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Three young men, a scriptwriter, a producer and a director are called in by Benny U Murdoch, an exotic movie producer. He wants to make a new erotic movie starring a big woman - the "Eskimo Nell" of the title. However problems start from the beginning, the scriptwriter is a virgin, a lover of penguins and hasn't a clue on how to write an erotic movie, each of the three main backers want a different type of movie - a western, an erotic and a kung-fu movie with different people in the main part. However problems really start for the three when Benny runs off with all the money and they have to make three different versions of the same film and try not to let the backers and stars know what has happened. And this is made harder when there is a clean-up-filth society breathing down their necks.... Written by
Lee Horton <Leeh@tcp.co.uk>
In the artistic wasteland of 1970s' British sex comedies (and arguably a good deal of British cinema at that time altogether) Eskimo Nell shines out as a modest beacon of wit, satirical in a way that still strikes a refreshing note. These days no doubt, Morrison and Tweedle would be assigned to work on several cheap UK gangster films at once, as that's the genre which has lately shown the greatest lack of nerve in the home grown industry. Back then, with UK's business in worse decline, it was such dire products as Come Play With Me (1977), that exemplified a depressing wave of home grown 'sex' films, neither sexy or arguably, real cinema at all: just the sad, exploitative effects of a restrictive lack of investment, and censorship. Together with the slightly more family orientated Confessions... series and the even softer saucy postcard world of the Carry On... series, this is what represented the officially sanctioned 'adult' industry at the time.
Eskimo Nell's satire therefore had in its sights a ripe and obvious target, although it is still frequently overlooked as just another sex film of its time. Its a perception not helped by its small budget, mediocre (if enthusiastic) acting as well as a lingering air of titillation characteristic of the genre. Real life actor-screenwriter Michael Armstrong, whose previous film was the more predictable It Could Happen to You (aka: Intimate Teenage Secrets, 1975) - which would never the less make an interesting double bill with his Nell - made the hard to see crime factional drama Black Panther (1977) after this, before disappearing into TV and the humdrum. Greater things have come of the director Martin Campbell however, as he has since made such films as GoldenEye, Vertical Limit, as well as just being engaged on Casino Royale.
The present film falls into three main parts. First there is the setting up of the project, a period of the narrative dominated by the avuncular, disreputable Murdoch - a professional performance by Roy Kinnear, the sort of role at which he shined. Once he disappears and matters move onto the complicated matter of the filming, then character comedy is swapped for situational, the change bringing probably the funniest moments of the film. Finally, there is the anticipated premiere, the chase after film canisters and so on, providing a suitable wrap up. As others have pointed out, this last section changes the emphasis of the satire somewhat, from one focusing purely on the sex film industry as such to mimicking the strategies of the caper film.
Much of the pleasure of Nell comes from the incidentals, which have a real feeling of time and place, as well as a feeling that some of the principals had had first hand experience of the industry they spoof. As the guileless Morrison, Michael Armstrong makes an impression as a hopeful but little else; his pretentious cineaste-speak sounds hollow even as satire, especially when compared to the gloating, tit-centred obsessed speeches of Murdoch. Morrison's fazed expressions, to be replaced by that of creative concentration during the actual production, remind me of a similar innocent: that of Dennis Barlow, at the centre of Richardson's underrated The Loved One (1965). Both Barlow and Morrison share an initial bewilderment at encountering a strange society, and one tinged by aberrant sexuality. But while Morrison remains detached and never opportunistic (as well always slightly surprised at the brave new world in which he's suddenly found himself) Barlow is able, initially at least, to make headway of sorts. In fact one of the weaknesses of Nell is that its central trio contain no central dynamic, other than being desperate to salvage the situation in which they have been trapped. Even the penguin obsessed and virginal Tweedle, the most eccentric of the three, pales in significance compared to the outrageous characters surrounding him the sex film world.
Nell follows in the tradition of the British sex comedy in never being erotic, merely naughty. It gains an edge for us today from being so self referential, with an intelligence missing from other productions of the time, and some have compared it to Truffaut's Day For Night (1973). In truth it is far less accomplished than that, bearing more of a resemblance to Confessions Of A Blue Movie Star (1978), being less about cinema itself than the practical bluntness required for the production of porn. And its best moments appear as part of that production: the gay cowboy ripping a succession of skin tight jeans as he gets off his horse; the kung fu religious school with the bizarre juxtaposition of Sound Of Music with Bruce Lee, or just Christopher Biggins' cherubic face as he raises up a suggestively wrapped umbrella into our line of sight - with equally suggestive dialogue, naturally. The British DVD is barer of extras than a starlet's soliliquy.
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