My Brother Jonathan (1948)

My Brother Jonathan

There’s something I should have told you a long time ago. GP Jonathan Dakers (Michael Denison) welcomes home his son Tony (Pete Murray) from WW2 and when Tony reveals he’s seen too much and is quitting medicine, Jonathan tells him the story of his real background … Early 1900s. Jonathan is the older son of shady businessman Eugene (James Robertson Justice) and brother of Harold (Ronald Howard) and falls in love at a young age with Edie (Beatrice Campbell) daughter of landed gentry but she only ever had eyes for Harold. Jonathan trains as a doctor. When the mysterious Eugene dies his real job is revealed – corset salesman. His wife (Mary Clare) is none the wiser and believes he had social significance. However he’s spent their inheritance and Jonathan undertakes to save the family home and put Harold through his final year at Cambridge, sacrificing his own potential career as a surgeon. He works in the West Midlands in the general practice of Dr John Hammond (Finlay Currie) whose daughter Rachel (Dulcie Gray) is the practice nurse and she falls in love with Jonathan but he still has eyes for Edie.  The practice clientele are working class and he has to deal with the consequences of the regular accidents at the local foundry leading him to write a critical report which is conveniently lost. He is constantly criticised and when he saves a local child from diphteria in the hospital he has to face down the owner’s son-in-law and his medical rival Dr Craig (Stephen Murray) on charges of misconduct. Edie returns from Paris and intends wedding Harold, to Jonathan’s chagrin, but WW1 is declared and Harold is killed in action, leaving Edie pregnant and in a serious dilemma because she knows her parents will disown her … It must be nice to know what you want out of life. Adapted from Francis Brett Young’s novel by Adrian Alington and Leslie Landau, this was hugely popular at the British box office and unites real-life husband and wife Denison and Gray in one of their best films. It has all the ingredients of a melodrama but is supremely well-managed, beautifully shot and gracefully performed. The social message isn’t hammered home, it carefully underlines all the choices that the idealistic protagonist makes and is skillfully drawn as this picture of changing society emerges in intertwining plots of medicine and relationships. Directed by Harold French. They only have one idea in this country and that’s disgusting

Tell it to the Bees (2018)

Tell it to the Bees

He said this town was too small for secrets. With her failing marriage to her estranged former soldier husband Robert (Emun Elliott) and a curious young son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), Manchester-born Lydia Weekes (Holliday Grainger) does not fit into the small Scottish Borders town where she has ended up. She starts a friendship with the town’s new doctor Jean Markham (Ann Paquin) who has bonded with Charlie after he takes an interest in her bee colonies at the house she inherited from her late father, the town’s former doctor. However, in 1950s rural Scotland, the women’s relationship raises questions particularly because Jean is remembered from a terrible incident involving another girl in her schooldays which prompted her father to send her away.  When Lydia is evicted from her home and loses her job at the local lace factory where her boss is her sister-in-law Pam (Kate Dickie) she goes to live at Jean’s house with Charlie to work as her housekeeper. However they are drawn to each other and start a sexual relationship. Somehow the locals get wind of the arrangement and gossip spreads. Charlie witnesses them in bed together and runs to report to his father. Jean could lose her career if Lydia fights for custody of Charlie.  Meanwhile, Robert’s younger sister Annie (Lauren Lyle), who is friends with Lydia, is happily pregnant by her black boyfriend and the family want her dealt with before the pregnancy becomes public … How do I explain? Jessica Ashworth and Henrietta Ashworth adapted the 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw [not the actress]. What could occasionally be perceived as a contemporary story retro-fitted to critique the insular homophobic values of its Fifties setting, this mostly manages to overcome that fear by reducing the significance of the unlikeable child who is a prism for adult behaviour.  It broaches some tough situations (like a botched home abortion) with the refusing of sentiment and a modicum of unsettling violence. This steers it through the conventional posturing and clichéd setup which is nimbly handled by director Annabel Jankel.  The leads (particularly Grainger) are superb. The cinematography by Bartosz Nalazek is beautiful.  Those sort of people don’t change their minds

American Woman (2018)

American Woman

We’re supposed to just sit here and wait. In a small blue-collar town in Rust Belt Pennsylvania, a 32-year-old single woman Debra Callahan’s (Sienna Miller) teenage daughter Bridget (Sky Ferreira) goes missing. Left to raise her infant grandson Jesse (Aidan McGraw/Aidan Fiske) alone, she desperately seeks the answers behind her daughter’s disappearance while her sister Katherine (Christina Hendricks) and mother Peggy (Amy Madigan) lend their support but Police Detective Sergeant Morris (E. Roger Mitchell) has no leads. After years of re-training at college and abandoning her habit of sleeping with married men, indulging a horrific coercive relationship and living from hand to mouth waiting tables, she has a job in administration and a prospective younger husband Chris (Aaron Paul) whom she marries after a couple of months but eventually life comes crashing down again …You think you’re special. More than anything else, this tale of working class people concerns the pain and difficulty of single motherhood (like mother, like daughter, both teen moms) which creates a cycle of poverty, low paid work and promiscuity. The story of generational mistakes is a somewhat run of the mill and depressing exercise, not caring to particularise the different phases of femininity save in its biological underpinnings which is after all a zero-sum game:  no matter what you do, you’re wrong and you’re trapped. Melodrama is substituted for mystery and Bridget’s disappearance is all but forgotten while life is dramatised as a series of betrayals. It finally obtains a power and focus in the closing sequences when Debra achieves a meeting with her daughter’s (inevitable) killer in prison: we just see the reflection of his face on hers, before they have an unheard conversation that leads Debra to Bridget’s final resting place, buried with his other victims. She is just a number in the earth now. Ironically, Debra now looks younger than she did eleven years earlier because is no longer the trashy tramp she essayed to survive:  with an answer to what happened she has a kind of equilibrium, at last. Very well performed by a great cast – how good is it see Amy Madigan even in a small role. Miller is superb, encompassing her character’s stop-start odyssey of rage in the smallest of gestures. Written by Brad Ingelsby and directed by Jake Scott. This is it Mom. The moment you’ve been waiting for for forty years

3 Generations (2017)

Three Generations

I’m a boy with tits. I can appropriate whatever I want. Hoping to get support from his single artist mother Maggie (Naomi Watts) and Lesbian jazz club proprietor grandmother Dolly (Susan Sarandon) (and her live-in girlfriend Frances, played by Linda Emond), 16-year old Ray born Ramona (Elle Fanning) prepares to transition from female to male. When Maggie dithers over signing her permission due to Ray’s age, she then finds out that Ray’s father Craig’s (Tate Donovan) signature is also required but he hasn’t been in the picture for a very long time. An encounter between the teen’s parents turns into a confrontation with Ray finally taking matters into her own hands …  Just because you’re the parent doesn’t mean you get to decide when we talk about this.  In an era characterised by intense identity politics perhaps there is none so troubling a topic as the idea that children can choose their own gender despite their given genitalia. This lays out the argument inside this unusual family setup – cool Lesbian grandmother plus her girlfriend, an unmarried mother, an androgynous daughter living as a boy. Then it takes a melodramatic skew that leads one to the unexpected conclusion that this situation is the result of precisely this boho unconventionality – who’s the daddy? A narrative turn that seems to upend the entire raison d’être avoiding the very premise it proposes to address. However it’s well played – very well, particularly by Sarandon who gets the lion’s share of biting dialogue; and Fanning in a very difficult and paradoxically limited role – by a seasoned cast grappling with a very millennial issue. Ultimately a film that suggests that in a world of parents who cannot make up their minds, tell the truth or act responsibly, it falls upon the unfortunate confused kids to make adult decisions, promising a reckoning in the years to come following this contemporary experiment in biology. Written by Nikole Beckwith with director Gaby Dellal. I get to stop feeling like someone else

Lady Macbeth (2016)

Lady Macbeth poster

Could you do without me? Northern England 1865.  Newly sold into marriage to an older man, rich industrialist Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton), Katherine (Florence Pugh) finds herself confined to the house and starved of companionship. Her husband can’t or won’t have sex with her but makes her strip and masturbates while she faces a wall. Forced to spend her days in endless tedium, dining with his bullying father Boris (Christopher Fairbank), when her husband is called away to one of his collieries she starts to spend more time with maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) and begins a passionate and fiery relationship with a young groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) from the estate, beginning a conflict that will end in violence. Following her husband’s demise at her hands and after hiding his body, a surprise arrives on her doorstep in the form of her husband’s illegitimate son Teddy (Anton Palmer) accompanied by his grandmother Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) throwing Katherine’s plans into disarray .You’ve got fatter. Adapted by Alice Birch from Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, this austere treatment of a rural tragedy is as contained as anti-heroine Pugh by corsetry and decency until sensuality spills forth and all hell breaks loose.  This is the distinctive Pugh’s breakout performance following The Falling and TV’s Marcella and her polarising character anchors a narrative which is ostensibly feminist but ultimately offers a critique of female power and how it is achieved and sustained. Perhaps the casting of black actors in the story complicates the issue of power by raising another issue, that of of race, in what is otherwise a melodrama of sex and class. Ultimately what happens when people are undone by desire can be murderous. It is a drama entirely without ornament. Directed by William Oldroyd. She is a disease

Georgy Girl (1966)

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You know, the trouble with you is you could say that you’re a good girl. Awkward 22-year old Georgy (Lynn Redgrave) is the musically talented daughter of parents who live in at the home of their employer James Leamington (James Mason) whose wife Ellen (Rachel Kempson) is dying. He has always taken a paternal interest in Georgy but finds his feelings are evolving and asks her to be his mistress. Georgy’s flatmate musician Meredith (Charlotte Rampling) leads a hedonistic lifestyle and finds herself pregnant by boyfriend Jos (Alan Bates) who marries her despite feeling attracted to Georgy when he moves into their flat and the pair commence a surreptitious affair… She was a beautiful woman – beautiful! Tolerant. Civilised – and about as exciting as a half brick. Even if you’ve never read Margaret Forster’s wonderful novel you probably know the title song performed by The Seekers but really this is all about Lynn Redgrave, who gives a great performance as the far from glamorous woman who is catnip not just to Mason but to Bates but wants nothing more than to be a good mother. She’s totally delightful in a film that swings, with Mason marvellous in a role that practically demands some moustache-twirling, such is his lasciviousness in his native Yorkshire tongue. The scene where Bates strips off unaware that a care worker is visiting the flat and Redgrave is pretending to be a nanny is just priceless. Rampling shines as the feckless Meredith who doesn’t have a maternal bone in her beautiful body and the portrayal of disenchanted motherhood is groundbreaking in its lack of sentimentality. Even so, this is relentlessly upbeat and contrives a fantastically apposite happy ending to a brilliantly offbeat set of relationships. How much more fondly can a film look upon its characters? Adapted by Forster and Peter Nichols and directed by Silvio Narizzano. God’s always got a custard pie up his sleeve

Lola (1981)

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They live two lives in this town. In 1957 in the West German town of Coburg, reconstruction is the watchword and the élite all benefit: the mayor, the police chief, the bank president, the newspaper editor and most of all the property developer Shuckert (Mario Adorf). He also owns the town brothel where his favourite worker is house singer Lola. This little arrangement is threatened by the arrival in the town hall of the high-minded and cultured von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a refugee from East Prussia, as the new building commissioner. Divorced, he hires a woman (Karin Baal) with a little granddaughter as his housekeeper and devotes himself to his new job. One day, while he is out at work, his housekeeper shows her daughter round his house. It is Lola, who decides she wants to know this interesting man and under her real name of Marie-Luise soon attracts his attention. Unaware of her night job or of the fact that the married Schuckert is the father of her little girl, he tries to get involved with her, but she warns him off. When he is finally taken to the brothel, he discovers the truth about her. In the meantime he has been collecting evidence of the widespread corruption of Coburg, including building permits, masterminded by Schuckert, and now decides to put a stop to it. Nobody is interested, however. Unable to change the system, and still in love with Lola, with Schuckert’s blessing he marries her. As a wedding gift, Schuckert gives the pair the deeds of the brothel and, while von Bohm is taking a walk after the church ceremony, takes the bride to bed… I would like – No, I have to – I want to buy your whore! The second of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy following The Marriage of Maria Braun and before Veronika Voss, while not quite at their level of brilliance, this savagae portrait of unified Germany shows Sukowa at her ravishing best in an homage both to Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel and the Fifties work of Douglas Sirk, that emigré auteur par excellence. The design, composition and framing allude to the latter; while Sukowa’s pitiless and manipulative showstopper clearly references the complex legacy of Dietrich. However the real stuff is the sleazy quotidian and the expedient relationships and how they form a collage almost in denial of eroticism in a world where the economic boom and the new political ideology of progress are everything.  Written by Fassbinder with Pea Fröhlich (she co-wrote all the films in the trilogy) and Peter Märthesheimer, this has a kinetic and satirical energy that only Fassbinder could muster (shooting in every direction, as he would have it) and it’s beautifully captured in Xaver Schwarzenberger’s cinematography using filters to stop the filth from damaging the picture, no doubt, as well as calling to mind another auteur, perhaps, Vincente Minnelli. He who has no house shall not build one. He who is alone shall long remain so…

Noose for a Lady (1953)

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We’re all of us a little delicate these days. Margaret Hallam (Pamela Alan) is sentenced to death for murdering her manipulative husband and her cousin Simon Gale (Dennis Price) arrives from Uganda determined to prove her innocence with only seven days to clear her name. He works with her stepdaughter Jill (Rona Anderson) to investigate all lines of enquiry including everyone in Margaret’s immediate circle of family, friends and neighbours.  He encounters a situation that could implicate any one of their number because the victim knew each of their past indiscretions and was practising extortion. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the hangman’s noose awaits but as Simon closes in on the real culprit they start tying up loose ends …  Let’s stop theorizing. A decent B-movie whodunnit, Price sleuthing Poirot-style with the theatrical touch that he gathers all possible suspects at the beginning so that we then follow each plot thread with a little foreknowledge until the twist ending. The revealing of a slew of personal secrets gives a melodramatic spin to things, making it logical that each character has skin in the killing game – except of course more lives are at stake. There’s a shifty housekeeper (Doris Yorke), a man with a sleeping pill habit (Charles Lloyd-Pack), a woman with an illegitimate child (Alison Leggatt), a nasty old gossip (Esma Cannon) and so forth. To heighten tension, the policeman (George Merritt) is given a spot of insight that you’d think would be attributed to Price, whose usual villainous edge is toned down to permit him to play decent and enjoy a spot of romance with Vanessa Lane (Melissa Stribling). The gang is assembled again at the climax, Christie-style and even if you see the outcome telegraphed in advance, it plays very well and there are some good exchanges. Adapted from Gerald Verner’s novel The Whispering Woman by Rex Rienits and stylishly directed by the prolific writer Wolf Rilla in his debut:  this was the first of four features he made in 1953 alone. Shot at Merton Park. So much for Chesterton. This is a miracle that isn’t going to happen

Wild Rose (2018)

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I’m not a criminal though, I’m an outlaw. Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), an aspiring country singer and single mother of two from Glasgow is released from prison after a twelve-month sentence for attempted drug smuggling. She goes to her boyfriend’s council flat and has sex with him before reuniting with her mother Marion (Julie Walters) who’s been taking care of her young daughter Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) and son Lyle (Adam Mitchell). She learns that she has lost her job in the house band at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry, as a result of her stint away. Marion encourages her to give up her dream of becoming a musician to focus on more practical matters and take responsibility for her family:  Rose-Lynn has never stuck at anything, can’t play an instrument and has never written a song. She takes a job as a cleaner to wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okenedo) who hears her singing and promises to sponsor her to get Rose-Lynn’s hero BBC DJ Bob Harris to listen to her and fulfil her fantasy en route to the real Grand Ole Opry in Nashville … That’s the end of cleaning floors for you.  From a screenplay by Nicole Taylor, this is implausible, irritating and overly generous to its protagonist. In other words, it’s a lot like a country song (not a country and western song, as she has to keep reminding people in her thick Glaswegian accent) and the minutes occasionally drag like hours.  It’s hard to watch a woman be so cruel to small children who she had as a promiscuous teenager and proceeds to ignore even after a year in the slammer. In a film that can’t make up its mind whether it’s a social realist drama (her bed is even shot to look like it’s in a prison cell) or the biopic of a music legend (like all country movies to date) who actually isn’t one, even in her own house, it mints a jawdropping black saviour trope, although Susannah’s streetwise hubby sees through Rose’s act (literally) and hearing some home truths snaps her out of her daydreaming. This feckless girl is such a screwup she even gets pissed on the potentially life-changing train journey to see ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris at the BBC in London and has her bag and money stolen. Perhaps it’s meant to be colouring in her shady character but it’s a damning indictment of people who put themselves ahead of their kids despite the logic. Dramatically and emotionally this is deeply troublesome. Even basketcase Juliet Barnes in TV’s Nashville is better to her daughter. Buckley just looks morose when the script is giving her nothing to play. There are some nice moments towards the end when Walters cracks and a kind of rapprochement is achieved but it’s thin gruel. I blame reality TV:  in an extraordinary admission a few years ago one of these ‘talent’ show’s producers in the UK let slip the astonishing statistic that “80 per cent of our applicants are illegitimate.” Attention-seeking is a way of life for the working classes, innit. Saints preserve us all from delusional aggressive karaoke queens but this has the narrative shape of those bios, which makes the country angle feel tacked on. Herself a reality show graduate, Buckley has an easy charm, a lopsided mouth and can sing the bejesus out of anything but the narrative falls far short of what it should have been and the fantasy ending is built on air, the fish out of water premise turned on its head, back in Glasgow.  She didn’t earn it, actually. Beats mopping floors, I suppose. The score is by Jack Arnold and the songs covered include everyone from Primal Scream, actress/singer Mary Steenburgen and Anna McGarrigle. Directed by Tom Harper who previously directed Buckley in BBC’s adaptation of War and PeaceYou never stick at anything

The Vikings (1958)

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What would be the worst thing for a Viking? Viking Prince Einar (Kirk Douglas) doesn’t know it but his worst enemy, the slave Erik (Tony Curtis), is actually his half brother and their father King Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) legitimate heir. Their feud only intensifies when Einar kidnaps Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), on her way to be the intended bride of the brutal Northumbrian King Aella (Frank Thring). Einar intends to make her his own. However Morgana has eyes only for Erik – leading to the capture of  Ragnar and a terrible final attempt to win her heart ...  Let’s not question flesh for wanting to remain flesh. Good looking, well put together and great fun, and that’s just the cast, in this spectacular historical epic, an action adventure produced by Kirk Douglas that capitalises on his muscular masculinity opposite husband and wife team Curtis and Leigh who get to seriously smoulder for the cameras in their love scenes:  it was the third of their onscreen pairings. With some very fruity language, mistaken identity, axe-throwing, pillaging, actual bodice-ripping, walking the plank for fun, unconscious sibling rivalry, brawny sailors, death by wolf pit, romance and swashbuckling, this has everything going for it except horned helmets. It might well be about eighth or ninth century Viking lord Ragnar Lodbrok and the probably-real Northumbrian king Aella (who died 867) but it’s really about Kirk and Tony and Janet. Jack Cardiff shoots the expansive Technicolor images, and director Richard Fleischer lets every character have their moment in this fast-paced entertainment. The beautiful tapestry-style animated titles are voiced by Orson Welles and the incredible score is by (paradoxically unsung) soundtrack hero Mario Naschimbene who brings both vigour and mystery to this good-humoured story of war and violence: you will believe that those voices in the sky are coming from the heavens. Adapted by Dale Wasserman from the 1951 novel The Viking by Edison Marshall, with a screenplay by Calder Willingham, this is one of the very best action-adventure films of all time with some great editing by Elmo Williams who also helmed the second unit and made the TV series inspired by it, Tales of the Vikings, also produced by Douglas’  Bryna Productions. Within a few short years Douglas would cement his legend as a Hollywood liberal with the cry, I am Spartacus! but for now it’s Odin!