The Hireling (1973)

The Hireling

Was it very bad? In the years after WW1, Steven Ledbetter (Robert Shaw) is the chauffeur of widowed British socialite Lady Helen Franklin (Sarah Miles) at Bath in Somerset. As Ledbetter helps Lady Franklin to overcome her fragile state when she is released from a psychiatric facility, he falls in love with her, but their differences in social standing seem to prevent any chance of a romance. He is involved with Doreen (Christine Hargreaves), a waitress although he tells Lady Franklin he is married, believing it will stir her interest. Meanwhile, a war veteran and rising Liberal politician who knew her late husband,  Captain Hugh Cantrip (Peter Egan) becomes involved with Lady Franklin, while maintaining a relationship with Connie (Caroline Mortimer), a presumed war widow.  It leads to tension in her household:  this cad and user was Ledbetter’s commanding officer in the Great War … You need people now. A normal life. L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between had received a lauded screen adaptation a couple of years earlier so the author’s work seemed ripe for cinema and this repeated that film’s success at Cannes, winning the Grand Prix (now the Palme d’Or). Wolf Mankowitz’s interpretation of this take on class difference, post-war trauma and deception doesn’t have the other film’s power – but that work had an extraordinary pull from a child’s point of view of tragedy (plus it was adapted by Harold Pinter). However, as a primarily psychological exploration of romance, this film’s prime attraction is the scale of performance.  Miles and Shaw are superb:  he has no idea that his class can prevent her marrying him.  He has helped her recovery but she simply has no further use for him and it’s his devastation that propels the drama toward a suicidal conclusion. The critics didn’t like Miles but she’s fascinating in the role as she goes through bereavement caused by depression and then a kind of dissemblance, disdain and dismissal.  The showdown in the car is shocking – they are almost exchanging psyches. This is a work which is far less sentimental than the reviewers would have you believe, moving slowly and oddly, filled with beautiful landscapes dappled with low light and autumnal shades. It’s very well directed by Alan Bridges who seems to be rather forgotten now. Hartley lived long enough to enjoy the success of The Go-Between but he died in 1972, before this was released. It’s an intriguing film, worth repeat viewings. It almost seems … un-English. I don’t have anything to go back to now because everything is here with you

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Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

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You’re the man. You lead. It’s WW2 and famous writer Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) get a distressing telegram. We flash back to the interwar years when a shellshocked Milne, an acclaimed playwright, leaves London for the countryside after experiencing one too many reminders of WW1. Milne’s ever-changing moods affect those around him.  Only his friend Ernest H. Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore) empathises as a fellow veteran. Daphne is a somewhat dim and brittle wife, unhappy and traumatised on her own account after a violent childbirth. Their nanny Olive or Nou (Kelly Macdonald) is the chief caregiver to their son, Christopher Robin but known as Billy Moon (Will Tilston). Daphne tires of A.A. and his failure to write anything and leaves for the city, ostensibly to buy wallpaper. But the wardrobes have been emptied. When Olive leaves to look after her dying mother, the males of the family are left to their own devices and start to spin fanciful yarns about Billy’s collection of stuffed animals.  Milne invites Ernest to visit and they start to put together a book with illustrations around Billy Moon’s relationship with his toys and their outings to the Hundred Acre Wood.  Tigger is better than Tiger. It’s more Tigger-ish. These stories form the basis for Winnie-the-Pooh  and The House at Pooh Corner, published respectively in 1926 and 1928. Milne and his family soon become swept up in the instant success of the books, while the enchanting tales bring hope and comfort but his relationship with his young son suffers as the boy is wheeled out in public to play the character of Christopher Robin and even their personal phonecalls are broadcast … If I’m in a book people might think I’m not real. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Simon Curtis’ film skirts the edges of whimsy and tragedy and finds it hard to balance the demands of both – how do you make a man experiencing PTSD a sympathetic character? He wants the British public to know the reality of combat and the utter waste of the Great War.  I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I need to make them see. Giving the toys a voice isn’t even his idea, it’s his wife’s.  She sends a poem he writes to her into Vanity Fair where it becomes famous, her eye firmly affixed to publicity. The child is chirpy and aggressive. These are real people, the film is telling us, and it’s not all wine and roses creating beloved children’s stories. They make each other interesting and tolerable through the written word in a narrative that expresses the limits of people’s endurance. When Milne tells Daphne he’s going to do a book about the pointlessness of war she is riled and shrieks that he might as well try writing about getting rid of Wednesdays – he might not like them but they always come around. Making this man see what he can do and the imaginative links he forges between his son’s playthings and his own desire for escaping the reality of his past provides the main texture of the work.  It’s very handsomely handled but never comfortable, no matter how often the sun might peep through the Hundred Acre Wood. Gleeson is a limited actor and his performance is paradoxically limited by the writing but it’s an admirable insight into the writer’s life and the perilous attractions of fame. Stop. Look.

 

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

Queen of the Desert (2015)

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Who knows best about tribes? In 1902 Gertrude Bell Nicole Kidman the daughter of wealthy British parents and a recent Oxford graduate. has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions, and a life of privilege bring her only boredom. At one dance a potential suitor actually suggests fornication and alludes to her similarity to his prize herd. Aspiring to some usefulness in her life, Gertrude decides to join her uncle who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. There the young lady not only encounters the Near East but also falls in love with an embassy employee, Henry Cadogan (James Franco) who adores her for her perspicacity and teaches her Farsi. However, their romance does not last long as her parents consider the young man a poor matrimonial choice for their daughter and forbid the marriage. Desperate, Henry commits suicide, failing to reconcile himself to the enforced separation. Gertrude finds out in a letter home following her mother’s death. For the remainder of her long life Gertrude Bell completely devotes herself to exploring and writing about the Near East in the wake of his death. She encounters T.E. Lawrence (Robert Pattinson) on an archaeological expedition and turns down a request to become a spy for the British Government. She visits her beloved Bedouin tribes over the Arab lands and earns their trust. Upon going to Damascus she encounters Major Charles Doughty-Wylie (Damian Lewis) and he confesses his passion for her but he’s married. She is kidnapped by an emir who wants to marry her – she could be his mother.  And when she returns to Syria, she finds World War One has spread … I would give my life for a woman like you.  This extraordinary story, of a pioneering woman traveller, writer, archaeologist and (eventually) a politician whose views shaped the delineation of the borders in the Middle East, following the implosion of the Ottoman Empire, gets a romantic biographical treatment. Kidman brings tremendous feeling to a woman of singular self-possession whose life nonetheless is shaped by the contours of love and death. It’s a rather conventional form for Werner Herzog who wrote and directed it, but there are scenes which communicate seemingly directly with nature, music by Klaus Badelt and Mark Yeager which feeds from desert song.  It’s not the mad epic you think you might get – it’s from Bell’s own writings and from history and it’s a swooning and beautiful interpretation of a woman alone among military men who seem to suffer intolerable repression. For the first time in my life I know who I am.  My heart belongs to the desert

The Magus (1968)

The Magus

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

Out of Africa (1985)

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I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. After a failed love affair in Denmark the aristocrat Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) sets out for the white highlands of Kenya where she marries her lover’s brother Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer).  She is intent on dairy farming, Bror instead spends their money on a coffee plantation. After discovering Bror is unfaithful when she contracts syphilis, Karen develops feelings for British hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) but he prefers a simple lifestyle compared to her upper class affectations. She separates from Bror and sets about remaking her home to his taste. The two continue their relationship until a series of events force Karen to choose between her love life and her personal growth as an individual … Like a lot of people, I imagine, I first heard of Isak Dinesen (or Karen Blixen) courtesy of The Catcher in the Rye. If it was good enough for Holden Caulfield, I figured, I’ve got to check it out. And that was my introduction to a great writer whose life is immortalised here in the form of La Streep while the less than glamorous Finch Hatton is personified by Redford. History is rewritten right there! But their chemistry is so right. Streep is wonderful as the woman who finally finds herself, Redford is great as a hunter who simultaneously deplores environmental destruction – these are fantastic star performances.  So the school, the farm, that’s what I am now Director Sydney Pollack later regretted that he didn’t shoot this in widescreen and you can see why. This is a film of big emotions in a breathtaking landscape that dwarfs the concerns of the little people, aristos or not. There are fabulous, memorable scenes:  when Denys shampoos Karen’s hair; when they play Mozart on the gramophone to monkeys and Denys remarks that it’s their first exposure to humans; when he takes her flying; when she begs for land for the Kikuyu. And when she leaves.  If you like me at all, don’t ask me to do this Altering the focus of Dinesen’s writing somewhat to the personalities rather than the issues that actually drove Dinesen and the contradictions within Finch Hatton, it’s a glorious, epic and tragic romance sensitively performed, with a meticulous score by John Barry. Kurt Luedtke’s screenplay was adapted from three sources:  Dinesen’s Out of Africa;  Judith Thurman’s biography Isak Dinesen:  The Life of a Story Teller;  and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski. He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast

 

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

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

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

 

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I told you he was a spirit. If you’re his friend, you can talk to him whenever you want. Just close your eyes and call him… It’s me, Ana… It’s me Ana… Life in a remote Spanish village in the 1940s is calm and uneventful. Two little sisters see a censored cut of Frankenstein in a travelling cinema, and seven-year old Ana (Ana Torrent) starts wandering the countryside in search of this kind creature after Isabel (Isabel Telleria) tells her the movies are all fake …. Written by director Victor Erice with Angel Fernandez-Santos and Francisco J. Querejeta, this is the classic of Spanish cinema. However it’s very difficult to see why. It’s an allegorical political story set in a non-descript era (actually meant to be the 1940s but who can tell? And how?! The hairstyles are atypical for starters). So this is a coded version of life after General Franco. After a wiltingly slow beginning, Ana locates a soldier in a deserted farmhouse near her home which the girls share with their parents –  scholar father (Fernando Fernan Gomez) whose narrative ramblings about a glass beehive are supposed to signify political turmoil (presumably) and her lonely and permanently sleepy letter-writing mother (Teresa Gimpera). Ana mistakes the soldier for the type emblemised by Frankenstein’s monster. When she goes missing after misunderstanding the notion of ‘spirit’ she inspires a search while Isabel learns the error of misleading her younger sister. Frankly I don’t get this at all:  it clearly had huge significance in Seventies Spain but the references are beyond me. Very little happens. And it feels dreadfully paced. And since so much rests on the shoulders of the child because at its heart it is a story of childhood and innocence and fantasy it doesn’t help that I didn’t like her or the way she was directed.  You could never mistake this very dark little girl for the daughter of the very blond actors playing her parents. The aural link between the girls’ father and Frankenstein’s monster was misguided at best and confuses things.  It doesn’t work at the basic level of narrative. I waited a long time to see this. Oh well.

 

 

Track of the Cat (1954)

Track of the Cat

Got to keep drunk to forget I’m married to a clothes pin.  It’s the 1890s. In a snowbound homestead in Arizona, the Bridges family lives in contentious squalor. Brothers Curt (Robert Mitchum) and Harold (Tab Hunter) fight over the attentions of their beautiful neighbor, Gwen (Diana Lynn), while the boys’ boozing father (Philip Tonge) suffers under the abuse of their religiously minded mother (Beulah Bondi) who keeps spinster daughter Grace (Teresa Wright) under wraps. The family dysfunction only intensifies when a panther kills Curt’s timid brother, Arthur (William Hopper), and Curt sets out to slay the animal… There are traces of film noir leaving their track across this western, with its heightened stylised drama, vicious male-female antagonism and intense visuals, all complemented by contrasting performing styles. A.I. Bezzerides adapted Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel.  It’s directed by William Wellman, whose pet project this was, wanting to make a black and white film in colour and choosing some extremely interesting setups in collaboration with cinematographer William Clothier. It’s good to see Wright and Mitchum years after Pursued. Because it was produced by John Wayne’s company and didn’t do especially well it was taken out of distribution and remained unseen for many years due to his son’s refusal to have it put on DVD. Since his death his widow has made sure some previously lost films are now available. This is one of them.

Sophie’s Choice (1982)

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The truth does not make it easier to understand, you know. I mean, you think that you find out the truth about me, and then you’ll understand me. And then you would forgive me for all those… for all my lies. Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a young writer, moves to Brooklyn (or The Sodom of the North as his father calls it) in the hot summer of 1947 to begin work on his first novel. As he becomes friendly with his upstairs neighbour Polish immigrant Sophie (Meryl Streep) and her biologist lover Nathan (Kevin Kline), a Jew, he learns that Sophie is a Holocaust survivor. Flashbacks reveal her harrowing story, from pre-war prosperity to Auschwitz. In the present, Sophie and Nathan’s relationship increasingly unravels as Stingo grows closer to Sophie and Nathan’s fragile mental state becomes ever more apparent just as Sophie’s past haunts her … Alan J. Pakula abandoned his customary 70s paranoid conspiracy thriller style to adapt William Styron’s novel – and yet one wonders if the Nazi takeover and atrocities aren’t the perfect subject for such an approach? As it is this too-faithful work exercises a Gothic hold despite the dayglo colours of Nestor Alemendros’ cinematography.  Death is in the narrative cracks. MacNicol is strange enough to withstand the attention as the rather naif narrator, Kline epitomises the term kinetic in a tremendously physical interpretation of the disturbed Nathan as he literally envelops Streep, whose luminous moony pallor dominates every scene. The structure – revealing the tragic titular decision – is painstaking but it somehow works against the dramatic tension in a film that is too long and paradoxically fears taking a risk. It’s Streep who makes this work in a jaw-dropping performance which created her legend.