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The Documentary and the Humorous, 11 July 2014

"The King's Stamp" was one of a series of short films made by the GPO Film Unit during the 1930s and 1940s. The original purpose of the Unit was to publicise the work of the Post Office, but they later widened their remit to make more general documentaries about British life. The style of their films tended to vary. Some, such as "Air Post" and "Cable Ship" tend to be dry, factual documentaries, but the famous "Night Mail" takes a surprisingly poetic look at a seemingly prosaic subject, the journey of a mail train from London to Aberdeen. "The Islanders" is notable for its dramatic photography, and "John Atkins Saves Up" uses humour to look at an even more prosaic subject, the Post Office Savings Bank.

This film combines two different approaches, the documentary and the humorous, in order to explore two different subjects. Unusually for a Film Unit production, this one makes use colour sequences as well as black-and-white. The "King's stamp" of the title is one of the series of four stamps commissioned for George V's Silver Jubilee in 1935. Commemorative stamps were few and far-between in pre-war Britain, and these were the first ever produced celebrate a royal event. (Such obvious-seeming subjects as Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and George's own Coronation had gone quite unrecognised by the Post Office). The first part of the film, told in factual documentary style, deals with the design and production of the new stamps. We see Barnett Freedman's winning design being approved by GPO officials, Freedman transferring his design to a block of limestone with a "greasy pencil" and the stamps going to the printing press.

The second part of the film deals with the history of the British postal service, especially the introduction of the penny post by Rowland Hill in 1840, and uses satirical humour to put across its basic point, which is that by improving communications postal reform played a vital part in the growth of British trade and industry in the 19th century. Those who opposed Hill's reforms are portrayed as ridiculously small-minded and reactionary, although there is generally something unsatisfactory about satire directed at the manners and ideas of nearly a century earlier. Did people in 1840, for example, really criticise stamps as 'un- English'? They were, after all, a British invention, and no other country had them at this period. There, is, however, a fairly amusing scene showing people queuing up in a post office to purchase some of Hill's radical new inventions. The film ends with a short account of the growth of the postal service, and of the new hobby of philately, since 1840, pointing out that George V was himself a keen stamp collector.

Like most Film Unit productions, the interest of this one is largely historical, and this one sheds some interesting light on the prevailing attitudes of the thirties, especially the rather patronising view of early Victorian England as snobbish, inefficient and backward-looking. Its greatest appeal today is likely to be to stamp collectors interested in the history of their subject.

Gandhi (1982)
No man's life can be encompassed in one telling, 11 July 2014

Richard Attenborough had long cherished the ambition of making a film about Mahatma Gandhi, an ambition dating back at least to the early sixties, and eventually got to realise his dream some twenty years later. The film does not cover Gandhi's early life but opens with his assassination by the Hindu fanatic Nathuram Godse and then jumps backwards to what was to become a defining episode in his life, the time in 1893 when he was thrown out of a first-class carriage in Natal, despite having a first-class ticket, something which opened his eyes to the reality of racial discrimination. The film then deals with his fight for the rights of Indians in what were then the British Crown Colonies of the Cape Colony and Natal. (The film gives the rather misleading impression that South Africa already existed as a united nation in the 1890s; in fact it did not become a single Dominion until 1910).

Even after his return to India, Gandhi's political ambitions were still rather limited; he initially fought for greater rights for Indians within the British Empire, and even supported the British war effort in 1914-18. Gradually, however, he became concerted to the idea of full Indian independence, and the film chronicles his struggle to achieve this through a policy of non-violent non-cooperation. A key event in the evolution of his political thought appears to have been the Amritsar massacre of 1919 when over 300 protesters were shot dead in cold blood by troops under the command of General Dyer.

In some respects the film raises more questions than it answers. It does not explain why Indians who had been so keen to adopt Gandhi's strategy of non-violence during the independence struggle could not find a non- violent solution to the disputes between Hindus and Muslims. (Several hundred thousand people died in sectarian violence during Partition). Nor does it explore the motivation of (or even acknowledge the existence of) those Indian nationalists who rejected non-violence, such as Subhas Chandra Bhose's pro-Axis Indian National Army. Nor does Attenborough really tackle philosophical objections to non-violence, such as George Orwell's celebrated dictum that those who abjure violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf. Gandhi's attitude to Nazism during the war struck many Britons, even those who were otherwise sympathetic to the Indian cause, as being at best naive, at worst ambivalent. Pakistanis might well take exception to the rather negative portrayal of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of their country.

These, however, are not really criticisms of the film as a film. Yes, it is rather too hagiographic for my tastes, but then it is Richard Attenborough's film, not mine, and he had the right to show the world Gandhi as he saw him. As he himself put it "No man's life can be encompassed in one telling", honestly admitting that, like all biopics, this is an edited version of the life of its subject, deliberately edited to produce a coherent view of a man's life as seen from a particular viewpoint.

And it must be admitted that Attenborough carries out his task with great skill. He was lucky to find the right actor for the job in the shape of Ben Kingsley who accepts a difficult challenge and makes this into the role of a lifetime. Kingsley's Gandhi dominates the screen, a man who combines great humanity with great strength of will, who manages to be both simple and profound. The role won Kingsley a well-deserved "Best Actor" Oscar and launched him on a stellar career.

None of the rest of the cast can compete with Kingsley, although there are several cameos by the great and the good of British cinema such as John Mills, John Gielgud and Trevor Howard. Perhaps the best of these comes from Edward Fox as the cold, heartless Dyer. I was less impressed by Gandhi's various British and American acolytes, who play a surprisingly large part in the film, as if to suggest that Indian independence could not have been won without the support of white liberals. Ian Charleson, last seen as Eric Liddell in "Chariots of Fire", here appears as another man of the cloth, the Revd Charles Freer Andrews. There are also bit-parts for Candice Bergen and Martin Sheen, as if to suggest that all those Oscars could not have been won by a British film without at least a token contribution from some Hollywood Big Names.

I am aware that "Gandhi's" Best Picture award is controversial among the militant wing of the Spielbergista movement, who resent it for depriving "ET" of the supreme honour, but I will reserve my comments on that particular controversy as I have not seen Spielberg's film since the eighties. (My own vote for "Best Film of 1982" would have gone to "Blade Runner", but we must remember that at the time the Academy only had available to them the original cut, not Ridley Scott's later director's cut). I will only say that, whatever one's view of Gandhi himself, there can be no denying that it is a superbly made film. It could perhaps have done with some discreet cutting to reduce its length by about 20 minutes, but it is nevertheless a monumental work. Some moments, particularly Gandhi's funeral and the heart-stopping recreation of the Amritsar Massacre, achieve a truly epic status. Following the success of "Chariots of Fire" the previous year, Attenborough confirmed the truth of Colin Welland's cry, "The British are coming!" Had the Academy not unaccountably preferred "Terms of Endearment" to "Educating Rita" in 1983, we would have made it a hat-trick. 8/10

The Best Laid Plans of Daleks, Mice and Men, 11 July 2014

When the TARDIS suffers a mysterious energy drain and crash-lands on the planet Exxilon, the Doctor and his current companion Sarah Jane Smith find themselves embroiled in a power struggle on the planet. There are several different parties to this conflict, including two rival factions within the Exxilons themselves, an expedition from Earth sent to obtain supplies of the mineral "parrinium", which is the only cure for a deadly plague, and the Doctor's oldest adversaries, the Daleks, who have their own nefarious reasons for seeking the parrinium.

As is common with "Doctor Who" serials, much of the plot involves the Doctor and his pretty young companion running away, being captured and then trying to escape, in this case from the Exxilons, who want to sacrifice Sarah Jane for religious reasons. The Exxilons, however, looking like mobile piles of rags, are not really Terry Nation's most inspired creation or the Doctor's most frightening enemies; I cannot imagine many children taking refuge behind the sofa whenever they appeared on screen. A lot of the storyline revolves around the mysterious city which the Exxilons regard as sacred. Yet the Exxilons themselves appear to be a primitive race with a Stone Age culture. Who then was responsible for building the city? (The answer to this question is provided in the course of the serial).

This serial came towards the end of Jon Pertwee's reign as the Third Doctor, and seeing it again reminded me that it was in Pertwee's time that Elisabeth Sladen's Sarah Jane first took over the role of his companion. I always associate her much more with Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor. It serves as a good example of Pertwee's interpretation of the role. Although his Doctor is supposedly an alien Time Lord he comes across as an eccentric upper-class English gentleman, something of a dandy with his velvet jackets and cravats. Despite his race's immense technological capabilities, he is not infallible or all-knowing, even though he generally gets the upper hand in the end, and always remains a gentleman in behaviour as well as in his accent and style of dress.

"Doctor Who" was famous (or infamous) for its small budgets, but normally this did not make a huge difference to the quality of the programmes. "Death to the Daleks" is, however, one serial where more money might have made for an improvement. The Doctor describes the Exxilon city as "one of the 700 wonders of the universe", a description which might suggest something spectacular, yet the city we actually see looks very shoddily built indeed. Unless, of course, the "wonder" is that an entire city could have been built so cheaply, probably by the outer space equivalents of cowboy builders.

The serial has been described as having "too much rather than too little plot", and this is an assessment with which I would agree; the existence of several different competing groups, originating from at least four different planets (Exxilon, Gallifrey, Earth and Skaro), and the internal tensions within some of those groups, makes the plot over- complex and at times confusing. The day is, however, at least partially saved by the appearance of the Daleks. As has often been pointed out, Nation intended them as a Nazi analogue, and in this serial their Nazi characteristics- their ruthlessness and their conviction that all other life-forms are their inferiors- are fully brought out. It is these very characteristics which make them such satisfying intergalactic villains, something instinctively realised by those generations of children who have paraded around their playgrounds chanting "Exterminate! Exterminate!" We never paraded around the playground pretending to be Cybermen or Sontarans. And certainly not Exxilons.

It is not, however, simply the Daleks' viciousness which makes them so satisfactory. Equally satisfactory is the way in which the best-laid plans of Daleks gang agley with even greater regularity than those of mice and men. It is notable in this serial that the ruthless and self- seeking characters all come to a sticky end whereas the selfless and compassionate ones not only survive but also come out on top. By the end of "Death to the Daleks" the "Whoniverse" may be down from 700 wonders to 699, but it possesses one wonder in which our own universe is generally lacking- a systematic link between virtue and reward and between vice and punishment.

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Walk Like a Man, Talk Like a Man, Sing Like a Girl, 5 July 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I am not particularly knowledgeable about pop music, being more of a classical man, and must admit that I am seriously allergic to falsetto voices. ("Walk like a man, talk like a man, sing like a girl"). I am therefore not an admirer of Frankie Valli or The Four Seasons, and have never been tempted into the theatre to see "Jersey Boys", the stage musical which tells the story of the group. My wife, however, is a great lover of all sixties pop, so I could not avoid the film when it appeared in our local cinema.

Pop music biographies have been popular in the cinema in recent years; among the others I recall are "Walk the Line" about Johnny Cash, "Ray" about Ray Charles, "What's Love Got to Do with It?" about Tina Turner and "Dreamgirls", a thinly-disguised account of Diana Ross and the Supremes. I was a bit surprised to discover that this one was directed by Clint Eastwood, partly because I assumed that he had retired from the movie business and partly because it is not the type of film I associate with him. I suppose that it's never too late to teach an old dog new tricks and that the octogenarian Eastwood wanted to try his hand at something other than Westerns, war films and crime thrillers.

Showbiz biopics tend to come with their own particular set of clichés, but "Jersey Boys" imports some familiar clichés from other genres. It revolves around the assumption that all Italian- Americans, or at least all working-class Italian-Americans, are either fully-fledged gangsters or exist somewhere on the fringes of gangsterdom. The film opens with Tommy DeVito, one of the group, claiming that if it wasn't for him, his friends would have wound up in someone's trunk with a bullet in their heads. He also asserts that there are only three ways out of their neighbourhood (Belleville, New Jersey) - join the Mob, join the Army or get famous. Frankie and Nick Massi both rely on the "get famous" approach- Bob Gaudio, the fourth member of the group, was not from Belleville- but Tommy likes to keep his options open, experimenting with the "crime" route as well as the "fame" route, and serves a couple of jail sentences.

The film also relies on another recent Hollywood cliché, the one about the kindly, decent mob boss who exercises a sort of benevolent dictatorship over his neighbourhood. (See also "Sleepers" for another recent film to make use of both these clichés). And of course all homosexuals- the group's manager Bob Crewe is gay- are incredibly camp and effeminate.

Another well-worn convention in showbiz films is that all group acts eventually split up because of tensions within the group, and this convention (which I must say is borne out by a number of real-life examples) is observed here. Surprisingly, these tensions do not arise between the group's two main talents, lead singer Frankie and keyboard- player-cum-songwriter Bob, who remain friends throughout, but between Tommy and Nick; it is eventually Nick, the quietest of the four, who quits. Besides dealing with relationships within the group, the film also covers their personal lives, especially Frankie's; there are sub- plots about his unhappy marriage to his wife Mary and the story of his talented but troubled daughter Francine. In the meantime Tommy is in trouble with the law again, this time over debts owed to a loan shark.

The only well-known actor in the film is Christopher Walken as your friendly neighbourhood mobster Gyp DeCarlo. However unrealistic this character may be, at least Walken gives a good acting performance. The four actors playing the four musicians, however, do not make much of an impression and lack the charisma one would expect of famous pop stars. There is no great acting performance to compare with those from Joaquin Phoenix in "Walk the Line" or Jamie Foxx in "Ray".

There is enough dramatic tension for me to award an above-average mark, but this is after all a musical and my dislike for the music of The Four Seasons meant that I did not really care for the film. (Part of the reason for my preference for "Walk the Line" and "Ray" is that I would much rather listen to Johnny Cash and Ray Charles than to Frankie Valli). Those who are fans of the group may enjoy it more than I did. 6/10

Never let inconvenient facts get in the way of a good story, 5 July 2014

"Cecil B. DeMille Much against his will Was persuaded to leave Moses Out of the Wars of the Roses".

Unlike some clerihews, that one encapsulates an essential truth about its subject. Most of DeMille's films were set in some period of history, but he was not a stickler for historical accuracy and never let inconvenient facts get in the way of a good story.

DeMille is best remembered today for grand epics like "The Ten Commandments", but he also made a number of Westerns, of which "The Plainsman" is one. He saw the Old West as one more canvas on which he could paint an epic tale of heroism and adventure, and felt no more need for accuracy when dealing with American history than when dealing with the ancient world. The film is set between the end of the American Civil War and Custer's Last Stand, in reality a period of eleven years but here seeming like only a few weeks or months. The main characters are Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody, and General Custer, although the account of their lives is highly fictionalised. I am only surprised that DeMille did not try and introduce Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and Annie Oakley into the mix, thereby getting all the main Western heroes into the same film. Knowing him he could probably have got Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger in there as well.

The main villain is a gun-runner named Lattimer who is selling rifles to the Cheyenne Indians. He is acting as agent for a group of unscrupulous weapon manufacturers whose business has taken a hit with the end of the Civil War and who view the Indians not as enemies of the United States but as potential new customers. The film tells the story of how our four heroes frustrate this dastardly plot and ensure that the rifles find their way to the Cavalry. There is also a subplot about the romance between Hickok and Calamity.

As that synopsis might suggest, this is not one of those revisionist Westerns which try to tell the story of the West from a viewpoint sympathetic to the Indians, or even one which tries to tell it from a viewpoint even-handed between Indians and whites. The concept of the "revisionist Western" did not really exist in 1936. Modern audiences might have a certain sneaking sympathy with Lattimer whose endeavours, however mercenary his motives, do at least have the effect of partially levelling an otherwise very uneven playing-field between Indians and whites. In the thirties, however, it was still "white man good, red man bloodthirsty savage". Only in one scene, when the Cheyenne chieftain Yellow Hand is allowed to state his point of view, is it suggested that the Indian Wars might have had more to do with white greed than with red bloodlust.

Despite its dodgy political stance, "The Plainsman" is by no means a bad film. During a decade when many directors turned to intimate, small- scale movies, DeMille remained true to the sort of large-scale action films with which he made his name in the silent era. "The Plainsman" is not quite as spectacular as some Westerns from the fifties and sixties, but it has some good action sequences, especially the Indian attack on the ammunition train and the subsequent siege. Gary Cooper as Hickok makes a charismatic hero- he has a rather larger role than James Ellison as Cody or John Miljan as Custer- and Jean Arthur as Calamity is better than her successors in the same role, Jane Russell in "The Paleface" (too glamorous) and Doris Day in "Calamity Jane" (so obviously unsuitable that I can only assume this was deliberate miscasting for comic effect). Anthony Quinn (DeMille's son-in-law) has small early role as an Indian.

Today we lovers of the Western are lucky in that we have available to us so many films by the masters of the genre such as John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, Anthony Mann, William Wyler and Clint Eastwood. People in 1936 were not so lucky. Certainly, "poverty row" Westerns were ten-a-penny in the thirties, but few of these were of any quality, even when they featured stars of the future like John Wayne. Even the likes of "Destry Rides Again", "Dodge City" and "Stagecoach" still lay a couple of years in the future. A major-league Western by a major-league director like DeMille was therefore something of a novelty at the time. "The Plainsman" is not in the same league as the greatest works of the directors mentioned above, but it is a very decent Western for the mid- thirties. 7/10

Some goofs. In a scene set in the 1860s there is a reference to tumbleweed. Although these plants have come to be regarded as iconic symbols of the West, they are actually native to Asia and were not introduced to North America until after the events depicted in this film. ("The Plainsman", however, is far from the only film to make this mistake). Calamity Jane pronounces her surname, Canary, as though it were the name of the bird; in reality it was pronounced, and sometimes spelt, "Cannary", with the stress on the first syllable.

The Ultimate Product Placement, 5 July 2014

"Coyote Ugly" is a real bar in New York; the name is presumably an ironic allusion to the fact that its female staff are all very attractive. I wonder how many other real bars in America have been able to benefit from the ultimate product placement of having an entire Hollywood movie dedicated to their activities.

Violet Sanford is a young woman from South Amboy, New Jersey who moves to New York to follow her dream of becoming a songwriter. The film is clearly based on the dubious theory that songwriters need to live in big cities because no songs worth listening to have ever been written in small towns. (It is also based upon the assumption that "Violet" was a plausible Christian name for girls of Piper Perabo's generation. Well, perhaps it was in New Jersey, but in the seventies the only Violets in Britain were those queuing up for their old age pension). Violet quickly discovers that, in the songwriting trade, success does not always come quickly and realises that she will need another source of income to tide her over until her genius is recognised by the music industry. She therefore gets a job at the Coyote Ugly Saloon.

"Coyote Ugly" reminded me of a slightly later film, "Burlesque". In that film Christina Aguilera also plays a rather naive young girl who leaves her small-town home to settle in the big city and who ends up working in a rather risqué establishment. Lil, the bar owner, also bears certain similarities to the character played by Cher in "Burlesque". The main difference is that the Coyote Ugly Saloon is not actually a strip club; taking their clothes off is not something the Coyote Girls are expected to do. If, however, they are not strippers, neither are they barmaids as that term is more generally understood. They are encouraged to flirt with male customers, to dance on the bar, to take part in wet T-shirt contests and to behave in a generally raunchy way.

The film charts Violet's rise to fame not only as a bartender but also as a singer-songwriter, and there is a subplot chronicling her romance with a handsome young Australian named Kevin. Actually, "handsome" seems an inadequate adjective to describe Adam Garcia. He achieves the rare feat for a Hollywood leading man of being even prettier than his leading lady. The film-makers seem to have had the cynical idea of making a romantic comedy (normally regarded as a genre which appeals more to women than to men) which would be equally popular with both sexes. Garcia would provide eye-candy for the ladies, while for the men there would be the sight of various sexy girls parading their charms in tight- fitting T-shirts and jeans. Among Violet's co-workers is the gorgeous supermodel Tyra Banks, at this period trying to carve out a cinema career for herself. (Tyra's bid for screen stardom did not prove a great success, but at least she was no worse than some of her fellow supers, such as Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Elle Macpherson, who also tried their hand at acting around the same time).

Good looks, whether of the masculine or feminine variety, are not always enough to ensure the success of a film, but "Coyote Ugly" did relatively well at the box-office. The critics, however, were less impressed, and I must say that my sympathies are with them. The plot is weak and clichéd, and the acting is undistinguished. Both Perabo and Garcia are forgettable; about the only one of the cast to make anything of an impression is John Goodman as Violet's father Bill, like most Goodman characters an amiable slob. Even the sight of Tyra Banks in a T-shirt cannot make "Coyote Ugly" anything more than a below-average rom-com. 4/10

We should not obey the gods if we did not believe them to be just, 26 June 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Gabrielle van der Mal, the daughter of a famous surgeon, enters a convent in Brussels with the aim of eventually becoming a nursing sister in the Congo, at that time (the 1930s) still a Belgian colony. The film follows her progress as a postulant and a novice until she takes her vows and eventually achieves her ambition of working in the Congo. She is happy for a time but eventually has to return to Belgium shortly before the outbreak of war. When the country is invaded by the Nazis, Gabrielle is faced with a crisis of conscience. (As a nun she is known as Sister Luke, but for ease of reference I will call her "Gabrielle" throughout).

During the 1950s, Hollywood was generally very respectful when it came to religion, but around 1960 it began to take more a critical look at some aspects of the subject; two examples are "Elmer Gantry", whose main character is a dishonest evangelist, and "Inherit the Wind", a fictionalised account of a real-life case in which a Tennessee schoolteacher was put on trial for teaching his class about Darwin's theory of evolution. "The Nun's Story" is a slightly earlier example of the same phenomenon, although its critique of the Catholic Church, or at least of the conservative form of Catholicism exemplified by the unnamed Order to which Sister Luke belongs, is a subtle one, relying upon neither the standard Protestant arguments against Catholicism nor the standard atheist arguments against Christianity.

Gabrielle's Order places a very high premium upon "obedience", and her struggles with this concept are a constant theme throughout the movie. Even before she enters the Order her father, who has misgivings about her becoming a nun, says, referring to the three vows she will have to take, "I can see you poor, I can see you chaste but I cannot see you obedient". Her close friend Simone decides that the religious life is not for her and leaves without taking her vows. A similar theme is taken up by Dr Fortunati, the surgeon with whom Gabrielle works in the Congo. Although an unbeliever, Fortunati has a keen insight into the Catholic mind and realises that Gabrielle, who has a compassionate nature and excellent medical knowledge, has what it takes to make a great nurse, but lacks what it takes to make a nun.

Indeed, in her heart Gabrielle realises this herself, although her Mother Superior tries to assure her that her spiritual struggles will become easier with the passing of time. Unfortunately for her, they do not. For the Order "obedience" means obedience to one's superiors and to the Church hierarchy. For Gabrielle it means obedience to one's own conscience, and it is this disagreement which lies at the root of her two spiritual crises. The first comes when she defies an order that she should deliberately fail an examination in tropical medicine, something the Mother Superior has ordered her to do in order to demonstrate humility and to ease the tension which has grown up between her and another nun. The second comes during the war when Gabrielle believes that the church authorities are being too even-handed between the suffering people of Belgium and their Nazi oppressors, who have murdered her father.

"We should not obey the gods if we did not believe them to be just" said the Ancient Greek philosophers, and the argument remains good even if one substitutes "God" for "the gods". Morality cannot be based upon authority, even Divine authority, because obedience to God is dependent upon our believing Him to be good. We can only attribute goodness to God if we have a conception of "goodness" which is quite independent of the idea of obedience to a higher power, there being no power higher than God.

The film is therefore a critique of those forms of religion which place authority above reason and conscience and an exploration of a complex philosophical subject. Had I been the producer I would not necessarily have chosen Audrey Hepburn as the leading lady for a film on such an ambitious subject. In 1959 Hepburn was best known for romantic comedies like "Sabrina", "Roman Holiday" and "Funny Face". Her previous attempts to tackle more serious subjects, as in the so-so "War and Peace" and the rather odd "Green Mansions" had not always been successful. Yet had I turned her down I would have been completely wrong to have done so. This is one of her greatest performances and the one in which she first showed triumphantly that she could be as good in drama as in comedy. Another very fine performance comes from Peter Finch as Fortunati.

Fred Zinnemann shows his directorial skills in the contrasts between the Belgian scenes and the Congolese ones. The scenes set in Belgium are, if not drab, certainly austere, dominated by browns, greys, black and white, with the action nearly all taking place indoors and a powerful sense of constraint and restriction. In the Congo, by contrast, there is a much greater sense of life and freedom, with more vivid colours and a more equal balance between interior and exterior settings. The very look of the film would tell you, even if the dialogue did not, that this is where Gabrielle is happiest.

Zinnemann is one of my favourite directors, largely because he made what I consider to be two of the greatest films ever, "High Noon" and "A Man for All Seasons", two other movies which take as their theme obedience to one's conscience. Some of his other films are not far behind these in terms of quality, and among these I would class "From Here to Eternity" and "The Nun's Story". 9/10

Belle (2013/I)
Fiat Justitia, Ruat Caelum, 26 June 2014

Although "Belle" tells a highly fictionalised account of her life, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay was a real person. She was the illegitimate daughter of a British naval officer and a black slave. Unlike many children born in similar circumstances, however, she was fortunate in that her father acknowledged her and paid for her keep. When her mother died, her father brought her from the West Indies to England and entrusted her to the care of uncle, Lord Mansfield, who just happened to be the Lord Chief Justice. When her father died she inherited his fortune, making her a desirable heiress.

This is essentially a Jane Austen story, set a generation earlier and with a racial element thrown in. The film centres on Dido's emotional relationships. She is sought in marriage by Oliver Ashford, the younger son of an aristocratic family, but his interest is largely financial and the match is fiercely opposed by his mother and his elder brother, both of whom object to the idea of a mixed-race woman marrying into their family. The great love of her life is John Davinier, a clergyman's son, an aspiring lawyer and an ardent anti-slavery campaigner.

At her uncle's stately home Kenwood House, Dido is placed in a strange and anomalous position. By reason of her fortune she is an insider, part of England's establishment; Mansfield even worries that, because of the disparity in their financial positions she might be "marrying beneath herself" if she accepts John. Her race and her illegitimacy, however, make her an outsider. She is allowed to dine with the family when they are alone, but is forced to eat separately when they have guests who might be upset by the sight of a black face. Her position contrasts strangely with that of her cousin and close friend Lady Elizabeth Murray, another niece and ward of Lord Mansfield. Elizabeth is legitimate, but has no fortune of her own, having been virtually disowned by her father under the influence of his second wife. Yet because she is white there can be no question of Elizabeth having to dine apart from the family.

Set against the love of Dido and John is a subplot about what became known as the "Zong case". When sickness broke out on a slave ship, the captain ordered the crew to throw the slaves overboard. When the insurance company refused to compensate the ship-owners for their losses, the owners sued. Lord Mansfield was the judge who heard the case in the Court of King's Bench.

Tom Wilkinson has given a number of fine performances in recent British films (and sometimes in Hollywood too), and this is one of his best. In his dealings with Dido, whom he loves dearly, Mansfield is torn between his inner decency and the need to conform to the social proprieties of the period. In legal matters he is equally torn between the demands of the law and those of justice, which is not always the same thing. In the "Zong" case he is well aware that, in refusing to pay out on the policy the insurers are motivated by commercial considerations, not humanitarian ones; if they had any humanitarian feelings they would not have become involved in facilitating the slave trade in the first place. Nevertheless, he is equally well aware that a decision against the ship- owners will be seen as a victory for the growing anti-slavery movement and a step on the road to the abolition of the slave trade. Other good performances come from newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the leading role, Penelope Wilton as Lord Mansfield's sister and Sam Reid as John.

The film has something in common with "Amazing Grace", another film about the abolitionist movement; both tend to suggest that the fight against slavery was something waged by upper-class people in wigs sitting in elegant Georgian drawing-rooms, although "Belle" does at least put a black character at centre stage. Dido, moreover, would have known about the horrors of slavery through personal experience, whereas the likes of John Davinier and Lord Mansfield only know about them at second hand. For this reason I would have liked to see more about Dido's childhood in the West Indies before the death of her mother.

As one might expect of a British costume drama, "Belle" is visually attractive, but it is more than a mere pretty face. The "heritage cinema" genre is sometimes dismissed as a mere exercise in sentimental nostalgia, but it can be much more than that. It can also be (as in much of the work of Merchant-Ivory) a vehicle for exploring significant issues, and in this case manages to explore the questions of race, social class, compassion, justice and freedom. As Lord Mansfield put it, "Fiat justitia, ruat caelum". Let justice be done though the heavens fall. 8/10

A Flying Start, 20 June 2014

23rd November 1963 was not, perhaps, the most auspicious day to launch a ground-breaking television series. Much of the country was affected by a power cut, and President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the previous day, which meant that people could talk about little else. And yet, despite these disadvantages, "Doctor Who" went on to become one of the greatest success stories in British TV history, still going strong more than half a century later.

The first few seconds of "An Unearthly Child" introduce some of the series' most iconic elements. We hear that famous electronic music against that strange, psychedelic title sequence. And then we see a policeman looking round a London junkyard where he spots a police box which, unknown to him, is of course the Doctor's TARDIS. This is the serial in which it is explained that the TARDIS is, or should be, capable of disguising itself to blend in with its surroundings. Owing to a malfunction, however, it has remained a police box ever since. Evidently, despite the Time Lords' mastery of time-travel, none of the various manifestations of the Doctor has ever had time to repair the fault.

We do not, however, immediately meet the Doctor himself. Instead, the scene shifts to a London secondary school where two teachers, Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton, are discussing one of their pupils, fifteen- year-old Susan Foreman. Susan is precocious, but seems to be curiously ignorant of many aspects of British society. Believing that Susan lives with her elderly grandfather, Barbara and Ian decide to investigate by visiting the address she has given. The grandfather turns out to be the Doctor himself, and a series of events leads to all four travelling back in time to the Stone Age, where they become embroiled in a power struggle between two rival factions of cavemen. Hence the serial's alternative title "100,000 BC". Strictly speaking, the only human inhabitants of Britain during this year would have been Neanderthals rather than the modern humans shown here, although I won't claim this as a goof as the date is not actually mentioned in the script.

(My own childhood recollections of "Doctor Who" generally date from the Pertwee/Baker era of the seventies, when most of the stories seemed to be set either in contemporary Britain or on an alien planet, but in the sixties part of the programme's educational remit was to teach children about history, so stories set during the earth's past were quite common).

One thing we learn about the Doctor in this serial is that "Who" is not his surname. The title derives from an incident when Ian and Barbara address him as "Doctor Foreman"- Susan has appropriated that surname from the owner of the junkyard- and he replies "Doctor who?" We also learn that he and Susan are members of an alien race- the expression "Time Lord" is never actually mentioned- who have mastered the science of travel through time and space.

What struck me when I first saw "An Unearthly Child" was William Hartnell's characterisation of the Doctor. Having grown up with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, I always thought of Doctor Who as a kindly, if occasionally eccentric, uncle. There is, however, nothing avuncular about Hartnell's Doctor, although he is certainly eccentric. He is also suspicious, cranky and hostile, and surprisingly callous and amoral during the "caveman" episodes. It is the human characters Barbara and Ian who show far more compassion and morality than does the alien Doctor, although it must be said that Susan generally sides with them against him. This characterisation has always struck me as a weakness in the early part of the series, just as the generally sympathetic characterisation of most of the later Doctors has been one of its strengths, and so it is not surprising that his character was very much softened later in Hartnell's tenure.

The Doctor may be an exception, but the serial as a whole does show evidence of the BBC's traditional social liberalism, especially during the scenes where Ian and Barbara, as didactic in 100,000 BC as they were in 1963 AD, try to teach the prehistoric tribe about kindness, friendship and compassion, all virtues previously unknown to them, and even socialist democracy. ("A tyrant is not as strong as the whole tribe acting collectively").

I won't award "An Unearthly Child" a mark out of ten. Certainly the whole "Doctor Who" concept in itself is a ten- if not an eleven- in my eyes, but few of the individual serials or episodes would in themselves merit this mark. This is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Hartnell's character in his serial is not one I can warm to, but the story itself is surprisingly dramatic and exciting, despite the low budgets for which the series was later to become notorious. It did enough to get the series off to a flying start.

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Princess Disgrace, 20 June 2014

Unlike that dreadful 1980s biopic with Cheryl Ladd, "Grace of Monaco" does not aim to be a complete biography of Grace Kelly. It concentrates on one single episode in her life, the dispute between France and Monaco in the early sixties when President de Gaulle, angered by the number of French citizens who were avoiding taxation by using Monaco as a tax haven, blockaded the tiny Principality and even threatened it with invasion. (Possibly he wanted to win himself a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the victor in the shortest ever war in history). The film also deals with Grace's relationship with her husband Prince Rainier (whom she calls "Ray"- fluency in the language of her adopted country does not seem to have been her strong point) and the search for a palace mole suspected of selling Monaco's secrets to France.

Critical reviews of the film have generally been negative, and in my view with good reason. For such a talented actress, Nicole Kidman has a surprisingly large number of mediocre or downright bad films in her CV ("Far and Away", "Moulin Rouge", "Practical Magic", "Bewitched", "The Stepford Wives", "Batman and Robin" and several others), and "Grace of Monaco" is another to add to the list. Playing a famous actress from the past, especially one who was famed for her beauty, always poses special problems, and although Nicole is herself strikingly attractive she does not bear a great physical resemblance to the woman she is portraying. It doesn't help that she is considerably taller than Princess Grace and also considerably older than the Princess would have been at this period. Her accent also seems wrong- the real Grace Kelly had a very distinctive accent, and some Americans even thought she was British.

Some actresses in a similar situation- I am thinking in particular of Michelle Williams in "My Week with Marilyn" and Helena Bonham-Carter in "Burton and Taylor"- have been able to convey the essential personality of their characters, despite a lack of resemblance, but Kidman's face has become so distinctive and familiar in its own right that it seems to be difficult to accept her as another real-life person. I was always too aware that I was not watching Princess Grace but rather Princess Nicole playing Princess Grace.

Apart from Frank Langella as Grace's domestic chaplain Father Francis Tucker, there are no memorable contributions from the supporting cast, and Tim Roth makes a singularly dull and uncharismatic Rainier. His wife may call him "Ray", but a ray of sunshine he ain't. He is supposed to be one of the Crowned Heads of Europe but more closely resembles a harassed provincial businessman desperately trying to fight off a hostile takeover bid from a larger and more successful rival. The unsympathetic portrayal of de Gaulle struck me as yet another American dig at the "Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys", so I was surprised to learn that the film was actually made by a French director, Olivier Dahan.

One thing the script seems unsure of is whether the Monaco of the early sixties was a rich country or a poor one. At times it is implied that the Monegasques are so impoverished that they cannot even afford to fund the local hospital properly. At others, however, it is also implied that the Principality is absolutely awash with money, so much so that its government can dispense with a local income tax, and that de Gaulle's aggressive designs on his little neighbour are motivated by the desire to secure all this money for France.

I often think that a good test of "fact-based" (or supposedly fact- based) biopics is how well they would work as pure fiction. There is doubtless somewhere an alternative universe in which Grace Kelly never married Prince Rainier, continued her acting career, won a second Oscar for her role in Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie", and today lives quietly in retirement with her husband James Dean. Let us suppose that in this universe some Hollywood screenwriter comes up with an idea for a film (let's call it "Tracey of Ruritania") about the ruler of a tiny European kingdom who manages to save the day with the assistance of his glamorous American ex-film star wife when his country is threatened with annexation by a powerful neighbour. Such a film might work if made as a comedy along the lines of "The Mouse that Roared", but any attempt to make it into a serious drama would probably result in a dull and predictable soap opera.

Well, you and I live in the real universe, not this alternative one, so we are unable to see that uproarious comedy "Tracey of Ruritania", and have to make do with "Disgrace of Monaco". Anyone going to watch the film with the idea that it will give them insights into the life of the real Grace Kelly is likely to be disappointed. All they will end up with is a dull and predictable soap opera which only differs from other soap operas in that its characters are supposedly based on real historical figures. 4/10

Some goofs. In a scene set in 1961 Alfred Hitchcock tells Grace (in a reference to Sean Connery and James Bond) that his leading man in "Marnie" will be a Scottish actor who has just finished making a spy movie. The first Bond movie, "Dr No", was not made until 1962. It is also implied that De Gaulle's eagerness to take over Monaco is fuelled by the need to fund the war in Algeria. In fact, by 1961 De Gaulle had already decided to grant Algeria independence, something achieved the following year.

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