September 13, 2009

Fish Tank (2009)


Director: Arnold Arnold
124 min


Essex, UK, the present. Mia, a fifteen year old girl lives on a council estate with her feckless mother, Joanne and younger sister, Tyler. Her sole form of self-expression is dance. Mia engages in an argument with some girls on the estate, one of whom she headbutts. Angry, she breaks into a traveller’s site and tries to liberate a chained horse, but is interrupted. One morning, as she dances in the kitchen, she is observed by Connor, the new boyfriend of her mother, to whom Mia is initially hostile, despite Tyler’s friendliness towards him. Connor spends more time at the flat; throwing a party, taking them for a drive – during which he catches a fish with Mia’s help and Connor tends to the wounds Mia suffers in the process.

Mia borrows Connor’s videocamera to audition for a position as dancer at a local club. One evening, when Joanne and Connor return home drunk, Joanne passes out upstairs. Connor asks Mia to show him her audition. They then have sex. The next morning, Connor has left. Mia tracks him down to his home in Tilbury, where he lives with his wife and young daughter, Keira. Connor drives her back to the train station, but she returns, kidnapping Keira whilst she plays in the street. When Keira accidentally falls in the river, Mia rescues her and returns her. Connor then finds Mia and punches her. Mia attends her dance audition, but realising it’s a seedy club, leaves. Mia leaves for Cardiff with Billy, a young man from the traveller’s site.


Perhaps the brightest hope for British cinema currently, Andrea Arnold’s burgeoning career has been synonimised by awards and acclaim at every turn. Her short ‘Wasp’ (2003) won an Oscar, whilst her debut feature ‘Red Road’ (2006), made under the influence of the Dogme ’95 movement won the Jury Prize at Cannes. So the hopes for her latest film, ‘Fish Tank’ were high and she hasn’t disappointed. Like ‘Red Road’, the film received the Jury Prize at Cannes this year, putting Arnold in rare company. ‘Fish Tank’ has already opened to very promising reviews in the British press, though it’s unlikely to crossover into mainstream territory, which is a shame as it’s a very honest, truthful film that shows an insight into a particular social class without resorting to patronising them.

The Essex council estates that bridge the city and the countryside are territory that Arnold knows all too well. ‘Wasp’ covered similar ground, focusing on the efforts of a poor, single mother on an estate to find a new boyfriend/father. This might have been set in Dartford, Arnold’s home town, but it could be anywhere to be honest. Arnold has disagreed with her critics who describe her work as leaning heavily on the grim side of life amongst the socially excluded. She doesn’t view her films this way; that although they’re set in these environments, they’re hardly ‘Nil By Mouth’ territory; that they focus on the lives of her characters as honestly as possible and offer hope. And there are also hints of autobiography here and there. Arnold doesn’t agree that estates are intrinsically depressing places and the film reinforces this.

The casting of Katie Jarvis in the role of Mia has become the stuff of minor cinematic folklore. Arnold’s casting director apparently witnessed her arguing with her boyfriend at Tilbury and recommended her for the part immediately. It’s an inspired decision. Even amongst the professional thesps on show (Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender), Jarvis more than holds her own in this central performance. It’s by some distance the most impressive performance I’ve seen by a young actor. She inhabits Mia so completely that you’d have to imagine that Jarvis and Mia are more or less one in the same. It’s a subtle, nuanced performance, capturing every aspect of Mia’s personality – her anger, her suspicion, her pride, her potential for verbal and physical violence, but also her potential for compassion, demonstrated mostly with her affectionate relationship with the tethered horse. Coming from a family where “I hate you” means the same as “I love you” and where a term of affection is “I’ll kill you last”, it’s no wonder that Mia remains guarded when faced with Connor’s friendly, warm demeanour. Jarvis has since had a child, so let’s hope she returns to acting and she’s some talent.

As the ‘relationship’ between Mia and Connor grows, demonstrated by slightly worrying moments of physical touching and the character’s accentuated breathing (through some neat sound effects work), there’s only one way this is going to go. Arnold allows this to be signposted a mile off. It doesn’t come as any surprise to us when the inevitable occurs. This makes it all the more disturbing of course, because we’ve had time to consider what will take place between Mia and Connor and even when it occurs, it’s extremely difficult to watch. What Arnold, to her credit, doesn’t do is try to explain to justify why Connor acts how he does. Whilst Mia’s family wear their motivations on their sleeve, Connor’s life is shrouded in mystery. Of course we never believe him when his mysterious ‘phone calls and seemingly being kicked out of home are because of his mother. We always suspect he has a family somewhere, but why latch onto Joanne and her family? And why then have sex with Mia? It’s hinted at some jealousy towards her relationship with Billy, the boy from the travellers site. There’s so many questions left unanswered. Connor’s departure sets in motion a peculiar revenge episode, which I’m not sure I found really convincing; from the way Mia was able to kidnap Keira to her seemingly homicidal intent. The positive byproduct of his departure was at least to facilitate a stronger relationship between Mia and Joanne.

Arnold and her regular DoP Robbie Ryan make the most of their settings; from the claustrophobic council estates that provide the film with its title to the evocative, wide-open spaces of the countryside, there’s a real sense of poetry here but never a fetishistic dwelling upon the seamier side of things. The relationship between Mia and Connor is also shot in a hazy, woozy fashion, as if reflective of a young woman’s sexual awakening, capturing the confusion and sensuality perfect. Complimenting the impressive visual work is a rich sense of authenticity and reality from the protagonists and milieu. ‘Fish Tank’ sometimes loses its way in its final third, once Mia discovers Connor’s secret, but on the whole it’s a striking, sympathetic film that largely deserves the reputation it’s acquiring.


June 3, 2009

The Resurgence of the British ‘Art’ Film

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:18 am
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A 1000 word article on the current crop of more art-house friendly British films…

The British film critic Jonathan Romney, writing in the Independent on Sunday about Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ and Terence Davies’ ‘Of Time and the City’, recently remarked upon a renaissance of the British art film. Described in his own words as a phenomenon that was “endangered, presumed lost”, it’s made a surprising comeback with a series of intriguing and complex films, including the two Romney mentions, but also Joanna Hogg’s ‘Unrelated’, Andrea Arnold’s Dogme ’95-inspired ‘Red Road’ and her latest, ‘Fish Tank’, Duane Hopkins’ ‘Better Things’ and the more recent ‘Helen’, directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy.

Each of these films was made on a comparatively miniscule budget, even as far as British film making goes. This no doubt reflects the significant risk involved in making films such as these; they’re hardly safe commercial propositions. But consider the kind of budgets given to more mainstream British films of recent years. The widely panned ‘Sex Lives of the Potato Men’ cost £1.8m to produce, yet scraped about a third back in box office receipts. Unless you count the safe bets that are Danny Boyle or Richard Curtis films, even those British films with fair commercial backing and potential wide releases are underperforming, or maybe audiences are just wise enough to realise rubbish when they discover it. These quality, esoteric British art films are operating with much fewer resources. ‘Of Time and the City’, a celebration of Liverpool’s history and the first Terence Davies film in a decade, cost under £500,000. ‘Helen’ managed to pull together a budget of just over £250,000 thanks to regional funding bodies. This raises questions about the nature of public funding; should subsidies be given to films that might financially succeed or those that have artistic merit? Perhaps it’s a balance that’s yet to be happily met.

This wave of art films owes a huge debt to British social realism, the genre that our domestic cinema does best. Think of the rich tradition that extends as far back as the kitchen sink dramas of the 1950s, the cinema of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh over the past four decades almost and the more recent films of Lynne Ramsay and Shane Meadows. These films documented the real lives of ordinary people and charted the socio-economic history of the UK and its political changes. These new films are doing this too; whether it’s the astute examination of the values of the Tuscan-holidaying middle classes in ‘Unrelated’ or the damning indictment of government policy and state security in Northern Ireland in ‘Hunger’. It’s difficult to imagine these projects being undertaken without the heritage of social realism in the UK. Leigh has satirised the manners of the British middle class in several films, whilst Alan Clarke tackled Northern Irish politics in ‘Elephant’.

What differentiates many of these films from their predecessors though is their devotion to experimental, avant-garde cinema. This in part lies in the educational and artistic background of many of these film makers. Steve McQueen is a Turner Prize-winning visual artist. Sam Taylor Wood, who directed the upcoming John Lennon biopic ‘Nowhere Boy’ is an acclaimed conceptual artist. These film makers are making films with a completely different perspective, using their own artistic backgrounds in other fields to pursue unique agendas, whilst still making films that at least thematically refer back to the likes of Leigh and Loach. It’s this artistic background that also allows these film makers to make the most of the modest budgets allocated to their films. ‘Hunger’ features a single, unbroken shot that lasts the best part of twenty minutes, which would be unthinkable in a more mainstream film, whilst also using a powerful split screen scene with intense police brutality on one hand and the sombre reflection of a policeman on the other.

Perhaps the most curious example from this current wave is ‘Helen’. The roots of ‘Helen’ were in the short ‘Joy’, which involved the same premise. A teenage girl (Joy) has gone missing and a classmate (Helen) is asked to impersonate her for a televised reconstruction. Helen then begins to absorb aspects of Joy’s personality and almost seamlessly slips into Joy’s place, treated by her family and boyfriend almost as if she’s Joy. Amongst the entire crop, it’s probably the most ambitious film and by the same measure, probably the most infuriating and inconsistent. Clearly inspired by Antonioni, from the mystery in park, never resolved, that refers to ‘Blow Up’ and the extended evening skyline shot that almost feels stolen wholesale from ‘The Eclipse’, it’s a film that wants to take risks but ultimately overreaches, often requiring the viewer to suspend his/her disbelief to some extent and to withstand some erratic acting and dialogue, which may be deliberate. Who knows? Still, for all the aesthetical intensity of ‘Hunger’, it’s ‘Helen’ that first hits us as a truly original and vivid piece of film making.

Also unique about these films is that they’re mostly the work of first-time film makers, or at least relative novices at their profession. ‘Hunger’, ‘Helen’, ‘Red Road’, ‘Better Things’ and ‘Unrelated’ are all first features. ‘Fish Tank’ will be Arnold’s second feature, whilst Terence Davies, director of ‘Of Time and the City’ might be a veteran director but has found his career stalled on numerous occasions because of his reputation as a personal film maker of ‘difficult’ (read: commercially unviable) projects. Film makers often learn about film making by making films. It takes several films for film makers to hit their stride, to find a successful formula, to find the confidence to make their masterpieces. This generation of film makers have hit the ground running, approaching their first features with an exceptional level of confidence and a desire to make original films from the start of their careers.

Working with low budgets undoubtedly helps. There are fewer demands upon them to deal with commercial expectations. These films are not designed to turn a profit but to operate as prestigious features that might, with a dash of luck, succeed at the box office. Yet so far, the films mentioned have performed moderately, with none of them breaking out and exceeding expectations. Inevitably, these film makers will probably be allocated larger budgets and possibly tempted to working in Hollywood, although there’s no guarantees of this. These film makers clearly want to work on their own terms and dictate the direction of their films without studio interference. They are responsible for an exciting time for British film and one hopes that these film makers live up to the promise of their debut features.

May 26, 2009

Red Road (2006)


Director: Andrea Arnold

113 min


Glasgow, the present day. Jackie, a CCTV operator, observes life through a wall of cameras, including a man walking his dog and a woman working in a laundrette. She meets with colleagues in the pub and has fortnightly sex with a married colleague although she doesn’t seem to enjoy it. Jackie attends a relatives wedding but she is distant towards an older couple; the husband remembers Jackie having longer hair. Jackie leaves shortly after. When Jackie notices a woman being pursued by a man, she is about the call the police, fearing a sexual assault. It is a consensual act but Jackie recognises the man involved, who is called Clyde Henderson.

Clyde was sentenced to ten years in jail but has been released for good behaviour. Jackie encourages surveillance at the Red Road flats where Clyde lives. Whilst distracted watching Clyde, a young girl is stabbed on Jackie’s watch. Jackie follows Clyde to a café and then visits a party being held at Clyde’s flat. Clyde thinks they’ve met before but isn’t sure where. Jackie and Clyde dance before she pulls away and leaves. Stevie, who’s staying with Clyde, had stolen Jackie’s purse so she returns to claim it back. Jackie and Clyde make love. In the bathroom, Jackie, who had kept the condom, attempts to smear herself with Clyde’s semen. She then accuses Clyde of rape. Stevie breaks into Jackie’s for an explanation – Clyde killed her husband and daughter. Jackie drops the charges and confronts Clyde, telling him what he’d done to her. They retrace the accident and Jackie makes up with her parents in law.


Produced under the auspices of the Zentropa Studios, ‘Red Road’ is very much Dogme ’95 goes abroad and part of the Advance Party, a trilogy of films set in Scotland that uses the same cast and characters and made by first time directors. The roots of this project might have been in ‘Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself’ (2002), a Scottish-Danish co-production, directed by Lone Scherfig, who was a founding member of the Advance Party. Although some have questioned the credibility of the entire Dogme ’95 agenda, claiming it to be nothing more than a publicity stunt that a rigorous set of criteria for film making, ‘Red Road’ at least reinvigorates the tradition of British arthouse and social realist film making, challenging the current consensus towards lowest common denominator films with an eye on the box office.

‘Red Road’ takes a simple premise; a woman dealing with life after the death of her husband and child and makes the most of it. Arnold’s skill is delaying the full revelation of the facts, gradually letting them slip and teasing the audience with small moments that might or might not be significant. There’s the distant relationship with what turns out to ber her husband’s parents, with whom she barely communicates and from Alfred’s nostalgic memories, we sense this relationship has been troubled for a while. There’s hints about if only they had buried…..someone, but we’re never sure exactly who? Only in the final scenes are we completely aware of Jackie’s past and what her relationship with Clyde is (although the first time we see, or should that be Jackie sees Clyde, we know it’s something important by the flicker of fear and recognition), so we spend most of the film speculating and Arnold ensures that ‘Red Road’ remains a tense and gripping thriller at all times.

There’s a certain deliberate irony in having Jackie’s CCTV operator keep a close eye on the lives of everyone who falls inside her radar yet never being able to keep an eye on her own. Jackie’s life has effectively frozen since her tragedy, demonstrated by the incredibly mechanical sex she has with a colleague. Maybe she’s deliberately compensating for the fact that she’s been unable to move on? Jackie has a voyeur’s eye, aware of the foibles of those she regularly watches over, even trying to intervene when necessary. Although it’s the one time that she really tries to intervene that she’s forced to confront her past – had Clyde’s incident been completely innocuous, it’s possible she would never have noticed him. As soon as she notices Clyde though, the power and responsibility afforded to her as a CCTV operator is exploited to the full, tracking his every movement. Her obsession grows to the extent that she misses a stabbing, from which the girl barely survives.

Much more disturbing is how Jackie behaves when she decides to confront Clyde, using the one resource she genuinely has – her body. Clyde lets her know in no uncertain terms that he desires her and she acquiesces because that’s the sole means she has of getting her revenge. Maybe it’s slightly contrived how the apparently wonderful sex she has with Clyde contrasts with that of her colleague, although maybe it’s meant to be more cathartic than really enjoyable. However, it’s the minutes after they’d made love that are the most alarming of all when Jackie deliberately and methodically attempts to make it look as if Clyde has raped her. Arnold doesn’t shy away from the details, scraping the semen from the condom, inflicting a blow to one’s face to make her accusation look plausible.

The change of tone in the final moments when Jackie confronts Clyde when he’s been released after she dropped the rape charges is welcome and slightly unexpected. We learn more about the incident – a drug-fuelled car crash, but also that Jackie had argued with her family before they left the house for the last time. So it’s less about punishing Clyde then punishing herself for her last moments with her family. After an hour and a half or so of dark, tense film making, this cathartic coda strikes a nice balance as Jackie retraces the accident and makes amends with her parents in law. ‘Red Road’, with its strong performances and largely impressive and expressive cinematography is one of the strongest British features of recent years and hints at Arnold’s rich potential as a film maker, which might have come to fruition at Cannes 2009, with ‘Fish Tank’, which was mostly acclaimed by resident critics.

May 5, 2009

Helen (2008)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:13 pm
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Directors: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy

79 min


The UK, the present day. A group of friends walk in the park. One, Joy, breaks from the group, passing a number of people before entering the woods. Cut to police investigating the scene of a crime. Joy’s parents visit the police station to identify the items found at the scene. A televised reconstruction is planned to jog the public’s memories. P.C. Saville visits Joy’s school to request any assistance. Helen, a girl in Joy’s class, auditions for the reconstruction and is asked whether she would act as Joy. Helen lives in a care home and works as a hotel chambermaid, befriended only by her Estonian colleague.

Helen runs through Joy’s final known steps, mentored by P.C. Saville. Helen meets Joy’s parents, who recognise the visual resemblance between Helen and their daughter, and they offer to help Helen in any way they can. Helen meets Joy’s boyfriend, Danny, an estate agent. Now 18, Helen refuses access to her personal files. Whilst visiting Joy’s parents, she takes a photograph of Joy as a child with her parents, which she later shows to Danny. Helen asks Danny to tell her he loves her so she knows how it feels. At dinner with Joy’s parents, Joy’s father breaks down. Helen finally requests access to her personal files.


An intriguing but ultimately imperfect film about reinvention and assuming a fresh identity, the origins of ‘Helen’, made by the production company, Desperate Optimists (formed by the two directors), were the short ‘Joy’ (also 2008). Only nine minutes in length, the bare bones of the premise remain intact, which has been fleshed out in greater detail for this full length version. Changing the title from the name of one protagonist to another is crucial, however, completely shifting the emphasis of the film. For the short, the stress was upon Joy, the missing girl. Here, it’s upon Helen, the young girl, who is asked to impersonate Joy for a police reconstruction.

The major strength of the film is how it examines the consequences of asking one person to impersonate the other. For Joy’s family, who take on Helen almost as a surrogate daughter, it’s a means of suspending their grief, to make themselves believe that nothing has changed and that their daughter is still with them. The early scene where Joy’s mother smells Joy’s yellow jacket is cut back to later when Joy’s mother embraces Helen. Both scenes serve the same purpose, to recall memories of their missing daughter. When Helen visits Joy’s parents for dinner, the scene plays out how dinner genuinely would have occurred at the home, although the careful façade is cracked when Joy’s father breaks down in tears, in full acknowledgement that however he and his wife make themselves believe Helen is Joy, it just won’t work.

Impersonating Joy provides Helen with opportunities she’s herself never enjoyed. Living in care homes for as long as she can remember and working part-time as a hotel chambermaid, this quiet, unambitious, struggling young girl is the complete antithesis of Joy, who by all accounts was outgoing, popular and academically successful. Helen has the chance to step into Joy’s shoes, to live her life and to escape her own. The advantages of which are none too subtly pointed out when an Estonian colleague explains why she moved to the UK, “to start over again, reinvent myself”. Helen absorbs aspects of Joy’s personality and life; her resemblance moves beyond just wearing her luminous yellow jacket. She even strikes up a tentative relationship with Joy’s ex-boyfriend, Danny. When Danny tells Helen he loves her, why does he do this? Is it because Helen wants to know what those words feel like or did Danny indeed love Joy, despite his uncertainty when asked about it previously. Perhaps still, he senses something between himself and Joy. One possibility never explored, perhaps because Joy’s disappearance is ultimately a MacGuffin, is what would happen if Joy was found alive and well? What would become of Helen then? This is a plot development too far for the directors, but within the framework of the narrative, they ask a number of salient questions about the nature of identity.

The main shortcomings identified with the film already in previous reviews are a curious approach to acting and dialogue. Much like with the casting process for the reconstruction, the directors sought non-professional locals to participate in their film and take the parts of the main protagonists. The cast, on the whole, are fine. Annie Townsend creates a quiet, blank canvass for Helen, so that she’s ready to step into Joy’s shoes. Yet the acting on the whole is oddly stilted, delivered without feeling, almost deliberately detached, as if this was the effect that the directors wanted. What this doesn’t necessarily explain though is the shocking dialogue that these characters are expected to converse with.

Presumably the screenplay for ‘Helen’ is completely improvised – characters were informed what ought to happen in a scene and then they’d invent the dialogue, which for non-professionals might not be that simple. If that’s the case, then it certainly shows because some of the dialogue is exceptionally wretched, existing purely because the directors think that it ought to. Take one scene when Helen visits Joy’s parents for dinner, and Joy’s father helps her with her maths homework for explaining an incredibly complicated algebraic equation. How convenient! That’s just one instance of how false the dialogue feels, but again, perhaps that’s what the directors are looking for, but it doesn’t convince. Given that ‘Helen’ is a slow-burning, meandering film whose strengths lie in its ability to create a vivid mood and atmosphere, dialogue could have been kept to its bare essentials.

The influence of Antonioni hangs prominently over the film. The mystery in the park, never resolved, reminds one of ‘Blow Up’ and the extended evening shot of a lonely skyline looks as though it might have been lifted from the devastating final sequence of ‘L’Eclisse’. The general detachment of the characters and their inability to meaningfully communicate with each other is pure Antonioni. The directors provide numerous visual flourishes, from the opening slow-motion sequence that hints at something about to go wrong to the long shot of Helen retracing Joy’s steps before closing with a direct overhead shot. There’s plenty Lawlor and Molloy impress with, yet the entire credibility of their film is almost sunk by acting and dialogue that feels amateurish and might alienate an audience. ‘Helen’ hints at better things for the directors, but the overall effect, is a beautiful, if rather confusing mess.

February 25, 2009

The Young Victoria (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:25 am
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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

100 min


Our synopses reveal the plot in full, including surprise twists

Great Britain, 1837. King William IV sits on the throne but his niece Princess Victoria of Kent is the sole heir. An overprotected young woman, she lives with her mother, the Duchess of Kent and her advisor, Sir John Conroy. Both conspire to force Victoria to sign a regency order so that they may rule entire she is of legal age should the King die before then. Conroy and her mother keep Victoria away from the King’s court, apparently for her own protection. Leopold, the King of the Belgians, wants to engineer a marriage between his nephew, Albert and Victoria (who is Albert’s cousin) in order to protect his throne. He sends Albert to Great Britain to woo Victoria. They bond over their mutual loneliness and manipulation by others.

Victoria finds an ally in the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. King William IV publicly denounces the Duchess for keeping Victoria from court. The King dies shortly after and Victoria succeeds to the throne. Lord Melbourne arranges Victoria’s staff, which causes concern in Parliament. When Lord Melbourne loses the general election, Victoria refuses to accept Robert Peel’s request to make her court less partisan, which triggers a constitutional crisis. Victoria overcomes her self-doubt, criticising Lord Melbourne for his manipulating her to further his own agenda. Albert returns and proposes marriage, which Victoria accepts. Victoria soon becomes pregnant. Albert asserts his authority at court by putting Lord Melbourne in his place and he then prevents an assassination attempt against Victoria.


From producers Martin Scorsese and Graham King, screenwriter Julian Fellowes (‘Gosford Park’) and director Jean-Marc Vallée (C.R.A.Z.Y.) comes an Anglo-American production of one of the most glorious ages in the history of the British monarchy. This is no history lesson though. Of course it examines the political and constitutional issues that surrounded the coronation of the young Queen Victoria, but this takes second billing to the courtship between Victoria and her cousin, Albert. What we have is therefore a tale of star-crossed lovers, initially forced together for political expediency, but who created a loving and romantic marriage. Whether this film has one eye on the growing female demographic and the success of romantic drama films rather than history buffs with an interest in the subject is up for question, but certainly the emphasis of the narrative gives this impression.

The film fills in the blanks both in the opening and closing titles for those not familiar with the history of the time. Victoria is the sole heir to the throne, with King William IV not expected to live much longer, though there’s conveniently no mention of his ten illegitimate children, though of course they weren’t eligible to take the throne. To be fair, the film makers tackle the problems of Victoria’s youth, knowing that only she can keep the monarchy intact in its present form; her life is suffocating, watched at all times, personally escorted up/down stairs in case of an accident. Given the circumstances, there were inevitable political machinations, though the film suggests there’s no-one more dangerous to Victoria’s personal welfare than her mother, the Duchess of Kent, and her adviser (and presumably lover), the pantomime villain of the film, Sir John Conroy, who intimidates and strikes fear into the heart of Victoria to force her to sign the Regency Act. Of course Victoria eventually plucks up the courage to reject his demands. It’s simple characterisation of course, with no attempts to create any depth, but I suppose that’s what works best for the film.

The intrigues that brought Victoria and Albert together are depicted; both are pawns in the political games of their families (both the Duchess/Conroy and Leopold, Albert’s uncle encouraged the courtship), a metaphor which is explained with zero subtlety during a chess game between the couple, as Victoria asks whether Albert feels like a piece in a chess game played against his will? Albert’s witty response is to learn how to play the game better than they can. Both of course develop a tentative courtship although they effectively betray the wishes of their respective families – Albert is expected to spy on his future wife and return juicy information about politics, which he refuses to. Whilst politics and circumstances keeps them apart, what I assume to be a pretty fictional set of correspondence between the two develops, and to maintain tension there’s the relationship Victoria shares with the liberal Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Melbourne was some forty years older, but played by the dashing Paul Bettany, he’s shown almost to be a romantic rival to Albert, with numerous references to his reputation as a seducer. Melbourne has his own agenda, manipulating and flattering Victoria just as much as those he warns her against. An example; Melbourne tells Victoria how courageous and wonderful a man her father (whom she never knew) was, then Vallée cuts to Peel, Melbourne’s political rival describing her father as a brute to a political colleague. This plot development is rather easily resolved though, with Melbourne’s true colours being revealed and his pomposity and arrogance deflated by a socially progressive Victoria and Albert, and Melbourne of course takes this with typically good grace.

‘The Young Victoria’ is an incredibly tasteful film. Everything about it looks sumptuous and obviously great care has been taken to reflect the period detail. However as a drama, I’m not sure it overly convinces. Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend make an attractive but ultimately tepid couple, making it difficult for you to care whether they ultimately pair up or not. Jim Broadbent makes an ebullient King William IV whilst Mark Strong makes a good fist of his role as the villain of the piece. This is almost completely conventional film-making with not a risk in sight. Vallée’s previous feature ‘C.R.A.Z.Y.’ has a reputation as a complex family drama, so it’s a shame that here, no doubt at the behest of his producers, that he plays it so safe, as if the film’s been developed according to a precise formula. There’s one impressively shot moment when Victoria sees Albert again after a long period away, and she appears to float across, reflecting her perspective rather than her actual movements. That’s as far as Vallée goes with adding some visual trickery to what is otherwise a pretty inert drama, that will inevitably find an audience but never feels anything better than prospective middlebrow Oscar-bait.

December 24, 2008

Black Narcissus


Directors: Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger

100 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

The Himalayas, during the final years of the British Empire. A group of Anglican nuns, led by the young Sister Clodagh, travel to a remote village in the Himalayas to establish a religious community under the patronage of a local General. The youngest Sister Superior, Clodagh’s seniors have doubts about her, whilst Clodagh doubts some of her own fellow nuns, including Sister Ruth, seen as a ‘problem’. Dean, the local agent, warns that this is no place for a nunnery. Dean has an emotional effect on Sisters Clodagh and Ruth. Clodagh begins to recall her romantic rejection in Ireland, which led her to become a nun, whilst Ruth falls in love with Dean and becomes more emotionally unstable.

The General’s son studies at the school but becomes attracted to, and then involved with a local Indian girl, Kanchi, of a lesser caste. As Ruth becomes more ill and irrational, she believes Clodagh is trying to force her out of the order so that she can have Dean to herself. Other sisters are losing faith and want to be transferred. When a sick boy is unable to be saved, the locals blame the nuns and abandon them. Ruth then attempts to kill Clodagh but dies in the process. The nuns finally leave this location.


One of the finest examples of the Powell/Pressburger canon, ‘Black Narcissus’ could have a credible claim as one of the greatest films to ever emerge from these shores. Produced during an intensively creative peak (1946-1948), which also included ‘The Red Shoes’ and ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘Black Narcissus’ is a melodrama of the highest order, complete with dazzling use of colour and cinematography, utilises studio resources to recreate the Himalayas from Pinewood, and bursts with passion and emotional torment.

From the start, there is no pretence that the religious community that is being established will succeed. There is overt suspicion immediately, from a current Sister Superior who does not feel Clodagh is ready or experienced enough for this role to Dean’s warnings about the environment, that there is something here that makes everything exaggerated. The ‘palace’ used for the nunnery was the General’s house for his numerous women, which suggests a place that arouses strong emotions. The nuns all have turbulent emotional backgrounds, including Clodagh, reeling from an affair that turned sour. Ruth has been a problem to the Church for some time, and her instability turns into full-blown erotomania in the dizzying Himalayas. It probably is not just something in the air, but the effect of Dean himself. These women have suppressed their emotions in the name of religion, but interaction with a sensuous man who is responsible for them awakens these passions; even Clodagh’s judgement is called into question. Powell merges these passions and the environment to exaggerated levels to demonstrate the downfall of the religious order.

Part of the success of creating such a dizzying environment where people lose their senses is paradoxically because Powell and Pressburger create such an obviously artificial world. This was no doubt partly because of the difficulties and costs involved in location shooting. Melodramas arguably work finest when not immersed in reality, but by using imagination and innovation to reflect the mindsets of their protagonists and the worlds they inhabit. ‘Black Narcissus’ features extensive use of painted backdrops for the Himalayan settings and scale models for the exteriors of the convent. There seems little effort to disguise the lack of reality of these settings, but then this is a world where people are acting out of the ordinary.

Although nominally Clodagh is the film’s central character and the film’s central theme is her improbable attempts to establish a religious order in the Himalayas, Powell and Pressburger shift their emphasis around midway through the film to focus on Ruth and her growing instability. Her situation then begins to drive the film’s narrative. ‘Black Narcissus’ then becomes even more stylistically imaginative than previously as the directors explore Ruth’s inner emotions, which rise to the surface. During her hysteria, there is a greater emphasis on close ups than ever before, capturing the sweat on her forehead with such microscopic detail; her fever is not just caused by the climate but by repressed sexual passions. One of the iconic moments of the film reflect her final rejection of her vows; a scene between her and Clodagh. Ruth is wearing secular clothing but applies make up rather deliberately and slowly in front of Clodagh and is shot with an exceptionally intense close up on her mouth. Now she is no longer part of the religious order, her sexual passions explode, as shown in the subsequent scene with Dean where she tells him she loves him. As her jealousy and hysteria escalates, she faints, superbly demonstrated as the screen is filled red (which is also used in Hitchcock’s ‘Marnie’, whether consciously or otherwise) before fading to black.

‘Black Narcissus’ was adapted from a novel by Rumer Godden, who also wrote the ‘The River’, from which the Jean Renoir film was adapted. Both have much in common; both are set in the dying days of the British Empire, both focus on the passions aroused by the arrival of a sensual man and both feature adjusting to a foreign land. Both are also amongst the finest examples of films shot in Technicolor, though crucially whereas ‘The River’ was shot on location, ‘Black Narcissus’ was almost entirely shot in the studio. The effect is so wondrous that Jack Cardiff justifiably secured the Academy Award from Best Cinematography. ‘Black Narcissus’ is a film where the collaborative talents involved were at the top of their game; from the aforementioned directors and cinematographer, but also in the acting stakes. Deborah Kerr and David Farrar impress as Clodagh and Dean respectively but the real star on show is Kathleen Byron as Ruth. One of the treasures of British cinema, this is as good as filmmaking gets.

December 17, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 1:22 am
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Director: Danny Boyle

120 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Mumbai, the present day (and the recent past). Jamal Malik is one question away from winning India’s version of the quiz show ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’. During a break in filming, Jamal is arrested on grounds of fraud and is interrogated. Jamal claims he has not cheated and that he knew the answer to every question. Jamal explains how he knew these answers by recalling moments of his life. Jamal remembers trawling through a pool of faeces to meet the actor, Amitabh Bachchan, his idol (the first question relates to a film featuring the actor) and the death of his mother in a religious conflict. After this, Jamal, his brother Salim, and their friend Latika are taken in by an orphanage run by Maman, which is a shield for organised child labour and begging. Salim is expected to assist the blinding of Jamal to increase his value, but the three children escape although Latika is left behind, apparently deliberately at Salim’s hands.

The brothers work as unofficial tour guides at the Taj Mahal, but they return to Mumbai to search for Latika, where she works as a dancer in the red-light district. They are discovered by Maman, who is shot by Salim. Salim then falls in with local gangsters; after which the boys drift apart. Working in a call centre, he discovers where Salim now lives and contacts him. Latika is now married to the gangster Salim works for. Salim tries to convince Latika to leave with him, but she resists. When she finally agrees, she is followed by Salim and other thugs, who slash her cheek. Jamal enters the quiz show because he knows she will be watching. Back to the present, the police find Jamal’s story “bizarrely plausible” and allow him to return to the show, where he successfully answers the final question. Salim kills Latika’s husband before being shot himself, allowing Jamal and Latika to be reunited.


‘Slumdog Millionaire’ has become one of the most anticipated and acclaimed films of the year. Nominated for four Golden Globes and countless other critics’ prizes already, it is being talked of as one of the main serious contenders for Oscar recognition in 2009. Much like Jamal himself, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ has arrived seemingly from nowhere; a small British film that looks set to take the international box office by storm. The film also confirms the prodigious talents and appeal of its director Danny Boyle, who of course has a number of previous successes under his belt, for instance ‘Trainspotting’ and ’28 Days Later’. This project is a change of pace after his recent excursions into the sci-fi and horror genres but ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ might actually be Boyle’s most satisfying film to date.

The film has been described accordingly as ‘heartwarming’, ‘cheery’, ‘a modern fairy-tale’ and various other clichés that immediately mark ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ down as emotionally manipulative Oscar-bait.  The denouément, of the film’s destined lovers reuniting at a Mumbai train station and then breaking out into a Bollywood style dance routine might be considered sentimental and formulaic but within the context of the film it seems right and never exploitative. Such a negative conclusion would be doing the film a great disservice. Despite the uplifting climax, Boyle never shies away from showing the numerous disappointments and tragedies Jamal experiences. The death of Jamal’s mother and the entire slaughter of a small Muslim community at the hands of a Hindu mob is shown in vivid detail and the cruel and exploitative child labour operations run by Maman are also depicted with intense honesty, which includes the deliberate blinding of a child, which Boyle refuses to conceal. Jamal is also brutally interrogated by police, suffering attempting drowning and electric shocks in an attempt to force a confession for fraud.

Therefore do not be fooled by the marketing and publicity that is trying to depict ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ as a feel-good underdog story – there is more depth to the film than this, and Boyle also shows the two sides of modern India. As years pass, Mumbai has the impression of growing prosperity; an increase in the number of plush apartments and office blocks, but much poverty remains. This poverty is difficult to escape, and even when one does, one is still tainted by it. Just witness the degree to which the quiz show patronises and the police brutalises Jamal because of his background. What could this “slumdog” possibly know? He must be cheating! Boyle reiterates the socio-economic divide that India retains and is potentially increasing as the country becomes more prosperous, but with this prosperity achieved by a narrow percentage of the population.

Boyle uses his trademark kinetic camera to great effect in the Mumbai slums, capturing its urgency and energy. Salim and Jamal’s escape from airport security through these slums reminds one of Renton and Spud’s frantic fleeing after robbing a shop in the opening scene of ‘Trainspotting’. This is further proof of Boyle’s versatility as a director, able to utilise his talents and natural instincts across a series of genres. Much like another Oscar contender, ‘Frost/Nixon’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ shows an interest in the artificial nature of television. Boyle regularly alternates between the filming of ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ as the audience at home would see it and breaks in the filming/behind the scenes details. As in ‘Frost/Nixon’, television reveals not ‘the truth’ but a version of the truth which is staged and manipulated, and in one interesting scene, interfered with by the quiz show host himself.

The creative input of Simon Beaufoy, sceenwriter of ‘The Full Monty’ and A.R. Rahman, who provides a pulsating score that merges both traditional and modern India (assisted by British/Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A) is vital to the success of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, showing the film is not just a directorial tour-de-force. The young cast equip themselves well, from the youngest actors in the three main roles and Dev Patel (the adult Jamal), known thus far for his role in the Channel Four teenage drama series ‘Skins’. A film that unites both critics and audiences, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is gaining critical momentum prior to the major awards ceremonies of the season and is one of the finest films of 2008, offering insight, wit, romance and drama; the full package.

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