The Weaker Sex (1948)

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I wish I didn’t feel so cut off.   Widowed Martha Dacre (Ursula Jeans) tries to keep house and home together for her two serving daughters Helen (Joan Hopkins) who’s involved with radio officer Nigel (Derek Bond) and Lolly (Lana Morris) who’s going out with sailor Roddy (John Stone);  and servicemen billeted on her in Portsmouth, a naval base during WW2. While son Benjie (Digby Wolfe) is away in the Navy she has chosen to stay at home as a housewife, but when she learns that his ship has been damaged during the D Day landings, she regrets not taking a more active role in the war and works in a canteen and as a fire watcher. The family story moves forward from D-Day to VE-Day, the 1945 general election and on to 1948. Martha eventually re-marries to her late husband’s colleague, naval officer Geoffrey (Cecil Parker) who was one of those billeted on her and has become a father-figure to her son and daughters…  Oh dear, who’d be a mother? This British homefront drama was released three years following the conclusion of hostilities so it has the benefit of victorious hindsight as well as expressing the postwar era when everyone was completely obsessed with the lack of food. Adapted from actress Esther McCracken’s 1944 stage play No Medals by Paul Soskin with additional scenes created by Val Valentine to bring it up to the year of shooting, it’s a witty drama filled with resigned Keep Calm and Carry On messages underscored by dissatisfaction at the dreariness of housework and the plight of women whose life is dictated by the unavailability of food which becomes a thoroughly good running joke:  The housewives’ battle cry – the fishmonger’s got fish! cackles housekeeper Mrs Gaye (Thora Hird). Intended as post-war propaganda, a kind of decent British take on Hollywood’s Mrs Miniver (minus the Nazi in the garden) with added politics, it’s smart, unfussy and fair, yet trenchant and involving.  Jeans is terrific as the middle class woman finding herself rather (class) envious of Harriet Lessing (Marian Spencer) living in a serviced flat and volunteering:  there’s humour to be had in a lovely payoff when Harriet gets her public comeuppance after the war as rationing motivates her to head the local Militant Housewives League and she gets caught up in an unholy scrimmage which fetches up on the front page of the papers. Parker is a great casting choice – the guy not ashamed of being seen decked out in his uniform doing the vacuuming who can say unabashed to Jeans, I never had a genuinely platonic friendship with a woman before. Of course we know where that leads. He digs in and gets creative when he’s sick of being starved of regular food – and milks a goat. I slept and dreamed that life was beauty, I woke and found that life is duty. There is a great sense of warmth in the family relationships and a scene of remarkable tension when Helen and Martha play a card game awaiting a phonecall to find out whether Nigel has survived a bombing.  Jeans tells herself when awaiting more bad news, I mustn’t back down. I must try to be of some use. Parker responds, This language of ours is so completely inadequate. They are expressing the weariness of a nation almost done in yet somehow dragging itself up to cope with the inevitability of ongoing loss. There are occasional dips into newsreel montages to bring a context to the experiences as the story commences in the run up to D Day, through VE Day, the 1945 General Election, Hiroshima and after, but the footage is smoothly integrated and doesn’t disrupt the narrative flow. Hugely successful in its day it’s a really rather spiffing reminder of how and why Britain came through the war, the importance of family and sadly that tragic deaths don’t just occur in wartime. Crisply shot by Erwin Hillier amid exquisite sets by Alex Vetchinsky and this raft of wonderful performances are very well directed by Roy [Ward] Baker. Shabby perhaps, but not yet shoddy

Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)

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Information is everything  – the currency, the power. Young United Nations employee Michael Soussan (Theo James) has left his lucrative job at a bank because he wants to follow in his late diplomat father’s footsteps and travels to Iraq with his mentor Under-Secretary-General Costa ‘Pasha’ Passaris (Ben Kingsley), who is going to show him how successful the UN’s Oil-for-Food Programme has been. When Michael gets a deeper look at the organisation on the ground he listens to the concerns of local UN diplomat Christina Dupre (Jacqueline Bisset) and unveils a corruption conspiracy in which officials both inside and outside of the UN are skimming billions off the top of the aid meant for the Iraqi people. When he meets UN worker (and secret Kurdish activist) Nashim (Bilçim Bilgin) and she informs him his predecessor was murdered, he finds his head being turned yet he wants to do the right thing … There was nobody left who knew how to run the countryPitched as a political thriller, this reeks of the great Seventies paranoid conspiracy stories that Pakula and Pollack made so much their own – and even concludes in a visit to the Wall Street Journal, conjuring images of Robert Redford in his own cat and mouse chase. However this whistleblower drama is a bigger story with the bad guys less easy to identify simply because there are so many of them – thousands of global companies, some household brands, bribing Saddam Hussein, and, as we might recall from the news of 15 years ago, revolved around the United Nations. So basically everything we know is right – they’re all at it, as the overly truthful title indicates. Graft is good. Our shoulder-shrugging dismay is sealed by intermittent montages of newsreel, reminding us that we are watching, as it were, a true story, while some of the ensemble get killed in car bombs as Iraq is carved up by vested interests. Kingsley, unsurprisingly, gets all the best lines and this performance is meat and drink to him. James is more diffuse as the good guy constantly stunned into submission by the realisation that corruption is a way of life and he still scrabbles to do whatever is right, whatever that might be, at any given time as the tables are constantly turned on him in this story of a naïf’s progress.  Adapted from Soussan’s memoir by director Per Fly (isn’t that the best name ever?!) and Daniel Pyne. Admirable but not wholly effective.  What you call corruption is simply the growing pains of a new democracy

 

Bergman: A Year in a Life (2018)

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If you look for Ingmar Bergman the only place you find him is in his films.  Jane Magnusson’s film (in Swedish, Norwegian and English) was made to celebrate Ingmar Bergman’s 2018 centenary and pivots on 1957, a year in which he made two award winning films, a TV movie and he had four theatre smashes. How did he do it? What spurred this sudden surge in productivity and arguably his career masterpieces (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal on film, Peer Gynt on stage)? (The biggest surprise is that once actor who saw Gynt describes it as follows:  This is all adventure movies rolled into one! Not what the viewer would expect of an auteur known for austere and sexualised work – he knew everyone would go to see Summer With Monika if he included nude shots). He worked quickly on low budgets and hadn’t even conceived of Wild Strawberries at the beginning of 1957 but it was released by the end of the year and is examined here as a version of himself, Viktor Sjöstrom might even be perceived as dead already, looking back upon his life with that wonderful combination of wistful yearning and regret while he journeys to collect his award. Bergman’s work rate can’t be explained scientifically – he certainly had a bad temper and was plagued by a rotten ulcerous stomach. One interviewee posits that his diet of yoghurt and Marie biscuits constituted what would today be called an eating disorder (he thought vegetables were evil).  Perhaps he had all kinds of hunger issues. He didn’t believe in therapy and claims in a TV interview to have visited a psychiatrist just once. (One actress contradicts his declaration that the doctor found him healthy). His relationships were complex and unfaithful, yielding 6 offspring by 1957 (he thought 5, and he would eventually father 9 in and out of marriages, one of whom didn’t know she was his illegitimate daughter until she was 22). He was involved with three women in 1957 other than his then wife and one was actress Bibi Andersson. Apart from anything else, he had a lot of people to support financially. It seems that in 1957 Bergman realised that his best source of material was himself and the film uses his achievements in that annus mirabilis as a prism to analyse his entire life and career. Fassbinder was on amphetamine. Maybe Bergman was on sexuality. When it came to Persona, a film interpreted here as a dramatising of his two sides, he commenced a relationship with Liv Ullmann who lived with him on his island, eventually bearing him another child and she cries when recalling that he was the best friend she ever had. Bergman describes the camera as seeing more than he ever did,  a phenomenal tool for registering the human soul and it is this journey into the soul that he believes he was on through his films. Perhaps his most beloved work is Fanny and Alexander but a long-suppressed interview with his brother Dag (recorded in the 80s) deflates Bergman’s claim of bullying by his father or a horrible time at school – it all happened, just not to him, but to Dag. Bergman’s flirtation with Nazism raises troubling questions – he claimed to have been sent on an exchange to Germany when he was a young child. However it happened in 1936 when he was 18 and his support of the regime lasted until 1946, long after the camps had been exposed. His biographer is conflicted about whether or not he was claiming to be a fascist acolyte as part of his extensive self-mythologising:  the son of a Jewish refugee in his father’s home seems to think so. And Bergman determined in the aftermath of that period that he would never engage politically in his films. There is no limit to what Bergman will do to get the best out of his actors. On Winter Light he had a doctor diagnose lead actor Gunnar Björnstrand with depression so that his reaction to illness could be caught on camera (and boy did it work). His relationship with other screen actors is more heartening:  instead of words he’d give you an emotional gesture, says one, so that that if they were quick enough and inventive enough they would pick up on it and use it in their characterisation. Barbra Streisand speaks of her envy watching him direct her then husband Elliott Gould in Bergman’s English-language debut The Touch, including one scene when he actually sat underneath the camera while Gould was being shot in close up and guided his performance. Gould himself says, There’s no one like Ingmar Bergman. An artist. A craftsman. A master. In later years Bergman’s antics directing theatre productions are remembered by victims as bullying, in a period when his celebrity and indulgence by the establishment was only tarnished by a highly public tax problem; while his personal life disintegrated in 1995 after the death of his fifth wife Ingrid von Rosen (the love of his life, he said) and he withdrew almost totally, albeit his last filmed interview reveals a sense of self-deprecating humour. His autocratic persona was out of time and he seemed to be jealous of younger men. His conduct toward lead actor Thorsten Flinck in The Misanthrope at the Royal Dramatic Theatre is horrible to hear. This is a fascinating, confounding and compelling portrait of a man whose importance to Swedish art is finally declared to be more influential than that of Strindberg with some jaw-dropping interviews from actors, technicians and colleagues.  Written by Mattias Nohrborg, this is a marvellous, informative documentary about one of the most important filmmakers in cinema. The now is all that exists

Death Defying Acts (2007)

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We had a real double act, my mam and me.  It’s 1926. Upon arriving in Edinburgh, Scotland for a series of mind-boggling performances, master illusionist and escapologist Harry Houdini (Guy Pearce) offers an impressive cash reward of $10,000 to any supposed psychic who can accurately tell him his beloved late mother’s exact last words. Gorgeous local swindler Mary McGarvie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) rises to the challenge and together with her streetwise daughter Benji (Saoirse Ronan) leads Houdini on in a dangerous flirtation that blurs the line between reality and paranoia –  but she has reckoned without the machinations of his canny manager Sugarman (Timothy Spall) who knows a con when he sees it but has his own reasons to let this Oedipal obsession play out in the world of spiritualists, fake or not … Nothing in this world’s free. It’s an engaging premise and well staged but this drama of who’s-fooling-who sadly won’t hoodwink the audience. Pearce is hardly Houdini although he’s a charmer whether tied up underwater or on the surface, and Jones’ and Ronan’s lively performances as grifters are marvellous but can’t conceal the dramatic deficit at the centre of the narrative. It looks wonderful and is beautifully staged but never really takes off, the mystery of Houdini’s personality is never convincingly exposed and of course as we know it ends in tragedy. Written by Tony Grisoni and Brian Ward, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I used to be a nice man you know. Do you believe me?

 

The Front Runner (2018)

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Now they know who we are.  It’s 1987. Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) former senator of Colorado and one-time campaign manager for McGovern, becomes the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Hart’s intelligence, alleged charisma and idealism make him popular with young voters, leaving a seemingly clear path to the White House with a strong team led by Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons). All that comes crashing down when allegations of an extramarital affair with a woman called Donna Rice (Sara Paxton) surface in the media after he’s goaded journalists to follow him in an interview with Washington Post reporter A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie), forcing the candidate to address a scandal that threatens to derail his campaign and personal life: his guarded wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) has stood by him but when the TV cameras fetch up at their house and their daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) is followed there’s some hard talking in public and in private ... I did all the things I was supposed to do to make that men wouldn’t look at me the way you’re looking at me right now. It was a great story and it ran for three weeks way back then. The good looking Democrat with great hair taunted journos to come looking for trouble and they did and they found it and the philandering politico was found on a boat called Monkey Business with a young woman who was then hung out to dry by the very people who said they’d protect her. Sound familiar? The coarsening of politics began right there, in the pages of the tabloids who found the idea of a Presidential contender openly carrying on an adulterous affair irresistible:  these are the kind of guys who sniggered about JFK’s women and let him away with everything – until he was murdered and it was open season on his legacy. Jason Reitman’s film is a serious look at an issue that has just got worse over the years (with rather paradoxical outcomes, considering the state of state surveillance and paparazzi and the interweb as we know) but it’s loud and busy for the first 45 minutes and hard to hear and hard to follow.  Only then does it settle, away from the hubbub of campaign offices and the rustle of burger lunches to focus on the man at the centre of the story who disproves his team’s views about what he should be doing – turns out he’s darn good at ax throwing. Trouble is, he’s not that interesting. Why on earth would he be a good President? He could win it – he’s got the hair. The superficial elements of campaigning are all over this (one advisor suggests that if Dukakis added a K to his name he’d take the South). The philosophical argument here which Hart is given in dialogue is that the public don’t care and he should have his privacy – and the public wouldn’t care if the journalists didn’t and Hart had never thrown down the gauntlet to them. That’s the point. So the story isn’t about a man carrying on behind the back of his wife or how Democrats are always found out in the same tedious way, it’s about grubby low journalistic standards and the free press and the dangers that poses to true political expression:  this in itself is a very conflicted narrative stance (not to Vladimir Putin, of course). Jackman does a very low-key characteristation and that compounds the narrative problems. He is a charm vacuum. We are left asking at the end of this, as Walter Mondale asked Hart (and the clip is included), Where’s the beef? Adapted from Matt Bai’s book All the Truth is Out:  The Week Politics Went Tabloid by Bai, (former Hilary Clinton press secretary) Jay Carson and Reitman, who has left his satirical knives in the drawer on this occasion. Pity.

The Natural (1984)

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I came here to play baseball.  In 1910s Nebraska Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) plays catch with his father who is killed by a tree hit by lightning. Roy makes a bat from the split tree and in 1923 tries out for the Chicago Cubs with girlfriend Iris (Glenn Close) in tow, meeting legendary Whammer (Joe Don Baker) and sports writer Max Mercy (Robert Duvall). He impresses the mysterious beauty Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) who had been fawning over Whammer. She is actually a celebrity stalker who turns up in Roy’s hotel room where she shoots him, apparently dead. Sixteen years later he has a chance as a rookie with bottom of the league New York Knights where he immediately becomes a star to the surprise of manager Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley).  He falls into the clutches of Pop’s niece Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) who is handmaiden to Gus Sands (Darren McGavin, unbilled) a ruthless bookie who loves betting against him. His form turns until a woman in white stands in the crowd and it’s Iris – who is unmarried but has a son. Mercy finally remembers where he first saw Roy who gets a chance as outfielder following the tragic death of colleague Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen) but the illness resulting from the shooting catches up with Roy and he’s on borrowed time … I used to look for you in crowds. Adapted by Roger Towne (brother of Robert) and Phil Dusenberry from Bernard Malamud’s novel, this is a play on myth and honour, with nods to mediaeval chivalry in its story of a long and arduous journey where Roy encounters the death of his father, bad and good women, resurrection, mentors and villains and lost opportunities and the chance at redemption. It’s a glorious tale, told beautifully and surprisingly economically with stunning imagery from Caleb Deschanel and a sympathetic score from Randy Newman. Redford seems too old at first but you forget about that because he inhabits Hobbs so totally and it’s so finely tuned. This allegorical take on the price you pay for success in America is expertly handled by director Barry Levinson, even if the novel’s ending is altered. I didn’t see it coming

Liz & Dick (2012) (TVM)

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He treated me like a queen and I loved his voice. God how I loved his voice.  Anyone who knows anything about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton knows one thing above all else – they were never called Liz and Dick. Nobody would have dared. That aside, this is a gloriously kitschy exercise in flashback framed by an interview with them (that never happened in reality and culled from the many letters and notes Burton wrote to Taylor) in which they discuss their fatal attraction on the set of Cleopatra in 1962 , their subsequent adulterous relationship despite having children in their respective marriages, living together and making The VIPs and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  (Taylor insisted), tricky divorces, their wedding, their peripatetic lifestyle and decision to live on a boat because of the living expenses of two families travelling from set to set and regular house moves in the middle of a never-ending international paparazzi hunt.  It’s all here, with the immensely welcome if odd presence of the great Theresa Russell as Taylor’s mother Sara. Surely some mistake. Punctuated by fabulous jewellery, newspaper headlines, make-ups and bust-ups, heavy drinking, Taylor’s weight gain, Burton’s jealousy of her Academy Awards, the need to make films to solve financial problems and finally Burton’s alleged affair with Nathalie Delon which drove Taylor to a supposed assignation with Aristotle Onassis – at the centre of the chaos and tantrums is a couple whose sexual attraction to one another is overwhelming and quite incomprehensible to other people (a truism for most couples – the only thing these icons ever shared with mere mortals). What we have outside of the relationship is the nature of celebrity as it simply didn’t exist prior to this scandalous duo whose newsworthy antics even attracted the ire of the Vatican (‘erotic vagrancy’). Hello Lumpy! Lohan was roundly criticised for her portrayal and it’s true she doesn’t actually sound, look or move like Taylor but boy does she revel in the lines, like, Elizabeth wants to play. Strangely, she convinces more as the older Taylor with the frightwig and makeup. Bowler is adequate as Burton (even without the disproportionately large head) and underplays him quite well, but what is essential is what surrounds them – glamour, beauty, incredible locations. They literally had a dream of a life. What is clear in this evocation of the Battling Burtons is their need for constant reassurance and the one-upmanship resulting from their shared drive to always do better to keep on an even keel. I will love you even if you get as fat as a hippo. Burton’s descent into full-blown alcoholism upon the death of his brother Ifor (David Hunt) following a desperate fall in their home in Switzerland is the pivot to the real conclusion of the famous relationship, a second short-lived marriage following one of Taylor’s serious illnesses notwithstanding. There are a lot of books about them but if you want to see something as crazy, turbulent and tragic as they seem to have been, watch this. It’s wonderfully made, completely daft and utterly compelling. Written by Christopher Monger and directed by Lloyd Kramer. I want more

 

The Dreamers (2003)

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Before you can change the world you must realize that you, yourself, are part of it. You can’t stand outside looking in.  In May 1968, the student riots in Paris exacerbate the isolation felt by three youths:  American exchange student Matthew (Michael Pitt) and twins Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green). Having bonded over their mutual love of cinema, Matthew is fascinated by the intimacy shared by Isabelle and Théo, who were born conjoined. When the twins’ bohemian parents go away for a month, they ask Matthew to stay at their apartment, and the three lose themselves in a fantasy straight out of the movies that dominate their daydreams … I was one of the insatiables. The ones you’d always find sitting closest to the screen. Why do we sit so close? Maybe it was because we wanted to receive the images first. Adapted by the late Gilbert Adair (how I miss him) from his novel The Holy Innocents (inspired by Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles) this insinuates itself into the mind and the senses as surely as the French brother and sister at its heavily beating cinéphile’s heart. Scrupulously tracing the evolution of a romantic sensibility alongside a political education, this merges a rites of passage story with social and personal revolution in intelligently provocative fashion, fusing Adair’s narrative with director Bernardo Bertolucci’s sympathy for youthful yearning. And it’s sexy as hell, this movie about movies and movie lovers and passion and politics. Green is enigmatic and brave and beautiful, while the boys’ attraction for one another, emerging as a homosexual encounter in the original screenplay, is sacrificed by Bertolucci, whose sexual depictions are always of the hetero variety. There’s a delectable selection of movie clips and songs on the soundtrack of this startlingly beautiful dream of a film. The first time I saw a movie at the cinémathèque française I thought, “Only the French… only the French would house a cinema inside a palace”

Scandalous Me: The Jacqueline Susann Story (1998) (TVM)

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I want to be loved. 1940s New York City: Jacqueline Susann (Michele Lee) is a second-string theatre actress and well-known party girl who turns to journalism following her marriage to press agent turned producer Irving Mansfield (Peter Riegert). Though constantly surrounded by the glitterati of the theatre and social scene she doesn’t achieve celebrity status herself and has to endure the tragedy of a brain-damaged son who has to be institutionalised. Then when she’s 47,  she publishes the raunchy bestselling novel Valley of the Dolls. Outwardly committed to publicising her work and involved in regular cross-country media campaigns, she privately battles cancer and constantly questions her troubled relationship with her society portraitist father Robert (Kenneth Welsh) who never got around to finishing her picture …  Everything I do is for you. Everything I make is for you. Treading much straighter territory than Isn’t She Great (the Bette Midler version) this adaptation by Michele Gallery of Barbara Seaman’s biography Lovely Me ironically strays indirectly and presumably unintentionally into camp now and then, and it doesn’t really do justice to the genius of its subject but Lee is excellent as this spiky confrontational woman who did things her own way. For anyone interested in the backstage antics of NYC’s post-war theatre scene with big personalities like Ethel Merman (Gloria Slade), the evolution of publishing and the making of the notorious film of Susann’s most famous novel with Barbara Parkins (Annie Laurie Williams), Patty Duke (Melanie Peterson) and the lovely Sharon Tate (Leila Johnson), there are residual attractions, but the drivers of this biopic are the private tragedies of the woman who revolutionised modern publishing by establishing her own critic-proof brand of sex and sass. Directed by Bruce McDonald. You don’t cook, you don’t clean, you never stay in. My life is never going to be dull

Williams: Formula 1 In The Blood (2017)

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The accident didn’t just happen to Frank, it happened to everybody. Frank Williams’ career as an F1 team boss didn’t quite end in 1986 as his eponymous team was cresting towards major success but his mobility was brought to a crashing conclusion at a wall in the South of France when he was rushing to the airport to get back home to England. He was in and out of consciousness for six weeks after snapping his spine in two and became a quadriplegic overnight.  His team would come visit him at the London Hospital to regale a man barely alive about the latest intra-team spats between Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell simply to try and keep him going. The man who ran 12 miles a day and competed in marathons was subsequently confined to a wheelchair. This revolves around his refusal to engage with his family’s desire to come to terms with the horrific accident and how they handled it – he simply never mentioned it and got on with things, unable to share a bed with wife Ginny and looked after by a 24/7 carer. Ginny wrote a book (A Different Kind of Life) in 1991 which she recorded in secret with the help of a writer friend. The conflict in the film is this: Frank has never read it while his daughter Claire, now team boss (and says I never expected to be given the keys to the shop) is in tears at the fact that her mother died of cancer in 2013 without the couple ever discussing its contents, namely her anguish at his physical destruction.  Ginny’s absence is the most powerful presence in the story. The narration is primarily excerpts from the book (filmed to her audio as staged reconstruction, like the crash) but visually the film mostly consists of Claire Williams interviewed today and archive footage starting with Williams in his early career as a Northern chancer selling spare parts, obsessed with becoming a driver and sharing a flat with posh Etonians, one of whom, Piers Courage, died in one of his early cars. The film concludes with Claire reading to her father from Ginny’s book and there are perhaps a few tears in the man’s eyes.  It’s a feeble conclusion considering the breadth of his actions. The impact of his own attitudes was borne at far greater price by third parties, the team’s recent failure to achieve podium finishes notwithstanding, a terrible fate for an old school marque. Williams’ imperturbable visage had a quite different, sinister affect when he was introduced (like Count Dracula) in slo-mo in Asif Kapadia’s magnificent Senna, clearly the villain of that tragic piece, when he and Patrick Head forced the greatest driver of my lifetime, who was at the forefront of the F1 driver safety campaign, into a dangerous car to his death, literally cut off in his prime. This is the flipside of Williams’ refusal to engage with humanity, open his mouth and speak. Sadly, when you look at this old, strangely enigmatic quadriplegic, dead from the neck down, you realise that sometimes bad things can really happen to bad people. It’s a vital story in F1 history but it’s hard to care. Featuring interviews with Mansell, Peter Windsor (who was in the crash with Williams), Jackie Stewart and Head. Directed by Morgan Matthews.