No Love for Johnnie (UK, 1961)

Unsentimental too

I knew the title but little else when I spied this on Talking Pictures channel and what a discovery it proved to be. Peter Finch plays a careerist Labour politician whose lack of success in government, and disastrous personal life, sets the scene for an unsentimental portrayal of a middle aged man in crisis. I expected the film to be sympathetic to him and feared the worse when he starts an affair, after his wife has left him, with a woman half his age. However, the film went against my expectation and the female characters are portrayed as stronger than he is.

As Roy Stafford outlines, the film doesn’t quite belong to the ‘new wave’ cinema of the time though there are ‘obligatory’ shots of ‘it’s grim up north’ – Halifax standing in for a generic northern town. Because the focus is on Parliamentary politics, and it’s obviously in the know as it’s based on a novel by Labour MP Wilfred Fienburgh, its metropolitan milieux takes it away from the working class world that reinvigorated late ’50s-early ’60s British cinema. Although the costumes of the characters, particularly the women, seem to belong to the ’50s, and the music they bop to is jazz, the mores of the time are more in keeping with the nascent ‘sexual revolution’. The uncredited Oliver Reed plays a drunk at a party and, in retrospect, gives the film a forward-looking feel. There’s no sense that the ingénue Mary (Pauline West) should be censored for sex outside marriage and Billie Whitelaw portrays the neighbour, who holds a flame for Johnnie, as a strong woman; though the scene were he gets violent toward her, with her forgiving response, sits uneasily today.

It was produced by Betty Box, one of the few women of influence in the industry at the time, and she’d made – along with director Ralph Thomas – the successful ‘Doctor’ series, starring Dirk Bogarde. She had a prolific career running from the 1940s to the mid-’70s. It’s difficult enough for women to succeed today so what a person she must have been.

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Dunkirk (UK, 1958)

Done before Nolan

In a Sight & Sound  interview about his Dunkirk Christopher Nolan suggested he was filling a gap in film history. Presumably, like me, he was ignorant of Ealing’s 1958 version and it is a good that the earlier film has now been unearthed. Directed by Leslie Norman, and based on Elleston Trevor’s novel The Big Pick Up and two historical books, the Ealing picture takes a more expansive view, following troops, led by John Mills’ working class corporal, making their way to the coast and Bernard Miles’ sceptical journalist who ends up joining the rescue flotilla. I expected a typical British ’50s war film, where the glories of the war are celebrated during a time when the country’s world status was in steep decline (a bit like now really), however it is an often subtle look at the nuances of the ‘phoney war’ and official incompetence.

Although it cannot match the spectacle of last year’s film it is a big budget movie and the Dunkirk beach scenes are superbly done. In addition to Mills and Miles, Richard Attenborough guilds the cast playing a slight variant on his ‘coward’ persona. I shall have to revisit ’50s British war films as they clearly are not all designed to make the likes of Simon Heffer stand to attention – in a BBC documentary he declared that the theme music of The Dambusters (I think) was enough to make him want to do so.

Sapphire (UK, 1959)

Passing blonde

This social problem film is fascinating and shocking. It was scripted by Janet Green, who also wrote Victim (UK, 1960), an important film about male homosexuality which was illegal at the time. Both were directed by Basil Dearden. Sapphire’s social problem is race and was released a year after the Notting Hill ‘riots’ caused by white racists and it is framed as a detective story about who murdered the eponymous character. The film starts with a gripping shot, unusual for Dearden whose direction is prosaic, of Sapphire’s body being disposed of so we don’t get to know her other than through other characters. SPOILER ALERT: she is mixed raced but is passing for white and is pregnant by her white boyfriend.

The film is fascinating because it shows us the liberal viewpoint on race at the time; shocking because it is in many ways illiberal. Whilst the protagonist, Nigel Patrick’s investigating officer, Hazard, is shown to be non-racist, in contrast to his assistant (Michael Craig), he still is accepting of racist attitudes. For example, a landlady says she runs a ‘white house and Hazard is shown to be understanding when she explains that for economic reasons as she doesn’t want to get a reputation for housing blacks. Such discrimination was criminalised by the Race Relations Act 1965 and shows how important it is to legislate agains bigoted behaviour. I’m sure one of the reasons the racist right are emboldened is because they can enjoy the ‘echo chamber’ of their own views on social media. The old racist complaint, ‘I’m only saying what you’re all thinking’, probably seems to be true in their filter bubble.

As David Olusoga’s brilliant book Black and British: A Forgotten History shows, during the post-war period black people were increasingly demonised as responsible for economic problems which has more than a few echoes of recent years. Whilst the ruling classes view tended toward the importance of racial purity, hence the fear of miscegenation, the general public were apparently more tolerant. However, scapegoating minorities for the failure of others, fanned by a right wing media, is nothing new.

Sapphire’s problem in representing race is most apparent when Hazard interviews ‘lowlifes’. It is in this scene that the racist tropes, developed by Hollywood, are most evident. The eye-rolling villain, and giggling sidekicks, suggest degenerates and one (black) character states that even though some can pass for white “once they hear the beat of the bongos” they give themselves away.

Racist trope

On the other hand Earl Cameron (the ‘ebony saint’ of British cinema and like Sidney Poitier born in the West Indies), who plays Sapphire’s brother, is represented simply as a grieving brother. He tells Hazard that, “I’m staying at the Dorchester. They take us there.” The line is almost thrown away but is a telling slight on the times.

‘Ebony saint’

Finally a note on the detectives. Patrick’s performance is perfectly one note as he’s meant to play the patriarchal, unruffled copper; there’s one incoherent chase sequence but otherwise it’s the plod of his brain cells. The film suggests we can completely trust the Metropolitan Police to prosecute cases without fear or favour. It was barely 20 years later that the Met’s treatment of black people led to the Brixton riots and so Sapphire stands as an example of propaganda as well as liberal period piece.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (UK, 2017)

Bitter sweetness

A few weeks after watching ‘Glorious Grahame’ in her filmic prime (Crossfire) it was pleasing to see this bittersweet biopic of her final days in the unlikely company of a much younger Liverpudlian actor, Peter Turner. The film’s based on Turner’s memoir and has taken 30 years to reach the screen; it was worth waiting for Annette Bening to get to the appropriate age as her performance is outstanding. Apart from Julie Walters’ and Stephen Graham’s wigs, all the performances are good. I particularly warmed to Walters’ mum.

McGuigan, whose direction in Gangster No. 1 (2000) was outstanding, has been working in television for the last 10 years; such as in the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes. Television no longer necessarily means routine direction, due to budgets, as first HBO, and now Netflix, have brought cinema’s aesthetics to the small screen. However, McGuigan seems to have been consigned to routine work so it’s great to see his imaginative visual style again. The flashbacks of how Grahame and Turner met are seamlessly integrated to the film’s present in dreamy transitions which emphasises the power of memory. The scenes in California use a stylised, and beautiful, back projection harking back to the classical Hollywood films of Grahame’s earlier career.

Remembering Grahame is not the only throwback in the film; Jamie Bell gets the opportunity for some great dance moves.

Dunkirk (UK-Netherlands-France-USA, 2017)

Wishing you weren’t there

I’ve admired Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking, Memento (US, 2000) and The Dark Knight (US-UK, 2008) in particular, but his previous films did not prepare me for the brilliance of Dunkirk; I almost felt literally blown away. I was certainly hanging on to my seat as the visceral representation (without needing gore) of the evacuation of Dunkirk was utterly gripping.

Nolan has spoken about his desire not to make a conventional war film (see interview in August Sight & Sound) but to show what it was like to have been involved in the evacuation, either on land, sea or air. At first I was confused by the titles telling us that land (‘the mole’) story was ‘one week’, the sea ‘one day’ and ‘the air’ one hour not realising that the film was collapsing three time scales into a 106 minute narrative. Inevitably, toward the end, they increasingly overlap and we see the same events from different perspectives. I can’t think of any film that has done this and it is dramatically daring and effective.

I was unfortunate enough to see a tweet by Nigel Farage urging everybody to see this film (he had pictured himself in front of the poster) even thought Dunkirk was a ‘great’ British defeat. As David Bordwell points out:

‘A cynic could call the movie Profiles in Cowardice. Tommy flees German bullets and instead of helping the French hold the barricades, he keeps running. The French boy steals boots and an identity in order to get off the beach sooner.  He and Tommy try to slip on board a departing Red Cross ship as stretcher bearers. When that fails, they hide among the pilings. When the ship is hit, they leap into the water, the better to pretend to have been among the survivors and get a new ride. The Shivering Soldier wants to cut and run, and the soldiers who drift beyond the perimeter plan to use the blue trawler to carry them to safety, jumping the evacuation queue. All too often, despite acts of aid and comfort, it’s every man for himself.’ (‘The art film as event movie’)

Maybe Farage was overwhelmed by the immense evacuation, Zimmer’s score morphs momentarily in Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ for the arrival of the civilian flotilla, and Churchill’s ‘on the beaches’ speech we hear at the film’ conclusion. Although the Dunkirk story plugs into the myth of Britain’s greatness, Nolan’s Dunkirk isn’t interested in that, as Bordwell’s comment shows. His film portrays raw survival in all its ugliness as well as the bravery of the RAF pilots, in particular, and Mark Rylance’s Dawson, who represents the stoic civilian response.

The sound design was particularly effective in conveying what it was like to have been there, especially Hans Zimmer’s score which exploits the Shepard tone (and Shepard-Rissot glissando) a clever way of generating tension (see here for an explanation).

The editing between the three narratives works well; for example, an RAF pilot fighting to get out of his ditched Spitfire as the water flows in is cross cut by men scrambling to get out of a sinking ship. The chronology also allows us to understand the trauma of war: Cillian Murphy’s ‘shivering soldier’ is introduced as  suffering from PTSD but we see him later in the film, but earlier in the story, calmly telling men that they can’t get on an overfull rowing boat and they should swim back to shore. The contrast between the two, from authoritative to useless, strikes home.

At the climax, though to be honest most of the film felt climactic, Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot saves the day in an impossible way; his plane is out of fuel but he still manages to down (off screen) a Stuka. Given the realism of what’s gone before this might have struck a sour note however I read it as foretelling what happened over the next five years. Britain won the war against impossible odds… Except, of course, it didn’t. The allies won the war for Britain would likely have lost if it had had to stand alone: we were all in it together and isolationism has no role in greatness.

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.

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.