Children of Men (US-UK-Japan, 2006) – GFF9

The future of humankind

As we live in a sort of dystopia with the Covid-19 enforced lockdown, we can cheer ourselves up by observing that things ain’t as bad as they might be. In Children of Men, director Alfonso Cuarón and his four other scriptwriters, show a truly terrifying vision of a future without children (based on PD James’ novel). As is the way with science fiction, the film is about now; and the now of 2006 is even more relevant in 2020. The focus of the film is on the treatment of migrants and things have got much worse in the last 14 years as the right-wing dehumanisation of human beings has gained more traction. It’s noticeable that there are those on the right, in the current crisis, who are being honest in their defence of the economy over the lives of the old and infirm (I won’t link to any as they are not worth reading). If the likes of Toby Young are seen on mainstream broadcasters such as the BBC again…

In the film Cuarón highlights the lack of human empathy in our world through: the treatment of migrants; police state tactics; the desecration of the environment; the war on terror; celebrity culture. It shows illegal migrants being caged before deportation and a police state similar to that imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984  (published 1949). There are numerous contemporary UK references, such as the burning of livestock because of ‘mad cow’ disease and the hysteria that accompanied the ‘national’ mourning of Princess Diana. 

In a documentary short that accompanied the DVD release of the film, The Possibility of Hope (US, 2007), the broader issues of climate change and capitalism (which both fuel increased migration) are investigated showing Cuarón to be a political filmmaker even if his films are commercial in nature.

I’m not sure why Children of Men wasn’t a hit as it is a brilliant action movie containing some of the most thrilling sequences in cinema. Cuarón likes to use the long take, also used to devastating effect in Roma and with didactic purpose in Y tu mama tambien. Film theorist André Bazin would likely have approved of Cuarón’s aesthetic except for the fact he favours a moving camera. Having screentime mirror the audience’s experience of time does signify realism, we get a sense that we see characters acting in real time and so avoiding the manipulation of editing (ignoring the fact that a number of long takes in the film are separate shots digitally welded together). In addition, this ‘sense’ of real time can serve to heighten suspense in a ‘race against time’ narrative sequence. Hence, when the protagonists are under attack in a car the escape unfolds in the same time experienced by the spectator and, as there are no cuts, it seems as if the profilmic event happened as it is shown. Having the camera inside the vehicle further enhances the suspense as this gives the audience the same viewpoint as the characters. 

Cuarón’s long takes are not always focused on key narrative action. For example, at one point the camera wanders away from Theo, who is present in every scene of the film, to seemingly investigate what’s going on elsewhere: when he’s on his way to work, soldiers are standing on the street and the camera walks through them to see a block of flats being emptied, presumably of refugees. 

Clive Owen’s taciturn persona as the protagonist Theo is perfect for the role. Danny Huston’s cameo as a government minister is a masterful portrayal of the vapid urbanity of the English upper class. Michael Caine channels John Lennon as a Steve Bell-like political cartoonist (Bell did the actual cartoons on view) and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a revolutionary, manages to convey deranged fervour and genuine concern. However, the true star of the film is Cuarón and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who have produced a devastating vision of life without a future and life with humanity.

Mary Shelley (UK-Luxembourg-US-Ireland, 2017)

Musing upon life and death

The choice of Haifaa Al-Mansour to direct this slice of English Gothic is interesting; she was the first female Saudi to direct a film and this is the follow-up to her debut, the excellent Wadjda. Presumably the producers were attracted by her outsider’s eye (and of course her talent) though I’m not sure what she has added as the material is presented in a straightforward, and efficient, manner. Al-Mansour is also credited with ‘additions’ to Emma Jensen’s debut script. My knowledge of Mary Shelley is limited but it’s good to get her perspective on the Romantic poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron.

If the script sometimes leans towards a 21st century view of gender, the film’s set in the early 19th, then that is forgivable. It even uses the term ‘gender’ when ‘sex’ would have been the word of the time. We are, after all, observing the past through modern eyes; no one can truly recreate historical times. There’s no doubt that Mary (Elle Fanning) was a remarkable woman: we meet her at 16, daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecroft Godwin who died just after birthing her. Her dad, William (Stephen Dillane), was also a radical but the film shows he is somewhat nimbyish about the emancipation of his daughter.

Percy (Douglas Booth) is portrayed as a ‘pretty boy’ who follows his libido though he has more about him than simply being a ‘player’. That Mary’s masterpiece, the novel Frankenstein, was initially attributed to him shows the sexism of the time and he’s portrayed as unhappy about it. Tom Sturridge’s Lord Byron, on the other hand, is entirely heartless with women; I didn’t find the performance convincing (too much kohl?).

Probably due to budget limitations, there’s no sense that they are in Switzerland when Mary concocts her famous and hideous tale. I wasn’t even sure they were abroad until the challenge to write a ghost story arose. While Gothic graveyards are given their due, it was a mistake not to show the awesome Swiss peaks as an inspiration on Shelly’s famous novel. On the other hand, the influence of popular theatre presenting the ‘miracle’ of Galvanism is well portrayed.

Elle Fanning is excellent as Mary, combining youthful vulnerability with fiery defiance. Bel Powley, as her sister, makes her mark as someone determined to not be left behind by her brilliant sibling. It avoids the problem that many biopics have of trying to cram a life into a short narrative as the focus is on the key moment in Mary Shelley’s life, meeting Percy and publishing Frankenstein.

Little Joe (UK-Austria-Germany)

Little does she know

I found this film intensely irritating because it seemed to me, though it is science fiction, it was taking a snooty attitude to the genre by insisting, through its arthouse aesthetic, that it’s not a genre film. I’m not saying you can’t do arthouse-genre but if the approach to the set of conventions is to drain them of significance then we’re looking at a pile of dung. Andrei Tarkovsky managed to make SF ‘difficult’ in Solaris (Solaryis, USSR, 1972)  and Stalker (USSR, 1979), for instance, and interesting. Director Jessica Hausner, who co-wrote with Géraldine Bajard, takes a template used so brilliantly in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and allows the plot points to clunk together with all the momentum of a feather floating earthwards. What’s worse, the cues on the soundtrack, which kept reminding me of the feminist classic, Maja Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (US, 1943), suggested the revelations were meant to be dramatic; Roy Stafford pointed out that the composer, Ito Teiji, had worked with Deren. Ito died in 1981 so Hausner is incorporating his avant garde music which includes barking dogs at revelatory moments which would be disturbing if the plot point hadn’t been signified half an hour earlier.

Of course maybe I’m just not ‘getting it’. Emily Beecham, as the protagonist Alice who genetically engineers plants to make us feel happy, won best actress at Cannes, which is hard for me to fathom. I’m not saying Beecham is poor, just that the stilted acting style, which runs throughout all the performances, is obviously required by Hausner; but to what purpose? On one level, there seems to be suggestion that ‘nerdish’ scientists struggle to relate to others; Alice’s son’s girlfriend calls him a nerd. On another level, it might be implying that using chemicals to regulate mood is something that changes our humanity (a key theme of the film). Or, possibly, it’s representing characters as postmodern, in the sense of Cronenberg’s Crash (Canada, 1996), were emotions are no longer real but rather simulacra. Such ambiguity is the grist of arthouse but it wasn’t articulated in any clear fashion: the ending of the film didn’t offer us an ‘arthouse question’ but a heap of loose ends.

Similarly, near the end of the film we see a shot of the Liver Building so rather than the film’s setting being a, more or less, anonymous city it is suddenly in a particular place: Liverpool. But why take so long to tell us that? Probably because it isn’t significant in which case well tell us at all?! Maybe the Austrian Hausner didn’t know of the building’s iconic status?

You may have gleaned the film pissed me off.

Wild Rose (UK, 2018)

Walking the line

Films are commercial beasts which are difficult to make profitably and it was hilarious when then PM David Cameron told a meeting of film producers that all they had to do was make films that were popular. The tension between art and commerce, in art generally, has been present at least since the rise of capitalism and film, being a particularly expensive art form, suffers more than most from compromises intended to ensure a return on investment. The fact that compromise is deemed necessary is not meant as a criticism: filmmaking is a job and as such has to pay. Wild Rose received funding from Channel 4 and the BFI, both institutions that have responsibilities for funding culture over commerce, but the producers of WIld Rose still cast names, Sophie Okonedo andJulie Walters, in supporting roles in an attempt to boost box office. It’s not that they, both excellent actors, don’t do the roles well but it’s not exactly supporting Scottish artists – Roy Stafford has useful comments on this in his review. Besides, Okonedo’s role is as a middle class Englishwomen (but she could have been Scottish) so there’s less contention about her casting. Lead, Jessie Buckley, is Irish but there can’t be many actors who sing country so convincingly and she gives a star-making performance, so no quibbles there.

Rose-Lynn (Buckley) is a would-be country singer saddled with two children who have been brought up by her mother (Walters) whilst she was in jail. ‘Saddled’ is the correct term as she resents the wee bairns as much as the electronic tag attached to her leg  that prevents her singing at the Glasgow Opry in the evenings. Working for Okonedo’s Susannah, as a day woman, gives Rose new hope and we’re in the treacherous territory of a middle-class saviour. Thankfully, Nicole Taylor’s script is too savvy for that and it also negotiates the commercial need for a feel-good ending well; after all this is Glasgow and not Hollywood.

There’s a subtlety given to Walters’ role of the long-suffering grandma who berates her daughter for not treating her children correctly but understands the frustrations involved. Rose is not an entirely sympathetic character either, as she regularly forgoes caring for her children for self-centred hedonism. Here the middle-class milieux of Susannah is important as it demonstrates the opportunities not open to working class people. Grandma had wanted to be a pharmacist but had to work from 15-years-old. Too often those in power patronise the working class for not taking opportunities in life apparently not understanding that the opportunities given to middle class children, often in public schools, are not available to everybody. Hence the victim is blamed for their plight.

There are many females in key producing roles in this film though it’s (ably) directed by a man, Tom Harper. A recent report showed how having women directing and/or writing leads to more prominence to female roles (not exactly rocket science that but it’s important to have the statistics). The current BBC series The Trial of Christine Keeler has women in all the main creative roles and it shows on the screen as the white middle class men are presented as the scumbags they were. In episode four, Keeler’s (Sophie Cookson) agent asks if she’s a femme fatale; while the noir character may not have been part of popular discourse in the early ’60s, it’s a knowing moment as Keeler glances at herself in the mirror as she shows incomprehension at the question. Scriptwriter Amanda Coe draws our attention to the trope that women are blamed for the fall of men when it’s always the men’s fault anyway.

Calm with Horses (UK-Ireland, 2019) – LIFF5

Arm’s Iago looks over him

This is an impressive feature film debut from director Nick Roland and writer Joe Murtagh (based on a Colin Barrett story of the same name). It features a low level gang in the west of Ireland who blight the lives of all they touch, including themselves. It is the not-very-bright protagonist, Arm (brilliantly played by Cosmo Jarvis who was in Lady Macbeth, UK, 2016), with whom we are invited to sympathise with the most despite the violence he metes out at the beginning of the film. Just before this he voiceovers, a technique not used in the rest of the film, that we shouldn’t think that men of violence like to be violent. It is an unnecessary statement because it soon becomes clear that that’s what the film’s about; in addition, Jarvis’ ‘hard man’ stare clearly conceals a deep vulnerability.

Arm is an ex-boxer who leaves the ring after killing a man during a bout and is recruited by the nascent leader of the Dever family, superbly played by Barry Keoghan, as his enforcer. There’s something of an Iago about Keoghan’s character, whispering into Arm’s ear about how his ex-partner is trying to blackmail him for money for his autistic son. You can almost see the conflict boiling beneath Arm’s battered face as he struggles with his loyalties. In the way it is pronounced, the ‘Dever family’ sounds like the ‘Devil family’ and the moniker is not far wrong.

Cinematographyer Piers McGrail manages to drain the stunning landscapes of western Ireland of their grandeur, giving a suitably gritty look that is far from the tourist ‘Kerrygold’ imagery. Most of the people, too, who populate the film are miles away from the whimsical friendliness of the Emerald Isle. Instead we see desperate people in desperate circumstances. There is some hope, though, through the mother of Arm’s child, played by Niamh Algar, who is striving to do the best for her difficult son; and Anthony Welsh has a small role as a BAME student from the north of England researching the use of horses in therapy and he punctures the insularity of the narrative world. Maybe in the original story the horses are more central; here they are peripheral.

It’s an impressive film that, although offering a sort of redemption, avoids any sentimentality in its ending. I’m looking forward to this talented crews’ next offerings. It’s due for release in the UK next March.

Ordinary Love (UK, 2019) – LIFF4

Quotidian existence

The quotidian, the everyday, has little purchase in narrative for most of us live it and many, when watching films, want to escape it. Thus narratives that are about love emphasise the extraordinary and ecstasy in romance; however, as is this film shows, everyday love can also be extraordinary. Theorists state that narratives require a disruption to the situation which the text will resolve at the climax and this is true, for the mainstream at least. In Ordinary Love, Joan and Tom’s retired routine is broken by the diagnosis of breast cancer and the film follows their relationship during the treatment. Cancer touches most people, as even people who are fortunate enough to avoid it are likely to know those who are unfortunate. So in this sense the disruption in this film’s narrative is eminently relatable to for all adults though the older you are the more likely you are to identify with the protagonists; their sixtysomethingness also makes it a film about heading toward the twilight of life.

Clearly this narrative is character based and the leads, Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson, are both superb; though extra plaudits to Manville for her bravery in displaying her aged body. Age is often treated with disgust, particularly by those who are younger; it is an Other that few desire but, as I used to point out to pupils who claimed they never want to get old, the alternative is worse. Neeson’s casting is potent as he’s best known these days for EuroCorp’s international thrillers, such as Taken series (2008-14, France-US-Spain), where he plays a male ego ideal who will solve problems with his ‘particular skillset’. In Ordinary Love he is ordinary and so emphasises the powerlessness partners can only feel in the face of such an illness.

Of course as a melodrama the film must use exaggeration for dramatic effect but it does so in a limited way. The use of emblems (symbols) is also restrained (a tropical fish and digging up a path amongst them) and such restraint is appropriate to the ordinariness of the narrative. It was written by Owen McCafferty, his first film, and directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn who made the excellent Good Vibrations (UK-Ireland, 2012) which was set in Belfast. Ordinary Love, too, is set in Ireland though it could happen anywhere.

Another thing I liked about the film was the listing of extras: everyone of them and they fill the screen at the end credits. Credit to everyone on the film.

Sorry We Missed You (UK-France-Belguim, 2019)

Do as you’re told in Tory Britain

I, Daniel Blake told it how it is in Tory Britain; as does Sorry We Missed You. Tory Britain is a place of exploitation, discrimination and a callous, uncaring state that treats working people as an underclass. MP Rees-Mogg’s recent remarks about the Grenfell disaster (the victims didn’t show common sense) is emblematic of how the Conservatives are unfit to rule. There’s only one way that compassionate people who vote Tory will perceive this film: they won’t believe it. That, of course, is a mistake as scriptwriter Paul Laverty does the research and everything in this film has a ‘truth’ which is moulded into a melodrama.

Director Ken Loach is most famous for Cathy Come Home, a 1966 BBC TV drama that led to the creation of the charity Shelter for homeless people. In those days of three television channels a significant proportion of the population watched the same programme at the same time and roughly 12 million people saw the drama (about 25% of the UK population at the time). Nowadays it’s virtually impossible to make anywhere near the same impact. That said, both of Loach’s last two films should have led to the same outrage of 50 years ago.

Sorry We Missed You dramatises the ‘flexible workforce’ beloved of Tory businesses because it reduces their costs and increases profitability (and reduces prices for consumers). However, the human cost to the workers and their families is hidden, except in liberal press and some Twitter circles; occasionally a tragedy reaches the BBC. For the first half hour of the film I felt I was watching a documentary (the content not the form of the film) as I learned nothing but once I became emotionally engaged with the family’s predicament the film turned into a heartbreaking melodrama (incidentally, once again used as a term of abuse in Mark Kermode’s otherwise reasonable review). The only false note in the film was the under-developed character of the ‘rebellious son’; he veered too much between surly and caring and there was no back story explaining his political awareness.

Typically for Loach’s films the mise en scene is a fairly ugly long lensed affair; he uses telephoto lenses that flatten the scene (so it looked like people were always about to be run over by passing vans in the depot) as a way of getting authentic performances. Moments of humour and lyricism are few but that’s not entirely inappropriate in a film that portrays what nine years of Tory government have done to the country.