Mandy (UK, 1952)

Wall of silence

Mandy was Alexander Mackendrick only non-comedy Ealing film and by my reckoning it is one of the great films of British cinema. A highly intense melodrama, the film focuses on a congenitally deaf girl, played brilliantly by Mandy Miller, whose middle class parents fight over how best to care for her. Terence Morgan’s dad, Harry, is a typical male who wishes to hide from difficult choices whilst Phyllis Calvert’s mum, Christine, refuses to give up on their daughter. Jack Hawkins plays his usual stiff upper lip hero, a teacher who cares deeply for his charges.

The script, by Nigel Balchin and Jack Whittingham (based on Hilda Lewis’ novel The Day is Ours), parallels Mandy’s disability with the failure of communication between the adults, including the repressed Harry’s parents. If my description of Hawkins above sounds disparaging, I don’t mean it to be as when he agonisingly starts to fall for Christine his pain is apparent. He has to fight Ackland, a trustee who cares more about appearances than the children, who plots his downfall. This man’s hypocrisy is subtly portrayed through his secretary with whom he’s clearly having an ‘affair’. (Funnily enough the actor playing the role, Edward Chapman, reminds me of Brexiteer Tory MP and entirely unself-aware idiot, Mark Francois).

It’s designed to be a tear-jerker and Mackendrick’s direction intensifies this further; even the act of a child slipping their hand into an adult’s becomes laden with emotion. He uses expressionist devices sparingly but with devastating effect. As Mandy peers out of her backyard, a (almost) choker shot (cutting her off at the neck) emphasises her pained loneliness. Shadows veil characters as repressed emotions threaten to break out. A close-up of the back of Mandy’s head signifies her deafness. At one point the sound disappears to mimic Mandy’s experience and the silence is devastating.

There’s a educational element in the film that never feels contrived: a new teacher struggles to deal with the children and the etiquette of ensuring deaf people can see a speaker’s mouth is seamlessly integrated into the narrative. Charles Barr, in Ealing Studios, suggests the film is about childhood in general in the post-war era and certainly the old fashioned characters, Harry’s parent and the wing-collared trustee, are shown to be in the wrong. Presumably this was the time that ‘children should be seen not heard’ was at last being challenged as compulsory education to 15 extended childhood.

The scene when Harry hits Christine for her stubbornness reminds us that domestic violence was (almost) acceptable. A lawyer even suggests that although women often deserve it the courts frown upon it. That Christine later accepts she deserved hitting is doubly chilling and is not something that the film vindicates.

Mackendrick directed only a few films and this, and Sweet Smell of Success, deserve the appellation ‘great’.

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Nae Pasaran (UK, 2018)

The people united

The right still excoriates the trade union movement, justifiably because it stands in the way of rampant exploitation of the workers. The propagandistic aspect of this vilification in the 21st century is obvious because the unions have been emasculated by Thatcherite legislation which, shamefully, the Blair government refused to undo. In the 1970s the unions did have power and it’s no coincidence that inequality in British society has been steadily rising since they were defeated. Nae Pasaran is a timely reminder of the importance of international solidarity, even more so now when the insular xenophobes are on the rise, with its story of Scottish workers refusing to repair Hawker Hunter fighter jet engines.

The year was 1973 and on September 11th General Pinochet launched a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. The coup was American backed as corporations were worried about Allende’s policy of nationalisation. Nixon was the president and Henry Kissinger the Secretary of State (unbelievably he won a Nobel Peace Prize): enough said. I remember (as a youngster) thinking Kissinger was some kind of hero as he was repeatedly represented on television news as a peacemaker in the Middle East. That was a lie then propagated by mainstream media; ‘fake news’ isn’t new. The current American government is trying to engineer a coup, shamelessly supported by the EU in recognising the unelected opposition leader as the the man they want in power. One thing that distinguishes the Trump administration from that of Nixon’s is that, amongst all the lies, the truth sometimes appears. National Security Advisor John Bolton admits the attempted coup is about oil; something Bush jr. didn’t say about Iraq.

Hence Nae Pasaran is particularly timely as it reminds us of America’s disastrous interventions in Latin America; Pinochet tortured political prisoners and thousands were killed. It also shows us how powerful international solidarity can be as the consequences of the workers ‘blacking’ the engines included the release into exile some of the political prisoners. These exiles included writer-director Felipe Bustos Sierra’s dad and he tracked down the surviving members of the trade unionists who were instrumental in ‘blacking’ the engines. After the documentary’s title sequence, that fills in the history of Chile 1973, we arrive in Scotland and meet these ageing heroes. If this sequence is a little long, they tell Sierra what they remember of the time, there’s a pay-off at the end when their achievement receives official acknowledgement. The middle parts of the documentary consist of tracking down the fate of the engines and the impact the Scottish boycott had.

I just managed to catch the film on BBC’s iPlayer service (it disappeared yesterday) as it was only broadcast in Scotland; a rather parochial decision as it would have been a public service to ensure the film was broadcast to the nation.

Denial (UK-US, 2016)

Heroes

As we appear to be in a post-truth society when any old bollocks, amplified by social media and social disengagement, is believed this case from the 1990s deserves airing. Holocaust-denier, David Irving (Timothy Spall), sued historian Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) because she called out his lies. Despite being American she was obliged to defend herself in British courts, which lean heavily toward the accuser. The film painstakingly delineates the complexities of the case and David Hare’s script superbly shows the legal issues that made the case difficult for the truth.

Her legal team, no doubt crammed with Public School-Eton educated folk, were clearly brilliant at their job. It just goes to show that idiots like Boris Johnson aren’t entirely typical. Unsurprisingly Lipstadt wants to take the stand to defend herself; she also wants Holocaust survivors to testify. However as Tom Wilkinson’s Richard Rampton (Lipstadt’s lawyer) says, this would just play into Irving’s hands as survivors’ memories are notoriously unreliable.

Millions of pounds were spent on the case which, from Irving’s accusation to the verdict, lasted years: all to reaffirm the truth. That it was necessary shows what a mess we’re in; now, for example, anti-vaxxers are succeeding in getting parents to risk their children. The lies, or course, are usually political in nature: the less people understand the world the more likely they are to support ‘populists’ who appeal to emotion rather than intellect and shit on ‘the people’. We know how well that turned out in the 20th century and it’s important that social media is also used to ‘call out’ the lies of those who would mire us in ignorance for their own purposes. Yesterday Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith told Bloomburg opinion polls showed most people in the UK where happy to leave the EU with a ‘no deal’. Either he’s a liar or stupid (probably both) and his coughing as he spoke suggested he was choking on something.The ‘bullshit asymmetry principle; states: ‘the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it’; it is amply illustrated by Denial.

There’s a chilling moment at the summing up of the cases when the judge asked Rampton, who was busy proving that Irving was lying, ‘what if Irving believes what he’s written?’ Rampton looks rattled but recovers to explain the self-serving nature of Irving’s deception. There’s little doubt that Trump believes whatever comes out of his mouth as he seeks to mould the world to his will and it is the news media’s duty to challenge this however it fails on a daily basis. One of the reason why we’re still floundering to deal with climate change, for example, is because the ‘other side’, usually sponsored by fossil fuels, is given a platform. The BBC even gave Tommy Robinson a platform (even using his own meme of his gagged face!) and so helped normalise right wing extremism. The truth can be like, as EH Carr put it, a historical fact which is a sack with no shape until you put something (perspective) into it. However, there are no ‘alternative facts’ regarding the existence of the Holocaust that require investigating.

No Trees in the Street (UK, 1959)

Social problem noir

Willis Hall adapted his own play for J Lee Thompson to direct and it has a top of the range cast including Sylvia Sims, Herbert Lom and Stanley Holloway. Juvenile delinquency was a hot topic in the ‘fifties but this film is set, after a contemporary framing device featuring a very young David Hemmings, in the 1930s. The bird’s eye view shot of the Isle of Dogs (prefiguring the UK TV soap opera Eastenders title graphic) during the credit sequence firmly places the film in the East End slums and the film does a good job of representing the degrading environment in both the set design and the scratty clothes of the crowded streets.

Part of the difficulty ’50s cinema had to contend with was the narrow representations afforded women: basically the virgin-mother-whore types. However No Trees in the Street deals with this well for, after ensuring we understood Sims’ Hetty to be ‘sweet and virginal’, it allows Lom’s small time racketeer, WIlkie, to seduce her. I guess this was a ‘cutting-edge’ scene at the time in British cinema. Characterisation is a strength of the film as Lom fills the role with conflicted desperation; he’s a migrant who’s pulled himself up by his bootstraps and the film makes clear that crime was one of the few options available out of poverty. It is his decency that wins over Hetty but his insecurity is never far away. Stanley Holloway is, as ever, his excellent self as a has-been who finds solace in a bottle.

Thompson’s direction is excellent too with many shots obviously inspired by film noir; for example the low angle as the good detective thumps Wilkie makes him loom over the hoodlum. Thompson was on a roll at the time with Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) and Ice Cold in Alex (1959). Melvin Hayes, in his debut, has the right scrawny build for the pathetic teenager brother of Hetty whose desperate attempts to get money drives the conflict.

The film betrays its theatrical origins with its restricted settings but this does add to the claustrophobia of the characters’ world. Ronald Howard’s portrayal of the good guy copper is a little dated now though the exchange he has with his boss, who oozes contempt for the poor, brings a dash of modernity. As the title suggests the film is falling on the side of social circumstance (rather than innate badness) as responsible for crime and at the climactic moment Hetty assures her brother no one is born evil. It’s ironic that, in the framing scenes, we are shown the street now happily renovated with… high rise flats.

Get Cracking (UK, 1943)

The cool of uncool

George Formby was the top box office star in the UK every year between 1938 and 1944 an unequalled achievement and, I was surprised to see, Get Cracking stood up very well to viewing beyond nostalgia. The plots of his films were mere vehicles for Formby’s brand of gormless humour where it always ‘turns out nice again’ – his catchphrase. In fact he starts Get Cracking with it, a testimony to how well known he’d become. It’s no stretch to say that Get Cracking has avant garde elements with several minutes at the start featuring a voiceover that, he says, is reading the script and has a conversation with George.

Formby, and massive ’30s star Gracie Fields, both had working class backgrounds and were from Lancashire. No doubt they were seen as fresh in comparison with the Received Pronunciation that infected much of British cinema at the time. There are plenty of regional accents on show though George’s love interest, played by Dinah Sheridan, has unnerving cut glass pronunciation.

Much of the humour, derived from Music Hall, consists of slapstick and daft line, that never fail to tickle me, delivered absolutely straight:

“He has to be on guard on Thursday to stop the Germans if they invade.”
‘What! On his own?”
“No there’ll be six of us.”

Irene Handl (uncredited) is great as a character that’s even more dim than George. The sexual politics of the film isn’t too bad: Vera Frances, a child actor who made her last film in 1948 and is still with us, plays a teenage Cockney evacuee who works in George’s garage and she’s one of the brightest characters in the film.

No doubt people needed cheering up in 1943; as we still do in the UK now.

Mary Queen of Scots (UK, 2018)

Imperious

I know a lot more about Queen Elizabeth I than Mary so I’m not sure how much of what we see in the film is ‘historical truth’ as against ‘dramatic truth’. It’s based on John Guy’s award winning book and this adaptation has a distinct modern focus on gender politics. No doubt gender was an issue in the late 16th century but fortunately, courtesy of the #MeToo movement, it is very much part of our zeitgeist. It’s telling that the film is directed by a woman, Josie Rourke, who describes how she fought to get a period in a period drama. I’m currently reading the excellent post Apocalyptic SF novel Defender, by G.X. Todd, which includes the trope of feral men concerned only with satisfying their appetites for sex and violence. It would be nice to think that, come the apocalypse caused by climate change (coming to a planet you are on soon), that wouldn’t be the case. However, the bile (mostly) males spew on Twitter suggests that male stupidity is fairly common.

That’s certainly the case in Mary Queen of Scots as misogyny is writ large particularly in the superb Ian Hart’s malicious (though evil might be a better word) Lord Maitland who, when asked “How did the world come to this?”,  replies despairingly, “Wise men servicing the whims of women.” Men who think they are by default wise due to their gender still infect the public discourse (see British Brexit negotiators); of course being a woman is no guarantor of wisdom (see Theresa May). The excellent David Tennant’s John Knox reminds us fake news is not a modern phenomenon with his propaganda against the Catholic Mary; the term propaganda came into use at the time:

The term “propaganda” apparently first came into common use in Europe as a result of the missionary activities of the Catholic church. In 1622 Pope Gregory XV created in Rome the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. (Ralph D. Casey)

We are currently being regaled with lies about Venezuela to justify American intervention.

Central to the film are Soairse Ronan and Margot Robbie’s performances as the monarchs and both are brilliant. The script, by Beau Willimon, teases out the sisterhood of the two showing how they are both trapped by patriarchy: Elizabeth behaves like a man and so survives. There’s only one scene (fiction) with them together, shot expressionistically with flimsy sheets filling the room to show the fragility of their divisions. Ronan sparks with fire whilst Robbie is reined in repression: brilliant acting.

Apparently some are bothered about the colour blind casting; more common in Rourke’s usual home of the theatre. Non-WASP actors Adrian Lester and Gemma Chan feature among others. For those of us who aren’t bothered, this is more heartening zeigeist: let the racists bubble in their anger. They will rant about historical inaccuracy (some will even claim there were no black people in Britain at the time!) but that’s not really their point. All history is interpretation and people of colour can interpret the past as well as anyone.

Guy Pearce deserves a mention as Elizabeth’s closest advisor, William Cecil, and the film is a great counterbalance to Elizabeth (UK, 1998). It’s good to see a loser being foregrounded in a retelling.

Time Without Pity (UK, 1957)

Failing father

Ben Barzman’s adaptation of Emlyn Williams’ play is a gripping thriller directed by Joseph Losey. It was the first film Losey could actually put his name to, after being blacklisted by McCarthyite America, despite working in Britain since the early ’50s. He brings his usual visual flourishes to this slightly frenzied tale of a dad trying to redeem himself after failing his adult son. The melodrama heightens his failure by giving him 24 hours to prevent his son’s execution for murder. One of the strands of the film is an anti-capital punishment theme added to the play’s narrative.

Despite Losey, the highlight of the film is Michael Redgrave’s performance as the dad, David Graham, who plays a recovering alcoholic and there’s no doubt his own alcoholism informed his tortured performance when he’s trying to resist having a drink. The titanic struggle is writ large across his features (see above) and I don’t think I’ve seen him better. It’s a strong supporting cast though Leo McKern’s Yorkshire accent is a moveable feast. He plays Robert Stanford the ‘upstart’ northern businessman; ‘upstart’ because in marrying Ann Todd’s character he is shown to be out of his social class. Such prejudice is disappointing from a left-wing filmmaker but it does give Todd a good moment when she excoriates her husband’s social climbing. Stanford’s type of character would be better served in ’60s cinema as the working class was often portrayed as authentic as Britain’s deferent ‘national character’ evolved for the better.

In Conversations with Losey (Methuen), the director states that he may have gone over the top in a scene where Graham’s questioning an embittered old woman whose room is full of loudly ticking clocks. As Losey says, he was often criticised for being ‘baroque’, that is ‘over the top’, and thinks that maybe here it was justified. I don’t agree because it adds to the growing hysteria that’s gripping Graham as he feels he’s failing in his task to prove his son innocent. Losey also notes that he didn’t direct the racetrack scene very well and it certainly feels an unnecessary adjunct to the narrative though it does help characterise the particularly male stupidity that informs McKern’s character.

The ending is particularly effective as a demonstration how far a parent will go to save their child. A very well-made film crowned by Redgrave’s brilliant performance.