Juliet, Naked (2018)

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Every aspect of civilisation is going to the dogs, with the notable exception of TV. Annie (Rose Byrne) returned to her seaside hometown 15 years earlier to take over her late father’s history museum and is stuck in a long-term relationship with Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) – a media studies lecturer at the local further education college and an obsessive fan of obscure rocker Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke).  Crowe has been out of the spotlight for a quarter of a century and Duncan has gathered a couple of hundred of fellow devotees online on a website he has created in his honour. When the acoustic demo of Tucker’s hit record from 25 years ago surfaces at their house, its release leads to a life-changing encounter for Annie with the elusive rocker himself when he responds to a review she posts on Duncan’s website and they start to contact each other regularly, telling each other their problems. Duncan, meanwhile, is moving on and moving in with new colleague Gina (Denise Gough) leaving his Tucker shrine intact in Annie’s basement. Across the Atlantic Tucker’s life takes on a further twist when Lizzie (Ayoola Smart) one of his illegitimate children announces she is about to become a mother and he decides to pay a visit to the UK when she’s about to give birth. Tucker has children he doesn’t even know, while sharing a garage with the only boy who means anything to him, his newest son Jackson (Azhy Robertson).  The reality of his relationship with his famous muse from three decades earlier is gradually revealed following a medical emergency which brings all the children he has fathered to his hospital bedside..Are you telling me I have to know Antigone before I can understand The Wire? Adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel by Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Evgenia Peretz and Phil Alden Robinson,  this comic account of romantic mismatches, irresponsible breeding, inheritance, missed opportunities and fandom gets a lot of traction from the casting of Hawke, practically a poster boy for Generation X since, well, Generation X had a name and Evan Dando et al slid off our collective radar even if we still have the mixtapes to prove there was life before the internet – which then gave rise to this new outlet for sleb cultdom. As one Miss Morrisette used to wail, Isn’t it ironic. O’Dowd is his usual doofus self while Byrne shines as the long-suffering woman who ponders motherhood following the decision not to be a parent – well, with that guy, who would?! There is an amusing moment when the reality of Annie’s online musings materialises on the beach and Duncan simply doesn’t recognise his lifelong hero who he believes is living on a sheep farm in Pennsylvania sporting a long white beard. It’s an amiable amble down collective memory lane without much surface dressing and despite some weird editing early on, it coasts on the performances but never reaches emotional heights, reflecting the music that Hawke performs in character.  Directed by Jesse Peretz, who, entirely coincidentally one presumes, used to play with The Lemonheads and who made his directing debut long ago with another Brit writer, First Love, Last Rites, an Ian McEwan adaptation.  He is currently making a TV version of Hornby’s much-loved High Fidelity.  I love it, the internet! God, you’re finally entering the modern age. Which site was it? One for clever people, no doubt. Hornyhistorians.com?

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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 MacKintosh Man (1973)

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Put a bag over my head. I’ve been in prison for 15 months! Secret agent Joseph Rearden (Paul Newman) poses as an Australian jewel thief and is quickly convicted of stealing £140,000 of diamonds and imprisoned in order to infiltrate an organisation headed by Home Secretary Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) who organises Rearden’s escape along with that of MI6 intelligence officer Slade (Ian Bannen) who was gaoled as a Soviet mole … I don’t know about you, Slade; I’m not ready for death. The rest I’ll drink to. Adapted by Walter Hill (along with director John Huston and William Fairchild) from Desmond Bagley’s The Freedom Trap, this starts out quietly and continues that way for some time – tricking the susceptible viewer into believing that Rearden himself has been tricked by MI6 into taking the fall for a jewel heist and for more than a half hour it’s a prison movie. However the sleight of hand is revealed as it becomes clear Rearden has gone into deep cover to smoke out a dangerous organisation in this Cold War tale. Of course you will recognise the contours of the real-life story of George Blake, whose daring prison escape is the stuff of legend. For an action film and spy thriller this is a work of smooth surfaces and understated performances, especially by Newman, enhanced by the cinematography of the great Oswald Morris and a beautiful score by Maurice Jarre. The locations around Galway – Oranmore and Roundstone – were local to director Huston who spent much of the Fifties onwards at his house St Cleran’s. The palpable anger and keen sense of duty comes in fits and starts, usually at the conclusion of realistically staged action sequences, including a chase across an Irish bog and using banged up cars rather than Aston Martins. There are also some small gems of supporting appearances – Leo Genn as prosecuting counsel, Jenny Runacre as Gerda the nurse, Noel Purcell and Donal McCann in the Irish scenes. There are also scenes of misogyny and violence (even against a dog) that might shock in this more politically even-handed climate. The strangest character Mrs Smith, played by Une femme douce herself Dominique Sanda, gets an incredible payoff.  You might even say she has the last word. The cool, straightforward approach to treachery, duplicity in the modern state and something of a twist ending just raises more questions, making this a palpable pleasure, a film which tells one simple truth – trust nobody. Produced by John Foreman who had a company first with Newman and then made a cycle of films with Huston. Our deaths would mean little or nothing to anyone, anywhere – only to ourselves

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

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

Long Shot (2019)

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I look like Cap’n Crunch’s Grindr date! Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) is a daring if shambling journalist favouring the Democrats who has a knack for getting into trouble. We meet him infiltrating a White Power group where he gets identified as a Jewish leftwing writer and he jumps out a first-floor window to escape their wrath halfway through getting a Swastika tattoo. Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) is one of the most influential women in the world – the US Secretary of State, a smart, sophisticated and accomplished politician who needs to up her ratings to succeed her boss, TV star President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk). Her polling improves every time she’s photographed with the goofy Canadian Prime Minister (Alexander Skarsgard) as she’s counselled to do at every opportunity by her advisor Maggie (June Diane Raphael). When Fred unexpectedly runs into Charlotte at a party his best friend Lance (O’Shea Jackson Jr) takes him to after he’s left his Brooklyn alt-weekly following a takeover by the repulsive mogul Parker Wembly (Andy Serkis), he finds himself in the company of his former baby sitter and childhood crush. When Charlotte decides to make a run for the presidency she hires Fred as her speechwriter to up the funny factor – much to the dismay of her entourage as she’s embarking on a world tour to persuade leaders to sign up to her programme to save The Bees, The Trees and The Seas and he joins them on the road …  I’m a racist. You’re a Republican. I don’t know what is wrong with me. As a product of the adolescent house of Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg you might think this had a gross out element and it does – any film that could have its leading man ultimately labelled The Come Guy has taken a turn in that direction (hence the title). But it’s the getting there that is astonishingly well put together. The stereotypes here are all too recognisable: the woman who can handle herself, and the man who … handles himself in a very particular way; the WASPy politician who has to deal with a doofus Commander in Chief who himself takes his cues from his TV show as the US President (Odenkirk is very good) along with a toothy Canadian jerk PM (Skarsgard sportingly sports buck teeth) similarly looking for a viable political romance, not to mention the hourly misogyny dealt her by an astonishingly sexist TV channel;  the shabbily dressed leftwing Jewish journo (in another time he’d have been part of the counterculture) who learns the hard way that maturing requires a deal of compromise which he only realises when his best friend admits he’s not just a Republican – but a Christian to boot – and then has the lightbulb moment that he is in his own way a racist and a sexist, everything he despises. Therefore beneath this very funny, role-reversing political comedy about two people who want the impossible – a relationship of equals – is a plea to see things from the other side’s point of view.  He needs to grow up, she needs to be reminded of the passionate truth-teller she used to be so they both teach each other valuable lessons. The big political crisis is solved after Fred has given Charlotte her first taste of MDMA (she thinks it’s called The Molly) so that a hostage-taking disaster is averted when she’s off her skull. This is very much of its time, the potshots are relevant and smart if obvious, the sex scenes are hilarious (she has a better time, quicker, and apologises, just like a guy), and the timing is exquisite. And no, it’s not the intellectual wordfest of The West Wing nor does it attempt the kind of fireworks we might wish for from the classic Thirties screwballs but it has its own rhythm and nuance with flawless performances even if the satire isn’t as up to the second as we require in the Twitterverse. There is, though, a teal rain jacket and those Game of Thrones references. Principally it works because of its humanity but it also ploughs a furrow of Nineties nostalgia – bonding over Roxette and Boyz II Men – as well as boasting an environmental message and emitting a howl against media conglomerates and rightwing hatemongers. At its centre is a couple trying to make things work while working together in a horribly public situation with the politics regularly giving way to charming encounters where the stars play against type. That’s clever screenwriting, by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah. Deftly directed by Jonathan Levine, this epitomises all that is right, left and wrong about the American political scene with a hugely optimistic message at its core about the State of the Union. Highly entertaining with an awesome Theron taking charge. We totally almost just died

Kinsey (2004)

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Are my answers typical? Professor Alfred ‘Prok’ Kinsey (Liam Neeson) is interviewed about his sexual history by one of his graduate students Clyde Martin (Sarsgaard) and reflects on how he became the author of famous studies of modern Americans’ sexual behaviour. He grew up in a repressed household headed by Alfred Seguine Kinsey (John Lithgow) and disobeyed him to study biology and became a lecturer, marrying his student Mac (Laura Linney). After completing his study of gall wasp behaviour and addressing the sexual issues within his own marriage his advice is sought by students and he begins teaching a sex ed course that raises questions he cannot answer.  He devises a questionnaire to find out what passes for normal activity among his students but soon realises that 100 completed documents are not remotely sufficient.  He commences a countrywide research project in which he taxonomises sexual behaviour inside and outside average marriages and subgroups like homosexuals at a time when all these things are illegal in several states … The forces of chastity are massing again. Writer/director Bill Condon’s biography of the famed sex researcher whose reports rocked midcentury America is careful, detailed and filled with good performances (appropriately). Both Linney and Neeson contribute complete characters and their respective realisation that Clyde wants to seduce Prok are extremely touching and when you consider it’s established in a phonecall it’s all the more affecting. Their marriage is a profile of the parameters of this study – until things become more extreme and the grad students carrying out the research offer their own services to be recorded. The issue of agreed infidelity and extra-marital sex is just one of the common behavioural tics dealt with here and deftly personalised. There are of course some limits to even these sexologists’ tolerance – and Pomeroy (Chris O’Donnell) storms out when a particularly noxious individual (William Sadler) decides to regale him and Kinsey about his incest, bestiality and more, including incidents with pre-adolescent children. There are some abusive perversions that are just too tough to take. Word about the nature of the team’s methodologies gets out and their funding is cut by the Rockefeller Foundation, an issue that is particularly effective as a narrative device because it reminds us of the real-world difficulties in securing funding and the consequences that not funding this particular study might have had – its far-reaching insights into human behaviour in a highly censorious era was groundbreaking.  Oliver Platt is particularly good as the genial Herman Wells, President of the University at Bloomington whose support of the controversial work is so important. The confrontational nature of the film doesn’t descend to pornography chiefly because the humanity of the protagonists – and that of the study’s participants – is carefully graphed against the social norms. The topper to Alfred Senior’s difficult relationship with his son is very sad and crystallises the reasons behind his bullying, a habit Prock has inherited and replays with his own son Bruce (Luke MacFarlane) over mealtimes. At this point we don’t need any lectures on nature versus nurture or gene theory. The coda is a wonderful exchange between Kinsey and his latest interview subject played by Lynn Redgrave. It’s a marvellous conclusion to a remarkable film that deals with biology, family and the life force. A very satisfying experience. Where love is concerned we’re all in the dark

Cold War (2018)

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Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.  In post-war Poland conductor and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are holding auditions for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. Wiktor’s attention is immediately captured by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious and captivating young woman who is faking a peasant identity and is on probation after attacking her abusive father when he attempted to rape her. They commence a sexual relationship but Wiktor doesn’t want to incorporate more Stalinist propaganda in their productions and wants to escape to the West. Zula doesn’t join him when he escapes in Berlin but a couple of years later he finds her on tour in Yugoslavia where he is quickly removed back to his current base in Paris. Then Zula shows up and leaves her marriage and becomes a recording artist with his help. She can’t stand what he has become and flees to Poland the night her album is launched and Wiktor makes a tremendous sacrifice just to see her again … As far as we’re concerned you don’t exist. It starts with people singing folk songs, performed plaintively and sonorously against a mysterious monochrome backdrop which is rural Poland yet some images take a while to reveal themselves from abstraction. That’s all of a piece with the lives of these somewhat disembodied, disenfranchised individuals whose better existence is entwined with each other yet whose life together is messy, filled with bust-ups, disagreements, partings, border crossings, cultural preservation, propaganda and politics. Their identity – colonised, travelling, in denial – presents a kind of melancholy frankly incomprehensible to people who think they should be glad to be out of the hellhole of the Eastern Bloc.  Neither protagonist is especially likable and the underage relationship is at first shocking, even if she is sexually precocious. The gleaming black and white photography seems bleak at first but paradoxically heightens the romance because this is a film that rejoices in the possibilities of cities and how people can express themselves in one international language – music. Watching Zula finally let loose in the West to Rock Around the Clock is joyous, even if it further fractures her relationship. The architecture isn’t stressed but the common culture it expresses looms over the narrative – building styles, churches, bars, clubs, concert halls, the locations where this couple can find themselves and each other, over and over again. It’s sombre but passionate. Finally they wind up at a literal crossroads, decision made. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski traverses these ideas like a high-wire artist, never stooping to the obvious even if some of the melodramatic curves seem inevitable. When Zula tosses her eponymous record in a fountain and then takes off back to Poland it seems unlikely they can ever meet again. But Viktor returns to his home country only to be imprisoned? Well. If it wasn’t true, would you believe it? Yet that is what Pawlikowski’s own background looks like – complex, difficult, liminal, like all stories about affiliations and borders and political ideologies and exile. It’s about his parents. And it’s true. And it took years and years for them to get together and their relationship covers a continent of musical styles and idioms. Remarkable. Let’s go to the other side.

I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

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I haven’t heard any intelligent female nonsense for months. Plucky and stubborn Englishwoman Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) travels to the remote islands of the Scottish Hebrides in order to marry a wealthy industrialist many years her senior. Trapped by inclement weather on the Isle of Mull and unable to continue to her destination, Joan finds herself charmed by the place and becomes increasingly attracted to naval officer Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), who is also marooned in the house of childhood friend Catriona (Pamela Brown).  He holds a secret that may change Joan’s life forever and may make her want her to stay on Kiloran … We live off the country. Rabbits, deer, a stray hiker or two. This Powell and Pressburger production has a kind of mystical aspect that has long made it a cult favourite and turned Mull into an unlikely tourist hotspot for the more discerning film fan. A romcom of a different order with an unexpected cast for such a story, and an appeal that lies directly in something almost erotic that seems to seep up from the very landscape and the misty air. Count them before you go to sleep and your wish’ll come true

La Strada (1954)

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What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke? Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a simple-minded young woman whose mother accepts 10,000 lire from brutish itinerant strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) to take her on the road after her older sister Rosa has died doing the same job. He bullies her and she takes up with high-wire performer Il Matto/Fool (Richard Basehart) who is with a travelling circus which she then joins with Zampanò when he finds her. The men’s rivalry culminates in a death … Here we have a piece of chain that is a quarter of an inch thick. It is made of crude iron, stronger than steel. With the simple expansion of my pectoral muscles, or chest, that is, I’ll break the hook.Written by Fellini and Tulio Pinelli with Ennio Flaiano, this is the first of the maestro’s world hits and one of the classics of cinema. It is a tragedy told with immense humanity and vivid melancholy and is a tribute to the performing brilliance of Masina, Fellini’s wife and the inspiration for the central character, a waif of Chaplinesque attractiveness. Much of the film was shot around dawn, imbuing this picaresque of poverty with its unique tone of fatality. This marks a break with the director’s neorealist cinematic roots,  yet it is an unvarnished picture of post-war Italy, a stark contrast with the American Technicolor tourist romcoms being produced on location. However it embraces the vitality and symbolism of the circus and brings a distinctive worldview to global attention. Quinn seems unbearably tough while Basehart does well as a kind of trickster in this allegorical play on the fairytale.  Nino Rota provides the evocative score and the song which is repeated to such urgent effect. A devastating portrait of the destruction of innocence with the overwhelming power of melodrama. Once you lose your eyes, you are finished. If there’s any delicate person in the audience, I would advise him to look away ’cause there could be blood