The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)

The Romantic Englishwoman

Women are an occupied country. Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) is the bored wife of a successful English pulp writer Lewis Fielding (Michael Caine) who is currently suffering from writer’s block. She leaves him and their son David (Marcus Richardson) and runs away to the German spa town of Baden-Baden. There she meets Thomas (Helmut Berger), who claims to be a poet but who is actually a petty thief, conman, drug courier and gigolo. Though the two are briefly attracted to each other, she returns home. He, hunted by gangsters headed by Swan (Mich[a]el Lonsdale) for a drug consignment he has lost, follows her to England. Lewis, highly suspicious of his wife, invites the young man to stay with them and act as his secretary. Lewis embarks on writing a screenplay for German film producer Herman (Rene Kolldehoff) – a penetrating psychological story about The New Woman. Initially resenting the presence of the handsome stranger now installed in their home as her husband’s amanuensis and carrying on with the nanny Isabel (Béatrice Romand), Elizabeth starts an affair with him and the two run away with no money to Monaco and the South of France. Lewis follows them, while he in turn is followed by the gangsters looking for Thomas… It’s about this ungrateful woman who is married to this man of great charm, brilliance, and integrity. She thinks he won’t let her be herself, and she feels stuck in a straitjacket when she ought to be out and about and taking the waters and finding herself. With a cast like that, this had me at Hello. Director Joseph Losey’s customarily cool eye is lent a glint in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Thomas Wiseman’s novel (with the screenplay co-written by the author) in a work that teeters on the edges of satire. A house bristling with tension is meat and drink to both Stoppard and Losey, whose best films concern the malign effects of an interloper introducing instability into a home.  It’s engineered to produce some uncanny results – as it appears that Lewis the novelist is capable of real-life plotting and we are left wondering if Elizabeth’s affair has occurred at all or whether it might be him working out a story. Perhaps it’s his jealous fantasy or it might be his elaborate fictionalising of reality. Invariably there are resonances of Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad but it’s far funnier. Like that film, it’s something of an intellectual game with a mystery at its centre. Aren’t you sick of these foreign films? Viewed as a pure exploration of writerly paranoia as well as the marital comedy intended by the novel, it’s a hall of mirrors exercise also reminiscent of another instance of the era’s art house modernism, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.  The flashback/fantasy elevator sequence that is Lewis’ might also belong to Elizabeth. You might enjoy the moment when Thomas mistakes Lewis for the other Fielding (Henry) but he still hangs in there without embarrassment and seduces all around him. Or when Lewis suggests to his producer that he make a thriller rather than the more subtle study he’s suggesting – and then you realise that’s what this British-French co-production becomes. It’s richly ironic – Lewis and Elizabeth have such a vigorously happy marriage a neighbour (Tom Chatto) interrupts a bout of al fresco lovemaking but none of them seems remotely surprised, as if this is a regular occurrence. And any film that has Lonsdale introduce himself as the Irish Minister for Sport has a sense of humour. If it seems inconsistent there is compensation in the beauty of the performances (particularly Jackson’s, which is charming, warm and funny – All she wanted was everything!) and the gorgeous settings, with a very fine score by Richard Hartley. The elegance, precision and self-referentiality make this a must for Losey fans. It was probably a tricky shoot – Jackson and Berger couldn’t stand each other, allegedly. And Caine placed a bet that he could make the director smile by the end of the shoot. He lost. Wiseman commemorated his experience with Losey in his novel Genius Jack. It’s not kind. This, however, is a sly treat you don’t want to miss. You are a novelist, an imaginer of fiction.

Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations 1946

Pip – a young gentleman of great expectations! Orphaned Philip ‘Pip’ Pirrip (Anthony Wager) lives with his older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe (Bernard Miles). He encounters runaway convict Magwitch (Finlay Currie) on the marshes and assists him with food and helps him cut himself free. However Magwitch is recaptured when he has a fight with a fellow escapee. An eccentric elderly spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) wants company for herself and her teenage ward Estella (Jean Simmons) a cruel but beautiful teenager who mocks Pip but with whom he falls in love from afar. Pip is apprenticed to a blacksmith when he turns 14 and Estella goes to France to become a lady. Years later Pip (John Mills) is visited by Miss Havisham’s lawyer Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) and he is to be the beneficiary of a mysterious benefactor to become a gentleman of great expectations in London where he befriends Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) who tells him that Miss Havisham’s life is dedicated to revenge against men because she was jilted at the altar and Estella was brought up likewise. They are reunited when Pip is 21 and he visits Miss Havisham after getting his living stipend of £500 a year and he finds that Estella (Valerie Hobson) is engaged to a man she doesn’t love. Pip is visited by Magwitch who reveals he was his benefactor and that Miss Havisham was using him. He confronts her and she realises the great harm she has done and as Pip is leaving a terrible accident occurs. Magwitch should not be on the territory and is commiting a felony and Pip undertakes to help him escape England … I want to be a gentleman on her account. Director David Lean recalled a perfectly condensed theatre adaptation of the Dickens novel and wrote the screenplay with producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame and Kay Walsh. From its magnificent opening sequence on the marshes (shot by Robert Krasker) and the atmosphere conjured by the decaying mansion housing Miss Havisham, this is a film of such dazzling detail and character, brilliant playing and staging and flawless pacing, as to merit the description perfect. Lean came of age as a director and the cinematography by Guy Green and the soaring score by Walter Goehr pick out, express and complement the heart of the drama. It never dodges the little social critiques (Mills’ reaction to the public hangings) or the touches of humour (Pip popping Pocket in the jaw; his silly fashionable get up) nor the ideas of snobbery, stupidity, guilt or social injustice that characterise the text of the novel. The final scene, when Pip returns and throws light upon Estella is heartbreaking and delightful. A simply bewitching masterpiece. What larks!

Ray & Liz (2018)

Ray and Liz

They can do anything nowadays. In England’s Black Country in the Thatcher era, Ray (Justin Salinger) and Liz (Ella Smith) raise their two sons Richard (Jacob Tuton/Sam Jacobs) and his younger brother Jason (Callum Slater/Joshua Millard-Lyon) on the margins of society in a Dudley council flat… A horrifying and virtually unwatchable portrait of the underclass with gruelling depictions of heavy drinking, parental neglect and familial dysfunction on a fathomless scale, told over a period of eight years as Richard becomes a teenager.  It’s framed within a flashback when Ray (Patrick Romer) is now an alcoholic separated from Liz (Deirdre Kelly) and neighbour Sid (Richard Ashton) is vying for his welfare benefits by keeping him drunk. Made by photographer and artist Richard Billingham about his impoverished upbringing and developed from a short film, this unsentimental fragmentary narrative is not without the odd millisecond of humour – perhaps when Jason runs away and meets his mother the following day wheeling a rabbit in a pram in a local park we are in the realm of Lewis Carroll. Her maintenance of a menagerie in their squalid surroundings is given a correlative in a visit to a zoo. Spot the difference between that and council accommodation. Then the social workers intervene, as you might expect but only Jason gets to go to a foster family: Richard is told he is almost old enough to leave and his coping mechanism to record and photograph his family throughout his childhood is the key to his freedom. It’s his recording that proved the nasty lodger Will (Sam Gittins) forced drink down the throat of retarded Uncle Lol (Tony Way) but tattooed drinker and smoker Liz destroys the evidence after she’s inflicted mindless violence. And returns to her jigsaw puzzles. Stylistically it’s slow, disconnected, anti-dramatic for the most part and pitiless and may remind you of Terence Davies’ work but other than feeling gutted for feral children born into such gob smacking fecklessness, when you look away from a work that refuses all possibility of empathy you’ll wind up thinking perhaps eugenics isn’t such a rotten idea after all – because bad people do bad things to the children they should never be permitted to have. Perhaps not the appropriate reaction. Kitchen sink realism for a new era, it’s a staggering if emotionless indictment of the kind of Britain that still exists for millions of people. This is what happens when you enact official policies of social isolation, austerity and poverty. It really is Grim Up North. Brutal.

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

You never, ever let an attractive woman take a power position in your home. Claire Bartel (Annabella Sciorra) is happily married to lab tech Michael (Matt McCoy) with a little daughter Emma (Madeline Zima) and when she attends a new obstetrician Victor Mott (John de Lancie) she feels she has been molested during what should have been a routine check-up. Michael encourages her to report Mott to the state medical board and other women follow suit.  Mott commits suicide by shooting himself before a legal hearing can take place and his pregnant widow (Rebecca De Mornay) loses her baby, has an emergency hysterectomy and is broke because her husband’s suicide voids an insurance payout needed for his victims and their fabulous modernist home is put up for sale. She presents herself to the Bartels as nanny ‘Peyton Flanders’ and endears herself to Emma; makes Michael’s married ex, realtor Marlene Craven (Julianne Moore) warn Claire about the danger of having a good looking nanny; and is witnessed by disabled handyman Solomon (Ernie Hudson) breastfeeding newborn baby Joey.  Peyton then reports Solomon falsely for sexually assaulting Emma, ensuring his exit from their home. She arranges an accident to happen to Claire in the greenhouse but when she realises Marlene is on to her, she changes her victim … He wasn’t examining me. It was like he was getting off on it. What if I accused him and I was wrong? How amazing to hear these words come out of Sciorra’s mouth 28 years after this was released and two months after her testimony about what happened to her at the hands of studio head Harvey Weinstein, who derailed her career. This nuttily addictive home invasion/yuppies in peril thriller from writer Amanda Silver (granddaughter of screenwriter Sidney Buchman) ticks so many boxes for female viewers it positively tingles – capturing women’s vulnerability on so many levels: tapping into fears about ob-gyn appointments, pregnancy, a husband’s wandering eye, younger prettier women and the systematic way in which one apparently benign interloper can utterly undo a family’s stability with her insidious attractiveness and manipulative charms. The scene when De Mornay nurses Sciorra’s child is … startling. This is my family! A deeply pleasurable exploitation thriller raised to the level of zeitgeist comment by virtue of taut writing, brilliantly stylish directing by Curtis Hanson and a pair of well managed, contrasting performances by the leading ladies who make this property porno utterly compelling. De Mornay’s unravelling is perfectly, incrementally established. And it’s a treat to see this good early performance by Moore, even if she’s the least believable smoker in screen history; while sweet and resourceful little Zima grew up to be the lethally Lolita-esque teenage sexpot in TV’s Californication. This ferociously slick fun is probably the reason most women wouldn’t have a nanny within a yard of their homes if it could possibly be avoided. Don’t f*** with me retard! My version of the story will be better than yours

 

High Life (2018)

High Life

Nothing can grow inside us. Monte (Robert Pattinson) and a baby girl called Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) are the last survivors of a dangerous mission on the edge of the solar system. He dumps bodies in astronaut suits into space and rears the child as he continues his work. Flashbacks reveal that it is a spaceship filled with prisoners, chief among them mad scientist Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche) who wants to breed a new generation of humans and gives the male criminals (André Benjamin, Ewan Mitchell) drugs in exchange for their semen on a trip that will not end in survival. Captain (Lars Eidinger) appears ineffectual while the women (Mia Goth, Claire Tran, Agata Buzek) resist male attention and don’t want to be forcibly impregnated. As the reproductive experiment takes shape a storm of cosmic rays hits the ship and tempers run high … You’ve become a shaman of sperm. Filmmakers can take a funny turn when they start making films in a language not their own. This screenplay by that singular director Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau with collaboration by Geoff Cox and additional writing credited to Andrew Litvack (and an uncredited contribution by Nick Laird) is a case in point as her first excursion into English is deeply strange and a reworking of many tropes and themes in the genre. For the first half hour you have to really like the sound of a baby crying;  the rest of the film is mostly about bodily fluids – their source, their harvesting, their destination – interspersed with acts of violence. Pattinson lends it his intensity but to what end? Well, a black hole, if you must know. Not so much a space mission as emission, this is really a hymn to onanism:  truly a mystery, all coming and no going in an exploration of sci-fi as inner space, in and out of hand. She is perfection

The Aftermath (2019)

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There may not be an actual show of hatred but it’s there beneath the surface. Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives in rubble-strewn Hamburg in 1946 with her husband Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) of British Forces Germany, charged with helping to rebuild the city shattered from aerial firestorms. They also need to rebuild their own marriage following the death of their young son and are billeted in the home of architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) who Lewis allows to remain on the premises against Rachael’s wishes. She is initially suspicious that Stefan is an unreconstructed Nazi and Lewis confirms Stefan has yet to be cleared. They blame each other for their son’s death and Rachael starts to warm to Stefan and makes efforts to befriend Freda. Freda consorts with Bertie (Jannik Schümann) a member of the Werewolves, the violent Nazi insurgents who want the Allies out of Germany. When Lewis is obliged to travel for work Rachael and Stefan commence an affair and she agrees to leave Lewis. Meanwhile, Freda gives Bertie information about Lewis’ whereabouts and upon his return he is informed by his cynical colleague intelligence officer Burnham (Martin Compston) that Rachael has been advocating for Stefan and things come to a head… Do you really need a philosophy to make something comfortable? That’s what Rachael asks when architect Stefan is trying to explain a chair in the moderne style designed by Mies Van Der Rohe:  it sums up the issues wrought from this adaptation of the source material by Rhidian Brook, dealing with the difficulties of making the peace in post-war Germany but we still ask, who really won the peace and what does the future hold for peoples and societies so broken by war and its legacy? Stunde Null, Year Zero, everything can start again.  Grappling with bereavement and the unsettling transposing of emotions and the desire to be a parent, Knightley gives a good account of a lonely woman in trauma while Clarke is as good as he has ever been. It lacks complexity and real passion, however, and the post-war scene is as difficult to explain as it has ever been: everyone takes sides, that’s the point. It’s how and why this is resolved that matters. Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse & Brook wrote the screenplay and it’s directed by David Kent.  We’re leaving the city in better shape than we found it

A New Leaf (1971)

A New Leaf.jpg

You have managed to keep alive traditions that were dead before you were born. A spoiled and self-absorbed playboy who has squandered his inheritance, Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) is ageing and desperate to find a way to maintain his lavish lifestyle. He approaches his disbelieving Uncle Harry (James Coco) who agrees to loan him some money but only on condition he marries within 6 weeks or he will take everything Henry has left in his name, ten times the loan amount. Henry sees an opportunity when he meets Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), an awkward and bookish botanist and heiress whose greatest hope is to discover a new fern. Though Henry proposes marriage within three days of meeting, he has no intention of remaining with her and plans a sinister scheme. As he attempts to murder Henrietta, it may not be as easy as he had thought and he finds himself protecting her from her thieving household staff and caring about her appearance … I eat I sleep I swim I dry off.  I’m primitive! Writer/director Elaine May’s hilarious black comedy may have been re-cut by the studio (headed up by the legendary Robert Evans) against her wishes (losing two murders in the process) but Matthau preferred this version and it’s laugh out loud brilliant and humane, quite a combination. Matthau’s hangdog look perfectly encapsulates his desperate situation as the destitute playboy who against his killer instincts finds his inner decency; while May is a delight as the klutzy eccentric who knows more than she lets on. Coco is hideously funny as the rich uncle with the motorized pepper mill who has a metaphorical noose over Henry; while James Weston scores as Henrietta’s lawyer desperate not to lose his valuable client. Some of the best scenes are between Henry and his ‘gentlemen’s gentleman’ Harold (Jack Rose) who commences by suggesting suicide as an alternative to the awful embarrassment of public poverty when the cheques start to bounce; and then points out the ironic development that Henrietta’s helplessness has triggered Henry’s surprising financial acumen. Startlingly funny and rather cruel about men and women and a certain social niche, this has lost none of its edge or its warmth because it truly understands the vast compromises required by marriage and there are moments of inspired physical comedy.  Adapted by May from Jack Ritchie’s short story The Green Heart. I’m going to find a suitable woman and mur …. marry her!

Bel Canto (2018)

Bel Canto.jpeg

How did you sing like that? Acclaimed American soprano Roxane Coss (Moore) travels to an unnamed South American country to give a private concert at the birthday party of rich Japanese industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) who’s allegedly building a factory in the vicinity. Just as an élite gathering of local dignitaries convenes at Vice-President Ruben Ochoa’s mansion, including French Ambassador Simon Thibault (Christopher Lambert) and his wife (Elsa Zylberstein), Hosokawa’s faithful translator Gen Watanabe (Ryo Kase), and Russian trade delegate Fyorodov (Olek Krupa), the house is taken over by guerrillas led by Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta) who believe the President is in attendance (he’s at home watching TV) demanding the release of their imprisoned comrades. Their only contact with the outside world is through Red Cross negotiator Joachim Messner (Sebastian Koch). A month-long standoff ensues in which hostages and captors must overcome their differences and find their shared humanity and hope in the face of impending disaster. Roxanne and Katsumi consummate their rapidly escalating love for each other while Gen falls for rebel Carmen (Maria Mercedes Coroy) as the military gather outside the building … He is always moved by your music. Adapted from Ann Patchett’s novel by director Paul Weitz and Anthony Weintraub, this might be another instance of be careful when tackling literary fiction:  three mentions of telenovelas remind us that when you strip out the elevated language sometimes what you’re left with is a soap opera. And how unlikely much of this is, these people holed up in this nice residence, all getting along in this unreal idyll, even having sex, you just wonder where the butler is hiding the silver salver with the stacks of Ferrero Rocher and why it never occurs to anyone to escape not even when they’re wandering about that lovely tree-filled garden. Nonetheless Moore and Watanabe are both splendid and the underlying message that music is that other universal language is well made in this fantasy take on Stockholm Syndrome before it concludes in the inevitable bloodbath. What are the takeaways? Don’t adapt posh novels, stay out of South America where the natives are always revolting and for goodness’ sake don’t sleep with your kidnapper – or your biggest fan. It never ends well. Moore lip syncs to Renée Fleming.  Are you sure they won’t shoot you? Not everbody likes opera

Eyewitness (1956)

Eyewitness UK 1956.jpg

Did you see her buried?  After an argument with her husband Jay (Michael Craig) about his spending habits when he brings home a TV set on hire purchase, Lucy Church (Muriel Pavlow) storms out of her house and goes to see a film at the local cinema. While coming back from making a phone call, she stumbles across the office where she witnesses the murder of the cinema manager by two criminals Wade (Donald Sinden) and his soft-minded associate Barney (Nigel Stock) who are in the process of robbing the cinema’s safe. When they pursue her, she is hit by a bus and is taken to hospital. Unable to leave the town until they know what has happened to her, the two robbers head to the hospital to observe her. Meanwhile, her husband has grown concerned and scours the town searching for her. An older woman patient’s cries for help each time she sees two men skulking in the hospital garden are ignored while Wade and Barney enter the hospital to make sure Lucy is never able to bear witness … She’s a pretty little thing. Wouldn’t mind claiming her myself.  Low on both suspense and thrills, this Sydney Box production is based on the premise that Donald Sinden is a dangerous criminal – surely an in-joke at the expense of the audience and the story. What’s of infinitely more interest is the performance of tragic starlet and socialite Lee as the sexy bleached blonde nurse Penny Marston who has (inevitably) an American airman fiancé (David Knight).  The screenplay is by Janet Green, a playwright (including the work that would provide the basis for Doris Day’s Midnight Lace) and screenwriter who had many good films on her resumé like Sapphire and Victim and John Ford’s final film, 7 Women. This is mild stuff indeed, with the opening scene of domestic dissatisfaction soon sliding into an under-dramatised crime outing, enlivened only by the constant put-downs of the eagle-eyed patients by the bitchy nursing staff while Pavlow enjoys a very long beauty sleep.  Keen viewers will enjoy appearances  by Richard Wattis as an anaesthetist and Nicholas Parsons as a surgeon. Directed by Muriel Box.

All Is True (2018)

All is True.jpg

I’ve just bought a pension. I can’t die for at least 10 years or I’ll be ruined. It’s 1613, and Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is acknowledged as the greatest writer of the age. But disaster strikes when his renowned Globe Theatre in London burns to the ground and he decides he will never write again. Devastated, he returns to Stratford, where he must face a troubled past and a neglected family. Haunted by the death 17 years earlier of his only son, Hamnet (Sam Ellis) he struggles to mend the broken relationship with his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench) and daughters, Hamnet’s twin sister, spirited spinster Judith (Kathryn Wilder) and unhappy Susanna (Lydia Wilson) who is married to a noxiously stern Puritan, John Hall (Hadley Fraser). He is forced to examine his failings as an absent husband and father when 28-year old Judith finally gets involved with a suitor alleged to have impregnated another woman and Susanna is accused of adultery … A garden ain’t a play. Screenwriter Ben Elton has been wowing on the small screen with his very clever parody of Shakespeare in Upstart Crow but this is only occasionally in the same pantomimic vein albeit its nod/wink title (the original title for The Life of Henry VIII) toys with the idea that this is anything other than a confection of falsehoods and assumptions.  And it is a bit of a joke to start with – an old conqueror finally comes home and gets in the way of his wife and has the temerity to mess up the garden she has so carefully cultivated for the last 20 years. And then there are all those long country evenings when all you have is a candle for company. Irony is writ large here. At its heart a melancholy meditation on age, family and what you leave behind, Shakespeare is confronted with the long-hidden truth of his young son’s death, a boy whom he believed to have been greatly talented but who had actually been presenting the work of his twin, who was left unable to read and write, being but a girl. The discovery is poignant indeed. There’s a sonnet-off  (# 29) when Will is confronted with another truth – that the now elderly object of his affection Henry Wriothesley (Ian McKellen) is not interested in him but appreciates his art. How wonderfully odd that two of the great contemporary exponents of the Bard are quoting him at each other. Anne’s feelings are nothing – when the poems were published (illegally, without Will’s consent), he never thought about her reputation or what people might say. I’ve never let the truth get in the way of a good story. The bedrock of his entire life it seems has been other people and what they say – what was said of his father, what was said of him, and now, what is said about his daughters, both caught up in scandals of their own. He is a man for whom all truth is literally relative. Retirement is not easy and revelations about what happened at home when he was enjoying fame and adulation come as a shock to someone for whom all the world’s a stage and now his daughters are ruining the name he literally wrote out of disgrace to redeem his father’s blackguarding. Branagh is very good, prosthetics and all, capable of being hurt and amusing and rueful. The motifs are striking in a beautifully shot production – two fires dominate the visuals: the opening conflagration at the Globe caused by a misfiring cannon in a production co-written with John Fletcher; and the smaller one in the grate when Judith attempts to destroy what Hamnet transcribed – because Will needs to believe it was his dead son who wrote the poetry and she is guilty at being a gifted woman because he has such a low opinion of her. And Will loves the word on the page – when he sees his son’s name written in the funeral record in the local church his face comes to life. Anne chides him that when Hamnet died he was busy writing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Dench is wise and moving in the role of the much older wife protecting him from terrible knowledge. However the slow pace and ruminative setting, autumnal and somewhat bucolic, hide the sad drama within. It’s stunningly shot by Zac Nicholson, not just allowing us to see the wide open spaces juxtaposed with interestingly shot and lit interiors – so many dimpled with pure candlelight as the sole source – but telling us that there is always a bigger story and hinting where to look. There are funny scenes with the ridiculously ingratiating local MP Sir Thomas Lucey (Alex Macqueen) and some wild put-downs. There’s even a jibe about authorship and how it was that a man who owns up to having lived such a little life could have ended up knowing everything. Lest we forget, Elton is the best Elizabethan historian we have, when you think about Blackadder. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is very lovely. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Nothing is ever true