Old Boys (2018)

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Model yourself on me and you won’t go wrong. Awkward but imaginative scholarship boy (Alex Lawther) helps the handsome but spectacularly dim school head boy and hero of their boarding school Henry Winchester aka The Mighty Winch (Jonah Hauer-King) pursue the fiery French Agnès (Pauline Étienne), daughter of a visiting teacher Babinot (Denis Ménochet) who is struggling for the past 18 years to produce his second novel … I’ll blast her with my charm bazooka! This Eighties-set comic drama starts with a very witty titles sequence, the typically upper class British schoolboys on a supposedly unique sports tradition which is really an outward bound torture session tramping through the mud, an experience likened to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in a low angle shot of the institution (resembling my own frightening alma mater), a piece of stripey uniform caught on the barbed wire demarcating it from the rest of civilisation (which appears to be Norfolk). I’m just not good at all this word shit, declares The Mighty Winch, a nice but thick joker who can do no wrong in the eyes of the school or indeed himself, so the truly smitten Amberson gets him to pose as a romantic à la Cyrano de Bergerac in a film which wears its French influences very happily with several songs dispersed on the soundtrack. This is about proving you are more than a labrador in trousers. That’s a line that could come from the mouth of comedian/actor Jack Whitehall which is interesting given that this is co-written by Freddy Syborn, his co-writer on TV show Bounty Hunters following their collaboration on Bad Education:  this guy has a recognisable writing voice combining tender observation with sleight of hand comments on the class system as well as a fondness for slapstick. The story gets emotional heft not just from Amberson’s helpless infatuation and his desire to make Agnès happy; but also from the to-and-fro of the French father-daughter as the novelist manqué depends on her to approve of his narrative choices (something that culminates in a bad romantic scene with Papa’s non-French speaking romantic interest). Let me show you what Planet Earth looks like. As for Agnès, she’s not just a romantic but a pragmatic wannabe set designer and knows that Berlin is where it’s happening (another amusing European narrative strand nodding to WW2, juxtaposed with a school screening of The Dambusters) which gives rise to a series of beautiful mini-theatres and greeting cards being unfolded to push the story further as the romantic correspondence and deception is pursued. So if this is as lightweight as those delicate messages’ construction it gains trenchancy from the ideas of multi-lingual co-operation. Someone, somewhere, behind these theatrical scenes is trying to tell us something. The screenplay is by Syborn and Luke Ponte; while it’s well directed by Toby MacDonald. They teach you all the ways you can die but only you can learn how to live

Fighting With My Family (2019)

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Paige, I myself have come from a wrestling family too. I know exactly what it means to you. But don’t worry about being the next me. Be the first you.  Born into a tight-knit wrestling family, Paige Knight (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden) are ecstatic when they get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for the WWE which would take them out of their low-achieving background with loving former thief father (Nick Frost) and ex-addict mum (Lena Headey) and an elder half-brother currently in prison. But when only Paige earns a spot in the competitive training programme led by Hutch (Vince Vaughn), she must leave her loved ones behind and face this new cutthroat world alone in Florida at the NXT training camp. Paige’s journey pushes her to dig deep and ultimately prove to the world that what makes her different is the very thing that can make her a star but back in smalltown England Zak spirals into a depression, confined to drab domesticity with a pregnant girlfriend and left to train local kids …  Dick me dead and bury me pregnant. As everyone knows, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson saw a documentary on British TV about a family of wrestlers from Norwich and thought it would be a good idea for a film so he produced this (and appears briefly) with actor/writer (The Office) Stephen Merchant on directing duties. There are no real insights into this faux sport – only an early argument over what fake versus fixed might mean. There is a certain rackety warmth and the central roles are underwritten yet any power the film might possess derives from the performances by Lowden and particularly Pugh, whose star continues to steadily rise. Pugh obviously has the meatier role as the character who gets the transformational arc, trying to be American and finally reverting to Gothic type (she’s inspired by a Charmed character);  Lowden has to man up to the consequences of extra-marital sex with his rather better class of girlfriend while his sister takes his dream away. It is their considerable charisma and the occasional humour that lifts this story above the fairly squalid origins – and the grim freakshows known as Reality TV whose ’emotional journey’ it apes. Quite why clips from the source documentary were shown during the end credits is anyone’s guess – rather undoing the whole point of the film.  You want some advice? Here’s The Rock’s advice: Shut your mouth! What you want? What you want? How about what The Rock wants? The Rock wants you to go out there, take no prisoners, have no regrets, have no fear! Lay it all out on the line! 

45 Years (2015)

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It’s funny how you forget the things in life that make you happy. In the week leading up to her 45th wedding anniversary, retired teacher Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) is perturbed by the arrival of a letter in German to her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) informing him of the discovery of his former girlfriend’s body which was trapped in a Swiss glacier following an accident during a holiday 50 years earlier.  He was her next of kin and he never told Kate. The news affects Kate in ways she can’t articulate but as she prepares for their party, a delayed 40th celebration due to Geoff’s ill health, she realises that her marriage was built as a reaction to the shaky foundations of her husband’s previous life … Director Andrew Haigh adapted the short story In Another Country by David Constantine and it doesn’t start particularly promisingly. A letter arrives in the home of a comfortably-off couple. There’s a quiet ripple effect which builds towards the retractable ladder up to the attic where photographs and old film slides are stored, attaining the properties of a horror trope. She is angry that he has gone up there to look at the artifacts of a life which was never hers. The fact that the ex is called Katya horrifies Kate – it’s so close to her own name. Theirs is a childless marriage. And when she pries she sees that her predecessor was apparently pregnant at the time of her death. She understands very late in life that her marriage is rather a sham and far from the happy union she had believed. And it’s too late to do anything about it. The past intrudes on the present in the most active of ways. He is so disturbed he takes up smoking again, so does she. She thinks she can smell Katya’s perfume in the house. She now knows the reason they kept German Shepherds as their substitute children. The fissure that trapped Katya is now a crack in what seemed to be a happy marriage. The Norfolk Broads provide a stark juxtaposition with the Alpine Mountains that gave the shambling irritable Geoff a vibrant, thrilling relationship before they ever met. The musical choices suggest that Geoff might have been responsible for Katya’s death after she flirted with their mountain guide. Rampling’s characteristic subtlety is put to great use here because the totality of the story’s emotion must unfold in her silent unravelling at the conclusion – someone she never knew died a long time ago but it’s her grief about her marriage which dominates the narrative as the ageless love of her husband’s youth is perfectly preserved in his mind and she is now falling apart. The cinematography by Lol Crawley is quite unforgiving but the leads offer exquisitely nuanced performances in simply edited frames. Quite haunting.

Thunder On The Hill (1951)

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You did not come here. You were led here by Our Lord. Sanctimonious Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) is leading the team at the convent/hospital of Our Lady of Rheims, a hillside refuge for a community in Norfolk during a terrible flood. Her colleagues dislike her intensely – but Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper) knows that she is motivated by guilt over the death by suicide of her sister. When Valerie Cairns (Ann Blyth, the wicked daughter from Mildred Pierce) arrives accompanied by the police it takes a while for the penny to drop as to why she’s rejecting Sister Mary’s kindness:  she’s a murderess en route to the gallows at prison in Norwich. She’s due to be hanged the following morning but the breaking of the dyke and the downing of telephone lines now mean her execution is delayed. She insists on her innocence and Mary believes her – because she knows what guilt really is. There are a number of people at the convent who are hiding guilt relating to the death by overdose of Valerie’s crippled composer brother including the wife (Anne Crawford) of the doctor on duty (Robert Douglas) who reacts with shock to a photograph of the murdered man. Her husband promptly sedates her.  As Sr Mary researches the newspapers and is given an unsigned letter by slow-witted handyman Willie (Michael Pate) that implicates a third party in the murder, Sr Mary determines to bring Valerie’s fiance Sidney (Philip Friend) from Norwich by boat with Willie.  The handyman destroys the boat so that Valerie cannot be taken to be hanged. The police sergeant is now going to charge Sr Mary with interfering in the course of justice and the guilty party is closing in on her while she is reprimanded by Mother Superior … Slickly told, atmospheric thriller directed by Douglas Sirk with an unexpected take on the melodrama combined with an Agatha Christie group of conventional characters hiding something nasty all gathered in the one building.  There’s a marvellous scene in a belltower when the murderer reveals themselves. The contrasting figures of the desperate and hysterical Blyth and calm but determined Colbert make this a fascinating spin on a crime thriller with a play on the concept of divine intervention which would also be pivotal in Sirk’s later Magnificent Obsession. An engaging, stylish tale adapted by Oscar Saul and Andrew Solt from Charlotte Hastings’ play Bonaventure, enhanced by some very fine performances and sharp dialogue particularly when it’s delivered by Connie Gilchrist as the acerbic cook Sister Josephine whose insistence on saving newspapers (preferably The Sunday Times) saves the day.

The Goob (2014)

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Guy Myhill’s Fenland drama is brutal stuff. It’s a long hot summer for Goob (Liam Walpole) who arrives home to find Mum (Sienna Guillory) shacked up at a transport cafe with ugly violent stock racing bully Gene (Sean Harris) and he has to grow up bloody fast. A gay cousin who likes to dance and cross-dress and a lovely foreign fruit picker create diversions and ultimately obstructions and Goob has to choose sides in a dangerous household that has already seen off his brother following a prank gone wrong. This is an intelligent story of violent sordid lowlifes with limited ambitions and worldviews and while convincingly and even poetically evoked at times it’s a tough watch. Guillory’s willing subjugation is hard to take while son Goob is the collateral damage. Harris, one of the least attractive individuals ever to grace a screen, is all too realistic; and the masturbation and sex scenes are somewhat de trop, as Celeste Holm might have said. Sometimes some things are best left … imagined. Spare and affecting with some really good faces inhabiting a fascinating landscape, beautifully captured in shimmering golden hour light, a new approach to British social realism.

The Eagle Has Landed (1976)

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What’s weird watching this again today is the realisation that it’s now longer since this was made (40 years…) than it was between the end of WW2 (or the Emergency, as the Irish like to call it – still not lifted, BTW) and this going into production. Northern Irish writer Jack Higgins (aka Harry Patterson) had quite a run back in the day but this was really the peak attraction – a fictitious attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill, “for a negotiated peace,” as one-eyed Nazi Radl (Robert Duvall) puts it. He deploys IRA ‘soldier’ lecturer Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland with the requisite eye-watering Oirish accent) and he turns up at the home of sleeper agent Jean Marsh in Norfolk and attempts to put the plan into action … With Michael Caine as anti-Nazi Kurt Steiner (an homage to Cross of Iron, vielleicht?) leading the mission this is really quite an unlikely mouthwatering actioner, but there you go. Caine had been offered the role of Devlin but didn’t want to be associated with the IRA, ditto Richard Harris. Adapted by Tom Mankiewicz, crisply shot by the great Anthony B. Richmond, and scored by Lalo Schifrin, this was the last film helmed by the marvellous John Sturges but Mankiewicz said Sturges didn’t bother making it properly and that editor Anne V. Coates rescued it in post-production. Great fun.

The Flood (1963)

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This Children’s Film Foundation production is superb and not a little ruthless! Eight kids are stranded when a river breaks its banks not far from Ely in Cambridgeshire. Four of them are part of a rather posh farming family whose parents have taken off to hospital for the imminent birth of a new sibling. The flood leaves the kids stranded on a virtual island and local hooligans steal their food and lose it in the river but they all end up helping each other on a raft they’ve built from barrels and pieces of wood, Blue Peter-style. Smartly written by Jean Scott Rogers, excellently directed by Frederic Goode who seamlessly incorporates news footage and gets brilliant performances from the cast of kids. If only all filmmaking were this efficient. Great shots of the flooded Fens, and of The Cutter Inn in Ely.

The Holly and the Ivy (1952)

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I suppose people who fall asleep in the snow must feel like this. The new channel Talking Pictures has brought back British films long out of circulation. This adaptation by Anatole de Grunwald of the 1950 Wynyard Browne play (which he based on his own family)  is one I haven’t seen since Channel 4 showed it in the 1980s during what was undoubtedly a horrible Christmas. It is an interpretation of a troubled postwar family dreading spending the holiday with their vicar father whom they wrongly presume to be very unknowing. The cast is wonderfully anchored by Ralph Richardson as the patriarch and there are some lovely renditions of carols including the titular one, my favourite. Martin Gregory (Ralph Richardson) is a widowed Anglo-Irish clergyman in Wyndenham, a village in Norfolk, who knows his parishioners better than his own children. Martin’s seeming detachment from his family is never more evident than at Christmas, when the family awkwardly and rather unwillingly comes together to celebrate. While Martin’s daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) lives at home out of devotion, she doesn’t have the heart to tell him that she wants to move out and marry her dull but caring boyfriend David (John Gregson) who is about to emigrate to South America and wants to bring a wife. Martin’s devil-may-care son Michael (Denholm Elliott) gets out of national military service to spend the ill-humoured holiday.  His other daughter Margaret (Margaret Leighton) has initially decided to stay in London where she works as a fashion writer but also has a terrible secret that is driving her to drink – however she shows up and proceeds to get drunk and tells Jenny what has happened to her over the past decade. Why must you always crackle like ice?  Theirs is a prickly relationship based on a thorough understanding and, finally, sympathy. The actresses are expert at portraying their contrasting characters. This emotional reunion brings back memories of World War II and great hurts, and each child assumes that their father is an unworldly man who couldn’t possibly understand real life. Richardson and Leighton give wonderfully complex performances, with the fifty-year old Richardson proving a sly and wise old man who knows only too well what life is about. Do you think because I’m a parson I’ve a different attitude to life? He despairs of Christmas for different reasons – he thinks it has been take over by retailers and nobody remembers the birth of Christ. Margaret Halstan and Maureen Delany are brilliant as the aunts (reprising their stage roles) and it’s nice to see Hugh Williams in a good supporting role as the cousin, wishing he could spend the break in the west of Ireland. Proper Christmas viewing, tremendously set up and quietly devastating in its exposition of disappointed adult lives.  As well-made plays go, this is at the top of the seasonal list with its sensitive message of reconciliation and a ray of hope, along with an incredible score by Malcolm Arnold.  Directed by George More O’Ferrall and beautifully shot by Ted Scaife.  Do I seem the type of man that’d turn away from the sorrows of his own children?