape the pressures of his relationship with Anne (Anna Karina) an emotionally complex air hostess.  He becomes obsessed with a rich old man Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn) living in a big complex on the other side of the island who draws him into his odd domestic arrangements which include beautiful American actress Lily (Candice Bergen).  As Maurice starts to play mind games with Nicholas and tells him of his alleged involvement in the deaths of more than 80 villagers during the Nazi occupation, Nicholas loses his grip on reality – he doesn’t know if Maurice is a filmmaker, a psychiatrist, a Nazi collaborator or a demonic magician. They play a dice game which inevitably signals more than its elements. He is put on trial, with everyone from Maurice’s stories and films attending… The once fiendishly famous John Fowles adapted his own novel which no self-respecting student could be seen without.  He may have fallen out of fashion but his work is entrancing and important and if this doesn’t live up to its billing that can be laid at the door of Fowles himself and director Guy Green (Caine and Bergen certainly did). However, it’s a beguiling production, one of the best looking you will ever see courtesy of DoP Billy Williams (Green himself was of course an Academy Award-winning cinematographer) and in its narrative creases you might detect a kind of text much more acknowledged these days – psychogeography, the T.S. Eliot references hint at this of course although even entry level kids can rhyme off the line, No man is an island. Of course the Magus himself is a reference to the diabolical Aleister Crowley (whose home had been in Sicily) but Quinn’s character creates a backstory based in real-life horror and a mass execution, all the while taking on the physical qualities of a latterday Picasso. Fowles himself appears as a boat captain who speaks to Nicholas.  There’s a tremendous cast – including Julian Glover, Takis Emmanuel and Paul Stassino – telling a complex story of identity, responsibility, punishment and redemption that is streamlined to its essential parts and it adds up to something utterly beautiful.  We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time

On Chesil Beach (2017)

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We’re not two old queers living in secret on Beaumont Street. We’re man and wife!  It’s 1962.  New graduates historian Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and musician Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are nervously about to consummate their marriage in a seaside hotel in Dorset.  The waiters bring a roast dinner to their suite and make fun of them, practically sniffing the virginity in the ether. As the couple prepare to disrobe and attempt foreplay they recall the moments that brought them to this situation:  his chaotic home where his headmaster father (Adrian Scarborough) has to deal with a brain injured wife (Ann Marie Duff) and two twin girls;  her engineering company owner father (Samuel West) and academic mother (Emily Watson) who are on the one hand consumed with matters of class and on the other distracted, the wife looking down on her husband rather! Edward and Florence recall their first meeting at Oxford, when he had nobody to tell about his first in History from UCL and she’s the stranger at the CND gathering who lets him know she got a First too, but in music;  when she walked seven miles from the train to meet him at the cricket club where he works; when she got his mother to paint a ‘forgery’ of her favourite painter, Uccello. The memories come rushing in as she lies on the bed issuing instructions and he fumbles and then she rejects him and rushes to the beach … Ian McEwan’s novella was never going to be simple to adapt.  Part of its bittersweet sting lies in the acute choice of words which cannot be replicated on screen.  It’s a romance lacking in passion and the flashback structure literally interrupts the non-coitus. The suggestion that Florence has endured abuse at the hands of her nasty father on a boating trip is skilfully and subtly worked into the story but still doesn’t fully explain her frigidity. (The tennis match she observes between Edward and her father clues us in a little more.)  Her disgust at the contents of a sex manual suggests that of a child not a grown woman and isn’t sufficiently elaborated considering the company she and her family keep (her mother is a friend of Iris Murdoch) and her deep emotionality performing music in a quartet is surely not that of someone who doesn’t understand desire. The book does something extraordinary in demonstrating in just a few pages how Edward’s life pans out and it is utterly devastating, elaborating directly how this single night has sabotaged his life. This melancholy adaptation works on some levels:  for one,  the production design whose attention to period detail gives us an innate sense of the era’s propriety and indicators of class and behaviour.  There are brave performances too:  Ann Marie Duff spends half of hers topless, brain damaged from being hit by a train door on the local platform;  Ronan and Howle do very well in suggesting the naivete that seemingly plagued newlyweds of the era. In essence the relationship fails because of Edward’s pride and Florence’s prejudice and it’s hard to dramatise although his taste in music (jazz, rock and roll) versus hers (strictly classical) sums it up – together however they lack erotic obsession or straightforward lust and this tentative attempt flounders for the same reason as their wedding night:  nobody just goes for it and Florence just won’t shut up. But unsatisfying as this is there’s a porno shot you won’t forget in a hurry. Adapted by McEwan and directed by Dominic Cooke.

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

 

Straw Dogs (1971)

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If you can’t catch ’em … shoot ’em.  David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) is a mild-mannered American mathematician married to Amy (Susan George), an Englishwoman. They have relocated to the small town in rural Cornwall where Amy was raised, to a house filled with her father’s belongings. David is writing a book because he has a research grant to do a project on astrophysics.  He is ostracized by the brutish men of the village who are renovating the garage beside the cottage, including Amy’s old boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney). Eventually the taunts and lewdness escalate, their cat is strangled and hanged and two of the locals rape Amy while they distract David by taking him out hunting and leave him alone for the day on the moor. When the village idiot Henry Niles (an uncredited David Warner) winds up at their house after accidentally killing the local slut Janice Hedden (Sally Thomsett) following a church social, the locals come a looking and lay siege to his house and the passive aggressive David finally takes revenge …  David Zelag Goodman loosely adapted the 1969 Gordon M. Williams novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm with director Sam Peckinpah and its sustained atmosphere of unbearable tension and brutality shocks to this day. The campaign of harassment is inscribed in the titles sequence in which we open on a gravestone and children torturing a dog:  we are quickly introduced to the casual viciousness of the village, the acceptance of violence – mentally retarded Henry is bitch slapped by his brother John (Peter Arne) for playing ball with schoolchildren;  Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan) breaks a glass into the publican’s hand when time is called despite the presence of the local magistrate (T.P. McKenna);  Hedden’s trampy daughter Janice (Thomsett) and son Bobby (Len Jones) watch David and Amy in bed together. The goons played by Ken Hutchison and Donald Webster are uncomplicated thugs who nonetheless question David about his familiarity with guns (the anti-Vietnam war poster and the animal trap indicate where the film is going textually). He makes it obvious that he is anti-violence. The gang rape is anything but simple:  Amy tries to pacify the first assailant because like most rape victims, she knows him and that’s what makes this so convincing, never mind that it’s brilliantly shot and constructed.  She has gone around the place without a bra – even David tells her to start dressing appropriately and stop complaining that the locals are making horrible remarks. The marital strains are echoed when the vicar (Colin Welland) gives his wife a condescending look because she doesn’t know who Montesquieu is;  Amy doesn’t understand binary numbers. The drama is then structured about the outsider intellectual amid backward yokels, of whom his wife still appears to be one;  the awful Hedden’s concern for his daughter reminds us that Amy’s father dominates her domestic surroundings and she resents David’s retreat to his study. This is where I live. This is me.  I will not allow violence against this house. This was much misunderstood upon release but it’s a genre mashup whose antecedents – the western, the horror film (isn’t this a Hammeresque village with a Frankenstein’s monster?), the home invasion movie – are delineated clearly. The crosscutting (Nic Roeg’s collaborator Tony Lawson is one of three editors, including future director Roger Spottiswoode) also clarifies the complex and ironic psychology. You simply cannot say, as many did at the time of this film’s initial release, that this celebrates violence:  the technique just does not permit it.  David’s shit-eating grin at the film’s conclusion is perhaps what bothers people but as someone who has suffered outrageous violence at the hands of my thick neighbours I can relate to his turnaround and wish I were in a position to emulate it. When I asked the local plumber what was behind it he told me an apocryphal tale which ended in the deathless words, Y’see, nobody wants someone with too much education in their neighbourhood. So when anyone asks me what it’s like to live in the countryside, I tell them, Watch Straw Dogs. As far as I’m concerned, it might be a documentary.

The Delinquent Season (2017)

The Delinquent Season

Our happiness is so fragile and we are all just hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Danielle (Eva Birthistle) meets up with an old schoolfriend Yvonne (Catherine Walker) and they introduce each other’s husbands over a terrible meal when Yvonne’s other half Chris (TV’s Sherlock psycho Andrew Scott) loses it and Danielle’s husband Jim (Cillian Murphy) begs off ever having anything more to do with them. But when Yvonne shows up at their home after Chris has kicked her he falls for her seduction even after Chris tells him he’s dying of cancer and he hasn’t told anyone else. Jim and Yvonne carry on their illicit affair in hotel rooms and on the dunes at the local beach until Danielle asks Jim for the code to his phone and Yvonne arrives at their house again – but this time to reveal the news that Chris is dying … Playwright and screenwriter Mark O’Rowe’s directing debut from his own script aspires to be a morality tale about the middle classes (or smug marrieds) but it is a long way from the quality of Patrick Marber’s Closer or even Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmine Reza’s Carnage. Partly that’s to do with the lack of cleverness in what is essentially a chamber work (or even a chess game) with the pieces assembling and realigning as the relationships shift, mostly unwittingly;  partly that’s to do with the utterly inexcusable overuse of the F word which might be suitable for a local Irish audience but even the casually tolerant tourist would find excessive:  using it in the middle of a word for instance  ‘unF’ing believable’ is inventive and amusing, using it continuously without any kind of rationale for over-emphasis is lazy and offputting. Partly it’s beyond how these people sound (Walker’s line readings and sibilant and consonant enunciation grate like F***, as she herself might say); and how they look, in unattractive surroundings which are in a dull palette, shot and staged unimaginatively.  These people are not remotely interesting. They’re not even nasty enough to make us gasp. There is no sign here that anyone involved is acquainted with the language of film. Not a single member of the cast has sufficient screen technique to overcome the crass limitations of the script. The sex scene between Murphy and Walker is horribly unflattering:  where were the cosmeceuticals?! Or the lights? (Or the sheets). The fight at the funeral dinner is poorly staged even if it’s an effective dramatic device with the passive aggressive Chris finally showing his mettle in public; and the twist in the relationships, when Murphy takes up with a rude working class waitress, is literally unbelievable:  O’Rowe is no Somerset Maugham. The circular structure is a good move (once again, it works for Marber) but the sheer impoverishment of the vision, the inelegant language and the lack of anything to say kills this stone dead. This staggering banality wouldn’t last more than a night on your local Town Hall stage.

Badlands (1973)

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At this moment, I didn’t feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you’re sitting there and all the water’s run out of the bathtub.  1959 South Dakota. Teenage girl Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek) angers her father (Warren Oates) when she begins dating an older rebellious greaser, garbage man Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) who fancies he’s like James Dean. After a conflict between Holly and her father erupts, he kills her dog. Then Kit murders him, so the young lovers must flee. In the ensuing crime spree, they travel through the Midwest to the Badlands of Montana, eluding authorities along the way, killing as they go … Holly’s dreamlike and hilariously affectless magazine-like narration anchors this exquisite blend of drama and horror as the true-life 1950s killers Charles Starkweather and Caril-Ann Fugate inspired script doctor Terrence Malick to strike out and make a film of his own. The distance between the form and content is bridged by the effects of technique – was there every such wonderful magic hour photography (by Tak Fujimoto, Steven Larner and Brian Probyn) to offset the horror of a serial killer in his element?  As Holly begins to realise Kit is psychotic the shots place him further and further away from her. This is an astounding work with beguiling performances by two adult actors who inhabit this fairytale of deluded teenage desire with strange conviction. The score based on work by Carl Orff, Erik Satie, James Taylor and George Tipton is classic. A remarkable, lyrical, transcendent film. Unforgettable.

Psyche 59 (1964)

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It’s the welfare state. Once they nationalised sex people began to lose interest.  Allison Crawford (Patricia Neal) lost her sight in an accident at her home when she was about to give birth. Married to businessman Eric (Curt Jurgens) she is disturbed when he declares her ravishing younger sister Robin (Samantha Eggar) is not welcome at their house that summer following her divorce in America. However it’s too late, she is arriving imminently. At lunch with Robin, Allison tells her that doctors insist her blindness is psychologically induced but she has no memory of the events leading up to the incident, so her condition persists as ‘hysterical blindness’. Robin pursues a relationship with Eric’s employee Paul (Ian Bannen) but a long-buried memory of Eric’s adultery emerges for Allison as the sisters go to their grandmother’s (Beatrix Lehmann) house in the country with Allison’s young daughters, one of whom she has never seen. When Eric and Paul join them there are terrible tensions and Robin acts out and causes an accident that prompts the return of Allison’s vision – a fact that she keeps to herself… Adapted by Julian Halevy (aka blacklisted writer Julian Zimet) from the novel Psyche 63 by Françoise des Ligneris this is a little-seen melodrama that is worth checking out. The violence of the emotions is what is so striking, reflected in some shot compositions in a film that is a psychological drama but operates like a suspense thriller.  The mystery of Allison’s blindness is front and centre and her grandmother’s obsession with horoscopes guides some of the action. How Allison’s senses – particularly auditory – are heightened is compounded by the significance of objects and her perception of people’s conduct. The way her unconscious knowledge of the affair conducted under her nose is unravelled is fascinating:  she is never fully paranoid but the little teasers of other people’s behaviour fit in with what she knows in her heart to be true. Eggar and Neal are very good as the chalk and cheese sisters – Eggar in particular is a revelation as the screwed-up good time girl determined to taunt Jurgens – and the penultimate scene with Jurgens is quite jaw-dropping. Directed with real verve and distinction by Alexander Singer, who is responsible for the wonderful cult entries A Cold Wind in August and Glass Houses, but worked primarily in TV. There’s some terrific photography by Walter Lassally.

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

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When we’re young, we looks at thing very idealistically I guess. And I think Woodsworth means that… that when we’re grow-up… then, we have to… forget the ideals of youth… and find strength.  1928 Kansas. High school football star Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty) and his sensitive high school sweetheart, Deanie Loomis (Natalie Wood), are weighed down by their parents’ oppressive expectations, which threaten the future of their relationship. Deanie’s mother (Audrey Christie) and Bud’s oil baron father (Pat Hingle) caution their children against engaging in a sexual relationship, but for opposing reasons: Deanie’s mother thinks Bud won’t marry a girl with loose morals, while Bud’s father is afraid marriage and pregnancy would ruin Bud’s future at Yale… One of the great performances, by Wood, in one of the great movies from a Hollywood negotiating carefully between outward sexuality and the censorship mores which wouldn’t be properly thrown out for another half-dozen years. William Inge’s screenplay of adolescent yearning and learning falls plumb in the middle of his own playwriting and screenwriting run, with director Elia Kazan expertly treading the lines governing behaviour and desire in a small-minded society living in stultifying olde worlde interiors. Wood gives a total performance:  from the poetry-loving 1920s kid to the girl who falls heavily for Beatty’s rich boy and doesn’t know what to do with the burgeoning wish for sex that overwhelms her very being.  She literally goes crazy for want of him. Beatty is a superb match for Wood in his screen debut: and how beautiful are they together?  He was an important actor for Inge, having done his only stage performance in A Loss of Roses. His soft questioning hooded face seems to hold all the answers to the playwright’s questions:  Is it so terrible to have those feelings about a boy?  Barbara Loden (Kazan’s future wife) is good as Beatty’s slutty sister Ginny and Hingle is superb as his demanding father facing ruin when the stock market fails. Christie is frightening as Mrs Loomis. There are a lot of scenes set around water – it forms part of the narrative’s sensual mythology that envelops the players:  they are literally drowning in love. Kazan coaxes hysteria from an actress who was herself troubled enough to go into analysis (it was her offscreen tormentors who really needed it) and her heartbreaking expressive emotionality makes this utterly unforgettable. This is a film that takes teenagers seriously. Moving like few other films, this is a stunning and tragic evocation of repression, lust, desire and love. Wood is simply great.

Persona (1966)

Person 1966

I understand why you don’t speak, why you don’t move, why you’ve created a part for yourself out of apathy. I understand. I admire. You should go on with this part until it is played out, until it loses interest for you. Then you can leave it, just as you’ve left your other parts one by one.  Renowned stage actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) suffers a moment of blankness during a performance of Electra and the next day lapses into total silence. Advised by her doctor to take time off to recover from what appears to be an emotional breakdown, Elisabet leaves the psychiatric hospital where she has been recovering and goes to a beach house on the Baltic Sea with only Alma (Bibi Andersson), a nurse, as company. Over the next several weeks, as Alma struggles to reach her mute patient, the two women find themselves experiencing a strange emotional convergence as the talking cure makes the nurse talk rather than the patient and images from the outside world catalyse friction… An astonishing study of identity that blurs so many lines there are none left with questions of mental health, sexual grooming, power, communication, silence and betrayal, how much of life is performance. It is a work that transports the viewer into the realm of the metaphysical. It is an astonishing example of personal filmmaking that has had enormous influence in cinema. The shot in which Ullmann’s face merges with that of Andersson is unforgettable. This is perfect cinema in terms of conception, execution and performance, strange and erotic, mysterious and scary. Bergman stated of it: I feel that in Persona – and later in Cries and Whispers – I had gone as far as I could go. And that in these two instances when working in total freedom, I touched wordless secrets that only the cinema can discover.