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An iconic national moment and one that reinvents Olympic Opening Ceremonies
Just as Los Angeles in 1984 invented the Olympic Opening Ceremony, then Danny Boyle's London 2012 reinvented it in so many ways. The first to have an all-star cast (Kenneth Branagh, Daniel Craig, Mike Oldfield, JK Rowling, Rowan Atkinson, Dizzy Rascal, Tim Berners Lee, the Arctic Monkeys, David Beckham, Paul MaCartney). The first to have filmed sequences (the thrilling opening journey up the Thames, James Bond meets the Queen at Buckingham Palace, Mr Bean dreams he's in Chariots of Fire, David Beckham delivers the Olympic torch by speedboat). The first to tell a story (the industrial revolution, the founding of the NHS, the digital revolution).
Like the Coronation in 1953, the World Cup Final in 1966, Live Aid in 1985 and Diana's funeral in 1997, it is one of those iconic British national moments that's likely to be remembered for decades to come.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
The best Le Carre adaptation since Smiley's People.
The period of 1973/1974 is very much Britain's darkest post war days: IRA terrorism, inflation, strikes, football hooliganism, police corruption. And on top of all this the Cold War cast its dark nuclear shadow over everything. It was the age of decline and pessimism. John Le Carre's 1974 novel TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is a book very much reflective of the nation's post-war decline.
Now, the novel has been turned into a major British film by Thomas Alfredson and is the best Le Carre adaptation since the BBC's SMILEY'S PEOPLE back in 1982. Central to the film's success is quite wonderful production design which evokes the era of 73/74 with remarkable precision, particularly the low-tech London HQ of the Circus (Le Carre's name for MI6)- a pre-digital world of dial telephones, shelves full of paper files, reel to reel tape recorders, cine film all housed in a large warehouse type building where the main conference room is a sound proofed portakabin.
Head of the Circus is Control (John Hurt). When a mission in Budapest to uncover a Soviet mole in the Circus is blown and the agent Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) shot and captured, Control and his aide George Smiley (Gary Oldman) are forced into retirement. However, the months pass and Smiley is called upon by the Home Office - there really is a Mole in British Intelligence. They now know this via an AWOL Circus operative called Ricky Tarr (Tom Hardy) whose affair with Irina - the wife of a Russian agent in Istanbul - leads to him learning about the Soviet infiltration. However, as soon as he alerts London his message is intercepted, his senior murdered and Irina kidnapped and shipped to Moscow and killed.
The film is very complex and key events told through a series of flashbacks. Yet it's full of 'moments' which lodge in the mind. We see something I've not seen on screen before - a British Intelligence Christmas party with all the key personnel attending. It's also full of wonderful performances such as Kathy Bates in a marvellous scene as ex- intelligence analyst Connie Sachs and Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillame, Smiley's man on the inside. However, they key role of Bill Haydon (Colin Firth) is surprisingly underwritten. The end of the movie feels rushed.
At the centre of it all is a commanding piece of screen acting by Gary Oldman as Smiley. He never speaks for the first 15 minutes of so of the film and it's a quiet and restrained performance. At one point he delivers a monologue to Guillame about how he once met his Russian opposite number and nemesis Karla and it holds your attention for the sheer force of acting. This is Oldman's tour-de-force confirming him as one of the great British actors of our generation.
The Shining (1980)
Brilliant cinematography and production design
American exile in England Stanley Kubrick shot all of his films in England from LOLITA in 1962 to EYES WIDE SHUT in 1998. Here was a man who created New York on a Pinewood back-lot (EYES WIDE SHUT), 1970 Vietnam on the Isle of Dogs (FULL METAL JACKET), the Pentagon War Room at Shepperton Studios (DR STRANGELOVE) and prehistoric Earth and the solar system at MGM Borehamwood (2001).
The Overlook Hotel exists nowhere other than on the sound stages of Elstree between 1978 and 1979, where Kubrick filmed the whole movie. It's to this remote and very large American hotel that husband and wife Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall (and son) arrive to caretake for the winter shutdown. Jack goes mad, sees ghosts and eventually tries to murder his wife and child - only to end up frozen in the snow covered outdoor maze.
Whilst everyone eulogises Kubrick's fine direction, the real strengths of the film are Roy Walker's production design and John Alcott's remarkable cinematography. All of the sets are huge and empty - the corridors, the lounge, the ballroom suggesting a hotel in winter hibernation. They're all brightly lit by Alcott, forgoing the cliché that horror best works in darkness.
Nicholson's overacting in the later scenes and the lack of much humanity in Kubrick's screenplay are perhaps the two flaws in a film which still stands up well 31 years after its release. Two scenes stand out: the haunting image of Nicholson striding across the ballroom floor and it's full of the ghosts of 1921; and the final chase through the eerie and beautiful snow-covered floodlit maze.
David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, calls THE SHINING "Kubrick's one great film". Nowadays regarded as a classic of its kind, back in 1980 it failed to receive a single Oscar or BAFTA nomination.
Nil by Mouth (1997)
London working class life at its bleakest
English actor Gary Oldman sunk $1.5 million of his own money into NIL BY MOUTH, a film he wrote and directed. It is an noncommercial film set in and around the London of his youth - a South London council estate where the sun never shines (these films always work best when shot in winter) and everything has a grey, washed out look to it.
There's no real plot in NIL BY MOUTH. It focuses on villain Ray (Ray Winstone), his wife (Kathy Burke) and her brother (Charlie Creed Mills). The film often seems to consist of long scenes of people boozing, swearing and shooting up heroin. Much of the dialogue consists of the 'F' word used over and over again. Oldman does have an acute ear for discomforting dialogue (one character says of a woman he saw "getting a severe portion right up the f**king Gary") - it never sounds scripted and the whole film seems to happening spontaneously in front of the camera.
Winstone delivers a career-best performance as the drunk Ray and Kathy Burke (who won the Best Actress prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for this role) wears an expression of down-trodden weariness on her face in every scene. When Ray beats her up in a drunken rage (she is pregnant at the time), it's a wince inducing scene complete with moans of pain from Burke. It's an astonishing moment that stays with you days, months, even years after you witness it. This is the underclass at its rawest and filmmaking at its rawest. It's grimness and imagery burns into your mind and once seen you'll find it difficult to shake or forget, a distinction it shares with Alan Clarke's SCUM - and Clarke was one of Oldman's stated influences when shooting the movie.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
The first really good Agatha Christie screen adaptation
Albert Finney is one of the greatest of English screen actors, achieving the ability to be different in every role he plays: Arthur Seaton, Tom Jones, Scrooge, 'Sir' (in THE DRESSER), Winston Churchill. His Hercule Piorot in 1974 earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Actor, though it's a far more shouty and loud performance (completed with oily black hair and rich Belgian accent) than subsequent interpretations of the role by Peter Ustinov and David Suchet.
When Sidney Lumet's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS appeared in British and American cinemas at the end of 1974,audiences were not yet accustomed to the numerous Agatha Christie adaptations which are now part of ITV peak-time schedule. The film must have seemed fresh and sparkling and different in a cinematic landscape filled that year with disaster movies, cop thrillers and sex comedies. Here was a British- made film bursting with movie stars (Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark, Jacquline Bisset, Anthony Perkins etc) all cast as various American and European murder suspects marooned a snow-bound Orient Express somewhere in the Balkans in 1935. Poirot - another traveller on the train - has to deduce which of them knifed multi-millionaire gangster Rachett (Widmark) to death.
The film is technically very impressive.It has a fondness for the people, look and manners of the 1930s. Geoffrey Unsworth makes marvellous use of light and colour in a confined setting. Tony Walton's costumes have an exaggerated 1930s chic. Richard Rodney Bennett's music score is as lush as a Viennese waltz. Their contribution is in every scene. Paul Dehn's screenplay is packed with good dialogue and makes a relatively claustrophobic mystery highly watchable, especially when much of the second half comprises of Poirot interviewing suspects.
The follow-up in 1978 - DEATH ON THE NILE - is even better.
The History Boys (2006)
Witty observation on the English education system
The English duo of Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett last collaborated on 1994's Oscar and BAFTA winning THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE. This 2006 collaboration abbreviates Bennett's own 2004 Royal National Theatre play into a fast- moving account of how a group of Yorkshire teenagers from a state school pass the now defunct Oxford/Cambridge entrance exam. This is England in 1983. It's the zenith of Thatcherism. It was also the year of the film EDUCATING RITA, in which a working class housewife betters herself through an Open University degree. Things have obviously changed in the country since the Victorian times of Thomas Hardy's JUDE THE OBSCURE, where university is not a thing for the working class.
But the social, political and cultural milieu of the era is kept in the background (it's much less evocative than THIS IS ENGLAND, made the same year and also set in 1983). This is as much a fantasy of education as DEAD POET'S SOCIETY. These are classes full of the expectational, bright and articulate. Bennett never really finds the authentic voice of the 18-year olds - they speak the words of older, wiser men. But the performances - Richard Griffiths, Stephen Campbell Moore and Frances De La Tour as the teachers tutoring them in various ways towards university and, amongst other a pre-stardom Domonic Cooper and James Corden as the students - are uniformly excellent. The dialogue is witty in its observations on the education system and the purpose of education. Bennett's own adaptation wisely drops the two flashes forward which opened the play's first and second acts (Campbell Moore's character as a TV historian in the present day).
Made in Dagenham (2010)
Excellent account of British working life in the late-1960s.
It's rare nowadays to find a movie that is actually about something. A lot of movies THINK they're about something but aren't - after all, isn't THE SOCIAL NETWORK really only rich kids squabbling over the ownership of Facebook?
Several recent English movies have thrown light on lesser-known aspects of 20th century English life such as the teenage John Lennon in NOWHERE BOY, Brian's Clough's time as manager of Leeds United in THE DAMNED UNITED and the speech impediment of King George VIth in THE KING'S SPEECH. Joining this group is MADE IN DAGENHAM - directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory - which illuminates a forgotten corner of British working history that changed the lives of millions of people. The opening sequence (a 1968 Ford promotional film about Dagenham) recalls the opening of THE FULL MONTY. It's set in the English Detriot of 1968 - Dagenham in Essex, a car making town where 55,000 people work at Ford's, of which only 187 are women.
The film focuses on three women. Rita (Sally Hawkins), a wife, mother of three and worker in the Ford car plant who brings the women out on strike for equal pay. Lisa (Rosamund Pike), the beautiful Cambridge- educated wife of the factory's manager and supporter of Rita; and Labour cabinet minister Barabra Castle (Miranda Richardson), who champions the strikers' cause. All three are women in a men-dominated world (in Castle's case, women cabinet ministers were very rare in the 1960s). All three actresses deliver excellent and credible performances.
Cole's film shows the struggle for equal pay isn't being carried out by the unions, but by ordinary women who want to be treated as equals. The film is as unsympathetic to union officials as I'M ALRIGHT JACK was back in 1959 - the trade union leader Monty Taylor (Kenneth Cranham) is shown to be duplicitous and two-faced and uninterested in helping the women's cause.
The supporting cast are all superb. Bob Hoskins as the sympathetic foreman and union rep Albert. Daniel Mays as Rita's good natured husband (who seems very 'new man' for 1960s Essex). Richard Schiff as a very nasty Ford executive from the US who gets his way by bullying and intimidation, including threatening Castle. Andrea Riseborough, Geraldine James and Jamie Winstone are Rita's comrades-in-arms. There's even a terrific two scene cameo from the always brilliant John Sessions as Prime Minister Harold Wilson, complete with pipe and labrador.
But the film belongs to Sally Hawkins as Rita - who is a composite of several real characters. She isn't political or militant. She's inspired to take a stand after being patronised and dressed down by her son's grammar school teacher and by being ignored and patronised by Monty Taylor.
In the end the women achieve their goal and it's such an uplifting moment, a feeling that something worthwhile has been achieved. A simply excellent film and one that easily stands alongside BILLY ELLIOT and THE FULL MONTY as films about the working classes bettering themselves by one way or another.
Brassed Off (1996)
One of the final nails in the coffin of the outgoing (1997) Conservative government
BRASSED OFF is a 1996 movie from England - written and directed by Mark Herman - in that tradition of those movies about the working classes attempting to better themselves: THE FULLY MONTY, BILLY ELLIOT and MADE IN DAGENHAM being other prominent examples. At the time it seemed like one of the last nails in the coffin of the outgoing Tory government.
It's set in a real-looking Yorkshire mining town a few years after the 1984/85 miners strike, where the local coal mine is about to be closed. The miners (Ewan McGregor, Jim Carter, Stephen Tompkinson and others) find solidarity in their brass band under their conductor - retired miner Danny (the late Pete Postlewaite in his finest screen role), a man for whom music matters above all else.
The pit closes, but the band makes it to the national brass band competition final at the Albert Hall. On winning, you expect Danny to make some sentimental speech about how - in spite of everything - music holds the band together. Instead, he delivers probably the explicit political diatribe against the then Conservative government and the devastation unemployment inflicts on people. It's a superb moment in a film with its heart and soul in the dying working class communities of Yorkshire. This isn't a piece of Ken Loach-like realism - it's prettified and sentimentalised for a mainstream audience, yet the movie looses nothing for it.
At the close, the brass band play Elgar's Pomp and Circumstace March Number 1 as they pass the Houses of Parliament. It's meant to be ironic but it's also very touching.
One of the most remarkable adaptations of Shakespeare on screen
This 1996 film, directed and adapted by Kenneth Branagh, is Hamlet re-imagined as a 1960s epic: 4 hours long (complete with intermission), shot in 70mm widescreen and featuring star names in small roles. But whereas the 60s epics always looked to exotic climates, this remains anglo-centric in filling its panavision lens - shot at Shepperton Studios with some exteriors at Blenheim Place in Oxfordshire. Production designer Tim Harvey creates an Elsinore which is a huge and brightly lit 19th century palace with a central hall surrounded by mirrored doors and a chessboard floor. This isn't the usual darkly lit medieval castle of previous versions.
The unabridged 4 hour text means this is often a very talkative film, but is also gives greater weight to supporting characters and Claudius's role is considerable larger than in either the 1948 or 1990 versions. And yet the film never feels over-long.
Branagh is fine as Hamlet, supported by an excellent cast of English actors including Julie Christie as Gertrude, Kate Winslet as Ophelia, Derek Jacobi as Claudius and Richard Briers as Polonius. Jacobi is outstanding, speaking every line with crystal clarity.
But what will attract most people to the movie is the all-star supporting cast in minor roles: Jack Lemmon as a guard, Billy Crystal as the grave digger, Charlton Heston as the Player King, as well as Gerard Depardieu, Robin Williams and Judi Dench. There's even John Gielgud and Ken Dodd in non-speaking roles.
A remarkable achievement and amongst the finest Shakespearian adaptations ever committed to film.
East Is East (1999)
Great recreation of 1970s England
At 90 minutes, East is East doesn't outstay it's welcome. The film won the 1999 BAFTA for Best British Film and began life as a play at London's Royal Court two years earlier. It's a comedy drama set in Salford in the very grim North of England 1971. And if you're in a working class Anglo-Pakistani household it's doubly so. The Khans live in a back-to-back terrace house with an outdoor toilet (the production design here is terrific, it really does make the past a foreign country)and run the family chip shop.
The film recalls another English movie from 1969 called 'Spring and Port Wine' - the northern working class family, the children wanting to break away from the grip of a tyrannical father. The father is George, played splendidly by Om Puri, the Pakistani father of a family who he doesn't realise are English: they're sausage and bacon eating English, with sons who booze and go to discos and one of whom has a white girlfriend and responds to the prospect of an arranged marriage with "I'm not marrying a f**king Paki".
The whole cast is excellent - especially Archie Punjabi and Jimi Mistry - with Linda Bassett quite outstanding as Ella, George's English wife. She looks as if she's had 7 children. She's beaten up by George at one point, but remains devoted to her family throughout. She's a gem.