Belle (UK, 2013)

Black belle

Although the inspiration for the film isn’t simply the above painting, where the bi-racial Belle is depicted with her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray, the presence of a woman of colour in an aristocratic household in late 18th England is the core enigma of the film. The household is headed by Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) who, as Lord Chief Justice, made some judgements that helped in the abolition of slavery. Scriptwriter Misan Sagay melodramatically places one of the key decisions with Belle’s ‘coming out in society’ although, in fact, she was actually a young child at this time. This melodramatic narrative serves to highlight the racial discourse that is central to the film.

Director Amma Asante, whose A United Kingdom (Czech Republic-UK-US, 2016) also unearthed, superbly, hidden history about race, stated:

“You see a biracial girl, a woman of colour, who’s depicted slightly higher than her white counterpart. She’s staring directly out, with a very confident eye. This painting flipped tradition and everything the 18th century told us about portraiture. What I saw was an opportunity to tell a story that would combine art history and politics.” (link)

That’s not how I see it. To me they look level in the frame, though Belle’s turban is marginally higher; this equality in itself would have been a radical statement at the time. Belle also looks as if she is being pushed away and Elizabeth dominates two thirds of the frame. However if it is a push it’s certainly not aggressive given the smiling faces of both. Even though Belle is only filling a third of the frame she is the dynamic actor, moving on and in the direction of the city; St Paul’s can be seen in the background. Elizabeth is inhabiting a more domestic space that, even though she is outside, is enclosed and darker.

Belle’s finger pointing to her face is puzzling (there are theories in the article quoted above). The most obvious interpretation is she’s drawing attention to her colour; if this is the case it is doing it in an extraordinarily modern way as it is a hyperbolic gesture that serves only to emphasise the obvious. It’s almost ‘cheesy’.

Both women engage the viewer’s gaze with confidence; they are not there for the male gaze they are for themselves. It is an extraordinary painting; as far as I can tell, it’s not known who created the image.

The film is fascinating too and although it may lean a little too far toward crowd pleasing narrative resolutions that can be forgiven as it’s telling a fabulous tale. It’s a stellar cast, including Emily Watson, Penelope Wilton, James Norton, which is headed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw who is superb as Belle.

I am looking forward to Asante’s next film.

June 8th

The Revenant (US-Hong Kong-Taiwan, 2015)

Trying to do decent

It was probably my year in purdah that meant I missed seeing this brilliant film in the cinema. 2016: the year of Brexit, Trump and Lacey not watching movies. Well, in the grand scale my problem was a ‘hill of beans’ but I am sorry I didn’t see this on the big screen.

There’s little point in trying to define what is the essence of cinema as it refers to many things. In the current issue of Sight & Sound Nick James talks about how the visual aspect is crucial whilst, even today with the increase of ‘quality television’, the script remains paramount on the domestic screen. I’m inclined to agree especially if editing is included.

Ironically in Iñárritu’s previous film Birdman there – apparently – was no editing and he does have a predilection for the long take; see Y tu mama tambien. He combines the fluid Steadicam movement with virtuoso editing (Stephen Mirrone) in the battle scene at the start of the film. After a killing we follow the killer until they, soon, too are dead and then we ‘catch a ride’ with his killer and so on. This is one of the most devastating battle scenes I’ve seen as it emphasises the high chances of death in war. In most film’s battle sequences we focus on the protagonist who, for obvious reasons, is highly likely to survive.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography, suitably grim winter mise en scene, is brilliant and, if I can forgive Tom Hardy’s mumble, the performances convey the blunt machismo that was probably necessary to survive beyond the frontier. The chameleon Domhnall Gleeson deserves a special mention as the decent Captain who strives to do the right thing.

Selma (UK-US, 2014)

On the march

I’ve written about two high profile African-American films recently (Moonlight and Hidden Figures) both of which featured in this year’s Oscars. This was based on merit, however the Academy Awards don’t necessarily deal in merit as the literally scandalous neglect of Selma last year emphasised; it did receive a Best Picture nomination but David Oyelowo’s performance was widely thought to be worthy of at least a Best Actor nomination. I was delighted to catch up with this film that revealed a key moment in recent American history that had been ‘hidden’ from me.

While the events, in 1965, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, are enshrined in Civil Rights history it is a strength of commercial cinema that it can both inform, and remind, millions of people about key moments. I was certainly ignorant and so was enlightened having watching the film and experienced exasperated rage at the ridiculous and violent racism perpetrated against the protestors who simply wanted to be able to exercise their right to vote. Racism is not just in history, unfortunately, as the racist right returns to the fray; Marine Le Pen may be been resoundingly defeated in France but she still got 35% of the vote and in the UK the Conservative party is morphing into UKIP.

Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King is the lynchpin of the film’s success. Entirely convincing as the non violent leader in both his actions and his words. Although director Ava DuVernay (Yes! A high profile African-American female director) had to rewrite King’s speeches for copyright reasons, I still found Oyelowo’s delivery stirring. He was excellent also in A United Kingdom (Czech Republic-UK-US, 2016) that similarly unearthed an anti-racist narrative.

I don’t know about the development history of the film; British scriptwriter Paul Webb had been touting the script for some time. Cloud 8 films is the lead producer, set up by Christian Colson who used to work at Celador, who also produced. Celador made Slumdog Millionaire. Cloud 8 has (assuming Wikipedia is up to date and accurate) a ‘first look’ deal with Pathe, who also produced. Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films represent American involvement. Winfrey appears as Annie Lee Cooper who punched Sheriff Jim Clark in Selma. Winfrey’s obviously a high profile black ‘player’ in the industry and it’s good to see Pitt using his power to get important films made; Plan B was also involved in 12 Years a Slave.

Presumably getting American finance was difficult and British actors Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth (not forgetting Oyelowo) take on the major roles of President Johnson and Governor Wallace (both excellent). If making money is really the prime driver of Hollywood we should expect more African-American films especially given the success of Hidden Figures. Whilst the Fast and Furious franchise has been immensely successful in transcending the white hegemonic audience, very few films are following. Maybe racial politics trumps money.

London Road (UK, 2015)

Unbelievable

Verbatim dialogue, taken from interviews with people who lived on London Road during the capture and conviction of a serial killer in Ipswich during 2005, set to music? It shouldn’t work. Documentary realism mixed with that most stylised of genres, the musical: the characters do burst into song in the street! I’m aghast at the brilliance of the concept and the superb execution it receives in this Rufus Norris directed film; Norris had directed the original National Theatre production (he also directed Broken). It’s mostly the original cast with a few added, including Tom Hardy and Olivia Colman. They are uniformly brilliant particularly Kate Fleetwood, who did a marvellous Lady Macbeth in the Chichester Theatre production, as one of the surviving prostitutes who had turned London Road into a ‘red light’ district.

Adam Cork’s music is crucial to the project’s success. To my untutored ear it mixes musical conventions with minimalist techniques that allows sentences to be repeated more as refrain than a chorus; Alecky Blythe wrote the script, based on the interviews. The lines are delivered, presumably, in the way they were originally spoken. The accent is an obvious way words are personalised but the pitch too, particularly when taken out of context (I’m assuming the interviews were edited), give an unusual construction to the lines that emphasises the musicality of speech. The effect is to heighten the every day banality of speech to, along with the repetition, give it emphasis; you listen more to what these people have to say.

The focus on the street’s residents showed them to be victims, in their own minds at least, from the social problems of living in a ‘red light’ district and then from press intrusion. In the film’s finale, a street party celebrating the killer’s –who’d lived at number 79 – guilty verdict, Fleetwood’s wraith-like figure walks along the street, unseen by the neighbours, reminding us who the victims actually were.

The central character, as far as there is one, is played by the ever-sympathetic Olivia Colman so it comes as a shock when she states that she wishes she could shake the killer’s hand and thank him for getting rid of the prostitutes. Whilst this does make it clear how miserable life can be made soliciting prostitutes, and by kerb crawlers, it also speaks of a severe lack of empathy. I guess the problem was a failure of the public services to sort out the problem but then our public servants’ jobs are ever more challenging and under-resourced the long, failing ‘austerity economics’ goes on.

Le Quattro Volte (Italy-Germany-Switzerland, 2010)

The goats have it

Michelangelo Frammartino’s unusual film appears to offer four slices of life in a rural backwater of southern Italy (Calabria). Not a lot happens here but the film is entrancing in surprising ways. There’s no intelligible dialogue (nothing is subtitled), the dominant sound on the soundtrack is the bleating of goats (I’d had enough of that by the end; we do hear the ambient sounds of the town. The central character, if the definition serves, is the goat herder who is obviously, from the start, going to die soon. It’s not only the fact he’s very old but he coughs a lot; a sure signifier of death. That’s hardly a spoiler because what happens is not important, what matters is simply that it happens.

Cinematically it’s interesting as Frammartino often places his camera in a position simply to observe events mostly disallowing the director’s privilege of putting it anywhere he likes. There are, for example, very few close ups (this is one way of avoiding the problem of performance when using an amateur cast). One  position allows us to see the goats’ pen and the herder’s home in the background. During the Easter parade, which marches past this position, we witness farcical happenings that belong more in a black comedy than a low-key representation of routine. This startling clash works but I’m not sure why.

Frammartino is recording the end of tradition as the herder’s successors work in different ways. I wonder about the representation of the Easter parade; is it meant to be laughable or is that my perspective colouring what happens?

There is one dramatic moment, the brilliant cut from the herder’s coffin’s incarceration to the birth of a goat was as visceral a scene I have watched recently. I am slightly concerned that we were meant to think the herder had been reincarnated in goat: ridiculous or more skewed humour?

The film’s short (88 minutes) but that was long enough.

The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi, S.Korea, 2016)

Sensual thriller

It’s great that The Handmaiden has been an arthouse hit as the sector has been getting increasingly desperate over the last few years. Exhibitors’ tame policies, exemplified by Picturehouse’s ‘discover Tuesdays’ (in Bradford at least) where we get one chance to see often interesting films: yer buggered if your busy on Tuesday! Maybe Carlton’s online streaming service, where its films are released the same time as in cinemas, are encouraging stay-at-homers. It’s easy to see why The Handmaiden has done good business: Sarah Waters has fanbase, as does director Park Chan-wook, and there’s the promise of lots of sex.

I enjoyed Waters’ novel, Fingersmith (2002), which may be why I felt slightly distanced from the narrative in the film until… (no spoilers). However, even when I wasn’t fully engaged, Park’s luscious mise en scene was captivating. He (Park adapted the novel with  Jeong Seo-kyeong) transfers the story to 1930s Korea when it was a Japanese colony so in addition to the theme of class, the film deals with ethnicity.

The sex is explicit and it’s to your taste whether you found it exploitative; the women’s bodies are well bared. I thought it was not because the sexual relationship between the characters was entirely germane to the narrative’s development. Discovering the delights, and beauty, of the female body, from a lesbian perspective, is under-represented in mainstream cinema and Park’s film subtlely emphasises this.

I saw what Picturehouse marketed as the ‘director’s cut’; 167 minutes to the standard release’s 143 minutes. I’m not sure what was added but chose it on the basis that an extra 20 minutes, for a two and a half hour film, wasn’t going to kill me. However, in the credits it was called an ‘extended edition’. Director’s cuts are usually the version without the producer’s or distributor’s interference, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Puzzling. I didn’t find the running time long; it felt shorter than the dire The Ghost in the Shell (2017).

Park’s one of the most interesting filmmakers around and I will watch The Handmaiden again.