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A noble and mournful epitaph
For me, this film was a success because it captured that horrified sense of loss not only of a battle, or of lives, but of a whole culture and the 650-year history that had produced it. The decision to focus only on the ordinary foot-soldiers (to the extent that none of the three leaders had a single line to speak, and William did not even appear on screen) was a good one, since it allowed the story to represent the fate of peoples instead of just the fate of kings. The narration, in a good imitation of the style of Anglo-Saxon epic poetry, was mournful and measured, and the revelation of the narrator's identity at the end nicely rounded out one thread of the story. Despite the constant bloodletting, the characters were attractive: Leofric the happy-go-lucky coward who does the right thing in the end; Hrothgar the weary general always trying to rally his weary men for one more fight; and Snorri the captured Viking who becomes a mainstay of the English at Hastings. The final stages at Hastings reminded me of the poem commemorating another English defeat, 75 years before:
"Thought shall be harder, heart shall be keener / Spirit shall be greater, as our might lessens." (The Battle of Maldon, 991)
Friends & Crocodiles (2005)
Stephen Poliakoff seems to have got into a bit of a rut: although he is rightly praised for creating characters with interesting quirks in their history and personality, almost all his recent dramas seem to revolve around very wealthy -- or at least socially advantaged -- people, usually eccentric, for whom giving or attending parties, or talking about parties they used to attend, or remembering overhearing other people reminisce about parties they attended, forms an improbably large proportion of their waking thoughts. Frankly it's beginning to seem formulaic. With all this partying, perhaps Mr P. needs to stay in more?
Here the eccentric, hugely wealthy party-giver is Paul Reynolds, who develops a fixation with employing, then serially disappointing, a bright and efficient young secretary, Lizzie. It's insinuated that he has business genius and a farsighted understanding of emerging trends, but we're not really given enough evidence to tell if that aura is really deserved. Written in 2004/5 (I think?), Paul's late-80s prediction that bookshops with integral cafés were the big thing of the future might have looked prescient -- a prescience the writer seems to contrast with Lizzie's later employer's crash in the dot-com bubble. Yet half a decade on, with Borders gone and Waterstones just hanging on, who can say that big bookshops with cafés were the canny choice, compared to internet retailing? The future has turned round and bitten the author back.
Paul is presented as enigmatic, but that largely seems down to the deep-frozen glint in Damien Lewis's eye, which could equally be interpreted as psychotic. Given the air of perpetual menace that surrounds him -- at least from the catastrophic garden party onwards -- it's hard to believe that Lizzie would even have agreed to have lunch with him again, let alone offered him work. His motivation is utterly opaque: What made him want to trash his own party? What made him indifferent -- even seemingly happy about -- the destruction of Lizzie's and his own hard work on his various projects during the party? What made him deliberately undermine Lizzie at the agency by doing no work for 5 months? Once his money had gone, frankly, why would any of his former associates give such a man the time of day?
Far North (2007)
Neither fish nor fowl
Commenter dave-1827 has it right. The brutally sudden transition at the end, when Saiva apparently ceases to be the damaged but recognizably human personality she has been for the previous 85 minutes and suddenly becomes an automated machine of mythic destruction, simply does not work: the transition does not add an interesting twist, or take the story onto another level, it's simply a noisy and inept crashing of narrative gears, that becomes more irritating the more I think about it. The character Saiva, as beautifully portrayed by Michelle Yeoh in the main, "realistic" body of the film, could simply never perform the actions the story gives her at the end out of such a banal motive as sexual jealousy -- the only plausible motivation she is given. The person who struggled to shake off the "curse" her tribe had hung around her neck would not suddenly embrace it to this ridiculous extent.
So are we meant to "read back" this mythic take into the rest of the, at first glance realistic, story? If so, the setting is a problem: The clothing and speech seem to indicate a Siberian setting. Does it become "mythic" because a couple of the Chukchi reindeer herders appear, inexplicably, to hail from Mumbai rather than Chukotka? Not really -- it just looks ridiculous. The rifles are plainly later 20th century; the outboard motor suggests a date sometime after 1960; and the wind-up radio places it after 1996 (Trevor Baylis invented the idea in 1989; Baygen produced the first commercial models in 1996). So what war were Russian soldiers fighting in Siberia after 1996? Sorry, but you can't have it both ways: if you put your story in such a distinctly real place and such a recent time, you can't expect people to accept it as a mythic anytime or a fictitious anywhere. Kapadia's earlier film "Warrior" was similarly set in a location and period that couldn't quite be pinned down, but that didn't present a problem because the period in question was at least several centuries safely in the past. He should have remembered that example this time round, or for a similar idea in an Arctic setting he should have looked at Nils Gaup's wonderful, and *consistently* mythic, "Ofelas" ("Pathfinder", 1987, not the dreadful 2007 remake). The reviewer for "Variety" hit the nail on the head: the climax of "Far North" requires a "suspension of disbelief the pic doesn't earn".
I'm giving this film 6 stars simply in recognition of two wonderful performances, from Michelle Yeoh and Sean Bean, who both portray the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of real human beings in what they must have assumed was intended to be a realistic setting.
What the film demonstrates, surprisingly, is that mythic archetypes do not actually provide much insight into human psychology -- they were simply the best adumbrations of human types that pre-literate societies could come up with. Anyone who's read a novel by George Eliot or Hermann Hesse or Hardy or Mann has access to far richer, truer, more complex and more convincing portrayals of human personalities than were available to the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese, or anyone else. It's three dimensions instead of one, colour instead of black and white.
Triple agent (2004)
Why not just read the screenplay?
Roehmer is so uninterested in visual artistry -- or even the nuts and bolts of composition, framing, lighting or colour -- and his characters are so obsessively, almost oppressively verbose, that it's a mystery why Triple Agent is a film at all. At most it may as well be a stage play, so little does it use the possibilities of cinema. Better perhaps as a radio play, or even a straightforward piece of prose on the page. Seldom has a cinematic adaptation managed to add so little to a story.
Among the actors, Katerina Didaskalu shines out for her naturalism as much as her beauty. Serge Renko has fine control of his physical mannerisms, but like all the actors, there is so little variation in the pace with which he delivers dialogue that the effect is almost robotic. The other actors form perhaps the most densely wooden ensemble of stiffness I've ever seen on the screen. Talented directors are often able to coax beautifully natural performances from non-professional actors, but here Roehmer exhibits what can only be described as an anti-Midas touch, turning his presumably professional cast(?) into almost comically inept living cardboard, grinding through their lines as if reading them straight off the idiot board. The reason, of course, is the excruciatingly stilted script: it is simply impossible to make it sound as if these are words that would come out of people's mouths. Since Roehmer is responsible for script as well as direction, this fault too must be laid at his door. Triple Agent is a sad but instructive example of the stultifying collapse of self-critical powers in someone who has been admired for so long he can no longer remember how to improve on his first impulses.
The film critic Mark Cousins says a lot of things I don't agree with, but he was right on the button when he noted that, unlike novelists, painters, composers, or conductors, even the greatest film directors almost never produce their best work as they get older. Can you think of a great film by a director in his/her 80s? I can't (Kurosawa's Madadayo, in my experience, is the only one that even comes near). It's an axiom that Triple Agent certainly doesn't come anywhere close to violating.
A catalogue of disappointments.
Any film-maker who thinks the built-in mic on his hand-held video camera is good enough to provide the sound for a documentary feature should never have been allowed to graduate from film school. You would have thought the fact that many of the scenes take place in crowded, indoor spaces with reverberant surfaces (comedy clubs in basements, low-ceilinged restaurants, green rooms etc) would have given him a clue that the sound was going to need some help, but he seemed to prefer to capture his venues' authentic ambiance of inaudibility. Apart from the sheer technical incompetence, this decision also means it's difficult to know what's actually going on. What were the producers thinking when they allowed him to get away with this?
Second, Christian Charles is so in love with his subject he can't conceive that not everyone will know who everyone in the film is, so he doesn't even bother with the simple courtesy of a name at the bottom of the screen the first time each person appears. Unless for some reason he specifically wants to limit his audience to the United States, that's not a very smart move. Again, the producers don't seem to have grasped a rather obvious issue.
Third, the material just isn't interesting enough. Very, very seldom are we allowed to hear a joke all the way through to the punchline, and although that's not what the film's primarily about, a film-maker with any sense would realize that getting some laughs out of the experience is what would make sitting through the comedians' tediously solipsistic backstage self-examination worthwhile. Every laugh we get is like a glass of water to someone lost in the desert. It's what people listen to comedians *for*, Chris. We don't do it because they're interesting people.
Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977)
A classic from a grandmaster
Previous reviews have puzzlingly stated that this is one of the first films to break away from the commercial traditions of Bollywood. In fact, it belongs to a different tradition altogether - art cinema reflecting social themes - which has been going on since at least the early 1950s in India (where it was initially strongly influenced by Italian neo-realism) in the work of Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak. All three were, perhaps significantly, Bengalis, and partook of the rich intellectual traditions of that region, most widely associated with the great poet and national figure Rabindranath Tagore.
The Chess Players is a delight from beginning to end. Taking its cue from the origins of chess as a war-strategy training game, Ray builds two narrative strands in parallel: in the mid-1850s, a pair of idle aristocrats become obsessed by chess and play it all day long, oblivious to the collapse of their domestic relationships that it causes; and in the larger world outside, the scheming and strategy of the chess-board is played out in the real-life scheming of the East India Company as it attempts to manoeuvre the Nawab of Oudh from his throne and bring the state within British jurisdiction. The two plotlines are beautifully brought together at the end when, after hearing that Company troops have moved in and the Nawab has abdicated, the chess-playing friends change their board layout to the Western manner, which involves the king and queen changing their starting positions: "Move over, king. Make way for en] Victoria!"
There are fine performances all round: from Amjad Khan as the Nawab, whose infinitely delicate sensibilities lead to infinite puzzlement at the connivings of the less fastidious, to Richard Attenborough as the Company representative in Oudh whose job it is to unseat him, who manages to convey a genuine belief that the state needs to be better run, with an underlying realization that he has no right to do what he is doing. Sanjeev Kumar and Saeed Jaffrey, as the chess players Mirza and Mir, both have extremely expressive faces that can switch from blustering bonhomie to pained hurt, or from deadpan seriousness to quizzical amusement, in a heartbeat. Jaffrey's talent for comedy will come as no surprise to viewers of his English-language films, and he provides the film's finest comic moment when he walks into his bedroom to find his wife trying to hide her lover (his nephew) under the bed - a moment straight out of a Feydeau farce.
Two moments of great artistic beauty stand out for me. First, when the Nawab, overwhelmed by the political situation while in conference with his ministers, seeks solace in a haunting, graceful song he had composed in a happier time (actually composed by Ray - perhaps the director showing us his self-identification with the character). Second, in a scene where Mir is left on his own at the chessboard while Mirza goes off to "see what the trouble is" with his wife, the camera follows Mir as he gets up and goes out into the hallway to see where his friend has got to. The camera then stays still as he retraces his steps, and in the vertical slice of light caused by a gap between two curtains that separate the hallway and the chess room, we see framed the precise point on the chessboard where Mir's hand slowly and surreptitiously comes into view as he sneakily moves one of the pieces. A virtuoso piece of camerawork and compositional framing that, like the film as a whole, never fails to enchant.
To Kill a King (2003)
Read Antonia Fraser instead
It's amazing that, three decades after Antonia Fraser's great biography of Cromwell ("Cromwell: Our Chief of Men", 1973; out in a new edition, 2002), the old clichés and inaccuracies about him - ultimately derived from the post-Restoration character assassination satirized in "1066 and All That" - are still being as enthusiastically retailed as they are in this film.
That the dominant image of Cromwell is going to be of Ollie the psychopath is telegraphed in advance by the casting of Tim Roth to play him. Why people think this man can act has always been a mystery to me, but ever since "Reservoir Dogs" he has become so identified with the image of a psychopath that his mere presence is a sign that irrational violence is coming up soon. Right at the beginning of the film we are smacked over the head with this characterization when, before we have heard Cromwell speak a word, we see him barely being restrained from murdering a defenceless man. Later he organizes the torture and then murder of a prisoner, randomly shoots a street vendor in the leg, and ordains a painful execution for a would-be assassin in a fit of uncontrolled rage.
On the other hand, he loves his old mate Fairfax, spends hours writing up a proper constitutional settlement to give ordinary people the right to a fair trial, and shows an almost Woody-Allenesque unconfidence in his abilities as a military commander (comically, since even his enemies conceded his military genius). All these positive character traits are presumably thrown into the mix in order to give the semblance of roundedness, depth, or complexity to the characterization. The trouble is that the combination makes this Cromwell not complex, but simply incoherent. One cannot suspend disbelief in him. That's why, in this case, to say "it's a movie, not history" is not an answer to the criticism. It's precisely because it doesn't make sense as history that it doesn't work as a movie either.
The film is also notable for perpetuating the great Royalist lie that Charles I's death warrant was signed by the regicides before the verdict had been announced - indeed, before the trial had even begun. The document was certainly drawn up in advance (the defendant's guilt being as much a matter of public record as Goering's at Nuremberg), but there is no evidence that it was *signed* beforehand; on such a serious matter it's extremely unlikely the regicides would have opened themselves to the accusation of not observing the proper legal process (see the excellent page about the death warrant that I give the address for in the message boards). From the point of view of film-making, though, the most striking thing is how it totally squandered the dramatic opportunity of the trial itself - which took three days, incidentally, not, as it's presented here, three minutes, with people shouting "guilty" before any evidence has even been presented. As an opportunity to probe Charles's psychology, as he was presented with evidence of the damage his actions had caused, it was completely wasted.
Rupert Everett plays Charles brilliantly, and in the context of a better film it's a performance that would surely have drawn more of the plaudits that it deserves. His mixture of regal dignity, seductiveness, arrogance, and overweening self-belief make a compelling portrait (being true to life, these contradictions, unlike those assigned to Cromwell, actually make a coherent whole). Throughout all his conversations with his captors, his fundamental inability to accord their grievances the slightest legitimacy clearly illustrates how frustrating and ultimately fruitless the attempt to negotiate with him must have been, and why the conflict could only end with his death. Dougray Scott also brings gravitas and pathos to his role of Fairfax, and he sustains the tension of his conflicting loyalties well - even if that tension is historically bogus. As actors, he and Everett deserve to have been in a better film.
While Americans work the comparatively narrow seam of their history so intensively, it's a great shame that the Brits don't make more of some of the incomparably dramatic moments in their own. An even greater shame that, when they occasionally get the chance, it's fluffed with a script of such silliness and banality as this.
For a director as accomplished as Bill Forsyth, this film, while not without its charming and interesting moments, looked puzzlingly like the rather earnest but gauche first feature of a recent film-school graduate. Most puzzling is the strangely under-developed script. To the exclusion of almost everything else, the film focuses on three characters (Aunt Sylvie and nieces Ruth and Lucille), and on the time when the action unfolds. Interaction with other characters is minimal, but more importantly, no depth or roundness is given to the leads by dialogue that would reveal something about their characters or fill in something of their back-story. We are left utterly in the dark as to the motivation for the apparently light-hearted suicide of the young girls' mother, Helen (this isn't a spoiler, by the way - it's how the film opens), and we learn nothing more about her during the film that would shed any light on the question. Similarly, we can discern (though it is never openly stated) that Sylvie has spent a lot of time hoboing, but the question of how this came about, and whether it was the cause or effect (or entirely unrelated to) the breakdown of her marriage, is never broached. Her husband, and Helen's husband (the girls' father), are also blank holes in the story, despatched with in one line of Sylvie's dialogue each. We learn absolutely nothing about Sylvie's relationship with her sister Helen, or with their parents. Most centrally, Ruth's almost complete lack of motivation in any direction (responding to every question with "I don't know" or "I suppose so") means that, dramatically speaking, the film has a blank at its centre. All this makes it pretty hard to sustain an interest in the film for two hours.
This basic structural weakness of the script gives the film a flat, two-dimensional, untextured quality. The building-up of a sense of character through the amassing of information about them, and of a sense of place by the accretion of small details, are (with the exception of the much dwelt-on railway bridge) completely missing. These are things Forsyth certainly knows how to do - "Gregory's Girl" and "Comfort and Joy" both do them, delightfully, from beginning to end - which makes his involvement here all the harder to fathom.
A fine performance from Christine Lahti, given the pretty thin material she had to work with. A minor quibble about the sound: with dialogue recorded on set and (as far as I could tell) no studio re-recording, some of the non-professional cast's mumbling delivery of the lines is hard to make out.
Mit meinen heißen Tränen (1986)
Beautiful, sad, haunting
Three films about the last year of Schubert's life. I missed the first but can vouch that the last two are superb: gentle, mysterious, subtly nuanced, and of unexpected emotional power.
The third film follows Schubert's final illness, claustrophobically restricted to the two rooms of his apartment: his hallucinations of a doppelganger (an image drawn from one of his great final songs, in the Schwanengesang), and his struggle with and rejection of the conventional comfort offered by the church. But it is the second film that sticks in the memory, and is, I think, a masterpiece. It tells the story of one day, in which Schubert and some friends go on a picnic to the country outside Vienna, ending up at a garden party that becomes more drunken and overwrought as darkness falls. Schubert and one of the women in the party have, it seems, gradually become attracted to each other through the day, but what he thinks is their tenderly blossoming romance is shattered by his sudden realization of her motives; a hugely powerful moment that lays bare the sadness and emptiness of his emotional life. The seemingly aimless plot, in which the friends wander through the country with no apparent goal in mind, conceals a steady increase in emotional tension as the complexities of relationships among them are revealed. Real life irrupts in the shape of a group of gypsies being pursued through the forest by the Viennese yeomanry, the friends becoming appalled spectators of the confrontation. At the garden party, there is a marvellously observed meeting between Schubert and Johann Strauss (the Elder); Schubert's friendliness and frank enthusiasm for Strauss's music, which a band plays in the background, meets a frosty response from Strauss; later in the evening, when Schubert plays the piano himself, accompanying a singer in one of his own songs, and then a violinist in the beautiful Fantasy in C, there is a single shot that reveals all: unobserved, his face flickering in the candlelight, Strauss looks on with serene acceptance - though he has been much less enthusiastic about Schubert's music than the latter's friends, he realizes far more than them how much greater it is than his own. All the contradictions and tensions in the relationship between the gifted and the great, the Salieris and the Mozarts, are encapsulated in that shot.
The British TV company Channel Four was one of the co-commissioners of the trilogy: they showed it just once, in 1987. Ten years later, for Schubert's bicentenary, Channel Four proudly announced that they had commissioned a whole new range of programmes about Schubert, but absurdly failed to schedule these great films, even though they had partly commissioned them themselves! Doubtless by then there was no-one left at Channel Four who even remembered these films existed. But that is just a small part of the sad demise of all non-English-language films on British TV, to the great impoverishment of our film culture.
Searingly beautiful: worth going a very long way to see.
Bill Douglas's last film, one of the great films of British cinema, and a gorgeous visual poem of surpassing beauty. Among students of the British film industry "Comrades" is best known for its commercial flop: given a wide theatrical release in 1987, disappointing box office led it to be taken off within a couple of weeks before word of mouth recommendations could do anything to build an audience - doubtless many people were expecting a narratively straightforward, Merchant-Ivory piece of historical costume drama. It's never been released theatrically since, and Channel 4, who made it, have only shown it twice since on television - I strongly doubt they've even shown it on their dedicated film channel, FilmFour, either (it doesn't involve people pointing guns at each other). As such, it's a great unknown, and rare copies of the video are hard to come by, so for the immediate future, it's hard to see how this gem is going to become better known.
The music is an oddly inspired choice: apart from the hymns and folk songs that are sung by the characters, the soundtrack music makes no attempt at pastiche of 19th-century musical forms or styles. Instead, Douglas got Hans Werner Henze, one of the leading German composers of the post-war years, to provide music (all the more powerful for being sparingly used) in his own, completely uncompromised modernist idiom (no doubt Henze agreed to do it for little money, as his well-known radical politics would have made him sympathetic to a film about the birth of trade unionism). The rich and magical soundworld Henze evokes with a small group of instruments adds immeasurably to the sense of wonder and the sheer, marvellous strangeness of many of the scenes.
What sticks in the memory most, though, are the arresting, breathtakingly beautiful visual images, frozen in time and never to be forgotten: the lanternist walking across the chalk figure of the Cerne Abbas giant on a dark hillside during the title sequence, then later seen in silhouette passing silently in front of a huge full moon; Hammett (Keith Allen giving his finest performance), too furious to speak, holding up six fingers to the viewer, turning away and then coming back to repeat the gesture to indicate how many shillings they were getting for that week's work; George Loveless (Robin Soans, criminally underused ever since) pushing a shilling coin in front of the face of Jesus in an engraving of the nativity to show Frampton how he, like the wise men in the picture now appear to be doing, worships money; James Loveless walking across a trackless Australian beach and blundering into the shot of an itinerant Italian photographer attempting a portrait of an Aborigine; the Stanfield family saying grace around the table before dividing a pitifully small loaf between too many mouths; George Loveless feeling his way through the depths of a dark Australian forest, enraptured by the beauty and seemingly free, but actually in the world's largest prison. And there are many, many more.
Every image works in its own terms as a visual composition - as striking in their vivid colours, visual rhythm, and the sometimes stylized, almost hieratic gestures of the actors as Caravaggio's "Supper at Emmaus" or "Entombment of Christ". But the images themselves are never tediously lingered over, or presented only for their own sake: common themes run through them. The idea of one object obscuring another, or silhouetted against another (the coin over the face of Christ, the lanternist against the moon) or of an image being projected or captured (the shadow of Frampton's maid passing from room to room, projected against the curtains by the light of her own candle, the lanternist making animal shapes with the shadow of his hands against a wall, the photographer trying to capture an other-worldly image on the beach) are a strong undercurrent, suitably for a film-maker who saw his role as a painter of images. This is made apparent in the director's alter ego throughout the film, Alex Norton - superbly diverse in several different cameo roles, including the photographer, a silhouettist who cuts a paper image of the governor of the Australian penal colony as he engages in barbed political banter, and the lanternist himself (the subtitle of the film is "a lanternist's account of the Tolpuddle Martyrs"): the conceit of the whole film, as an epilogue makes clear, is that it was all a lanternist's show, presented to an audience of well-wishers who had worked for the Martyrs' release. Hints had been given: Norton's various characters had been the only ones, at various times, to stare directly at the viewer, into the camera, the director engaging conspiratorially with his viewers. The great tragedy for film-lovers everywhere, and what must have been a great sadness for Douglas, who died in 1991, is that his viewers have been so few.
UPDATE (February 2009): Film4 finally showed "Comrades" on 21 February this year, more than ten years after the channel began broadcasting. At almost the same time, the British Film Institute announced that they would be releasing the film on DVD and Blu-Ray in summer 2009. Hooray!