The Wings of the Dove (UK-US, 1997)

Three's a crowd

This is a brilliant investigation on the intransigence of love. Would-be femme fatale Kate (Bonham-Carter) finds her plotting to get both love and money unhinged by jealousy. Iain Softley directs beautifully and all three leads perform brilliantly. Of course Venice looks good but the trappings of period drama, where pomp and costume get in the way of the drama, are avoided with the dissection of the corrupting influence of cynicism.

The final scene where the protagonists make cold love in a garret are amongst the best portrayal of emotional desolation that I can remember in cinema. Beautifully framed close ups of Kate’s pale demeanor as she lays down her final condition for marriage to her lover are haunting in the despair they signify. If only all adaptations of great ‘period’ novels were this good.

House of Flying Daggers (Shi mian mai fu, China, 2004)

Lover’s whisper

One of the most sumptuously shot films in cinema, House of Flying Daggers wears its heart on the screen mixing outrageous action sequences with high octane romance. I saw the film when it was released and thoroughly enjoyed the cinematography and action sequences though failed to appreciate the romance. I certainly noticed the romantic narrative however they are rather de rigeur in action cinema. On this third viewing it moved into the foreground and I could appreciate more the terrific performances from Kaneshiro Takeshi and Zhang Ziyi. The love triangle is convincingly portrayed and the pain of the ‘cuckolded’ Leo (Andy Lau) is touchingly portrayed.

As is Jin’s (Kaneshiro) transition from ‘playboy’ to being genuinely smitten. At first Mei (Zhang) resists his advances but later, when she is keen, it’s his turn to demure; probably for the first time in his life. He’s experiencing conflicting emotions as he matures into someone who genuinely cares for a woman.

Similarly, Mei’s rejection of Leo is shown to be physical: she still loves him but Jin has taken priority in her affections. She tries to make love to Leo but her body refuses. Thus in love it is hard to know our own feelings as we can never be sure what the body might do (which is probably expressing our subconscious).

Daggers is a thrilling film, stunning action and offers a subtle presentation of the vicissitudes of love.

The Piano (Aus-NZ-France, 1993)

On the edge of civilisation

The Piano was one of the most feted arthouse films of the 1990s and stands up well at the end of the noughties. Beautifully shot, fabulously performed, fantastic direction, gorgeous music, a feminist message plus much to debate about; there’s not much more you can want from a film.

It portrays the plight of middle class women in Victorian times through Ada’s repression (she doesn’t speak); her treatment by men; the ridiculous clothes women wear; Ada’s daughter’s betrayal of her. Two endings are also offered, further fueling debate about what a woman should do in a man’s world. After the feminist advances of the 1970s we seem to be going backwards into a mainstream acceptance of traditional ideas about what constitutes men’s and women’s work (and roles). Bourgeois ideology has absorbed ’70s feminism into the ‘girl power’ of the Spice Girls and Cheryl Cole can happily pose on the UK listing magazine, Radio Times, with her thighs apart (tastefully done of course). So the issues raised by The Piano probably need airing more than they did in ’93.

The representation of the Maoris as ‘uncivilised’ is problematic, mostly because of the dearth of representations of Maoris in cinema as a whole. However, if we consider them as a dramatic device to compare to the Englishmen’s behaviour it is acceptable.

If you haven’t seen the film; you need to.

Mischief Night (UK, 2006)

'Black and white' conflict

I imagine this film was sold to the ‘money’ as ‘East is East for the noughties’. It attempts to offer a ‘state of the Muslim-‘white’ relationships post-9/11 as a (mostly) comedy. And overall it succeeds. Unlike East is East, where the real racial tensions of the ’70s were swept into the DVD extras, Mischief Night doesn’t minimise the antagonism between Muslim and non-Muslim, but highlights them. Neither the white underclass class nor the ‘traditional’ Muslim family (daughters being married off to Pakistani cousins) are represented postively but they are all recognisably human.

The children are particularly good, avoiding cutesy with a street-tough, foul mouthed attitude required to survive. However I’m doubtful whether the described bussing takes place that means schools in Leeds (and it is explicitly set there) are segregated actually takes places – maybe someone could enlighten me. As a dramatic device emphasising racial segregation, however, it is acceptable.

An interesting film, then, that makes a good stab at commenting upon ‘now’ in British society. It has the failings of melodrama, that it cannot offer a poltically radical take as it focuses on individuals, but is certainly more honest than East is East.

The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band, Germany/Austria/France/Italy, 2009)

Paying obedience

Paying obedience

Probably the most critically lauded movies of the year The White Ribbon left me bored after 30 seconds and I was faced by another 288 such units of boredom. You should probably stop reading now… as my critical faculties are obviously atrophying with age: how can you make a decision about a film in 30 seconds. Well: I didn’t like the cinematography or the voice over and the execrable CGI of the horse falling… Overall the experience for me was of a badly shot Bergman film.

I agree with Henry K Miller, in the December issue of Sight and Sound: ‘the film is left as a catalogue of unpleasant events with no particular insights to impart.’ Its portentousness was overwhelming but if all it had to say was that fascism had its roots in feudal society then two and a half hours is too long to make that point in such a feeble way. I’m not anti-Haneke, Code Unknown (Code inconnu: Recit incomplet de divers voyages, Fr-Ger-Rom, 2000) is terrific, but Cache (2004) did nothing for me. His cinema now seems to strain for significance: it looks profound but any meaning is merely trite.

To emphasise the vileness of the doctor by having him as pedophile (I know it’s not certain but if he isn’t then what’s the point?) suggests to me that Haneke is straining to shock (and Funny Games, Ger-Fr-It, 1997, was shocking) and, unfortunately, the sexual abuse of children in cinema doesn’t shock any more.

I guess I’ll have to bow to the majority for this Palme d’Or winner but I thought it was crap.