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.

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The Bridge – series 3 (Bron/Broen, Sweden-Denmark-Germany, 2015)

Saga's character tells a tale

Saga’s character tells a tale

Unsurprisingly this would have been in my top ten of last year if I’d seen it then; it will be in this year’s. The brilliance of the series is in the protagonists, though the elaborate plotting – this one is built around parenting – is also impressive. Sofia Helen’s autistic Saga is extraordinary in both the former’s performance and the latter’s personality as she strives to empathise but is ‘imprisoned’ by her difference.

After the demise of Martin as her partner, in series two, the producers had to be careful with who became Saga’s foil; he (or she) couldn’t be like Martin. The team’s sure-footedness was apparent by initially having an older woman and then introducing the unsympathetic, at first, Henrik (Thure Lindhardt) who works both as a foil and a man with his own traumatic past.

Apparently the ratings, on BBC4, reached 1.4m showing an appetite, albeit a minority one, for subtitled brilliance. Long may Nordic Noir continue.

The Fall series 2 (UK, 2014)

She will get her man

She will get her man

I’ve only just finished BBC2’s second series of The Fall otherwise it would have featured in my year’s top 20; I’m sure it will will be there next year. Central to the series, like many serial killer texts, is the relationship between the hunter and the hunted. Allan Cubitt, he wrote, produced and directed (now that is auteurism in action) is clearly exploring men’s (or is it misogynist men’s?) attitude toward women and so focuses on the psychological, which is also a trope of the genre. So far so conventional but The Fall – both series – have been compelling viewing; what makes it so?

Performance is always important and Gillian Anderson is perfectly cast as the ice-woman that spills tears on her virtually unemotional face. Anderson is an hypnotic screen presence (or is that the heterosexual male in me?) and, I guess, a role model for women who would like to deal with male aggression in such a calm way. Her ‘shameless’ attitude toward her sexual appetite was also refreshing to see; I felt the need to put ‘shameless’ in inverted commas because it is often used as a critical term, in this context, to vilify women who ‘sleep around’ whilst reserving the right of allowing ‘men to be men’ as an excuse for their promiscuous behaviour.

Jamie Dornan’s killer, Paul Spector (a mix of ghoul and voyeur), superbly mixes charm and hatred and Aisling Franciosi pulls off a very difficult role of a precocious, and ultimately demented, teenager brilliantly. The Belfast setting, with sectarian violence simmering beneath the peaceful streets, added to the atmosphere of unease.

The whole cast articulated well Cubitt’s purpose to show up hypocritical attitudes toward women and the complexity of relationships. I particularly liked Gibson’s last word on Spector: that she despised him.

Although the psychological climactic battle with the killer didn’t quite come off, Anderson’s Stella (she is a star) Gibson was too unruffled, and the finale was redolent of Se7en (US 1995), The Fall is an prime example of quality television that is, fortunately, characteristic of our age. If The Fall had been included, half of my top ten films/TV programmes last year would have been for television. Whilst there were many films I missed out on, such as Boyhood (US, 2014), there are TV series that I’ve yet to catch up on.

It’s hard to write about television effectively, and even the British quality press TV critics still seem to be unable to deal with the medium seriously, because of time: The Fall series 2 clocked in at almost six and a half hours. Writing about film sometimes requires a second viewing, to do that for television serials would be virtually impossible not simply because of their the time of individual serial or series, but there is so many to see watch!

The Bridge (series 2) (Bron/Broen, Sweden-Denmark, 2013)

Gripping characters and plotting

Gripping characters and plotting

The autistic Saga Norén, brilliantly played by Sofia Helin (how difficult must it be for an actor to keep her face immobile?), is as compelling a character, in detective fiction, that I know. She struggles to empathise with others, which she finds harder than solving even the most difficult cases, but she keeps on trying. Her humanity is to be seen in these struggles just as it is in her desire for justice. the Bridge is more than Saga and the writers quite brilliantly weave a tapestry of dead ends and dangling possibilities that allow the ten episodes of the series to speed on with the economy of an B movie. 

Detective fictions works best with compelling characters and Kim Bodnia’s tortured Martin is a brilliant sounding board for Saga’s attempts to relate to others. The Bridge managed to integrate the character interaction with the narrative drive of the crime, particularly well in series one. In this second series the ‘hangover’ from the first continues as an arc with Martin confronting series one’s antagonist in prison. The denouement of series two, brilliantly constructed over the two final episodes, is as devastating as Se7en, and by allowing the images to carry the characters’ thoughts – rather than dialogue – The Bridge confirms television as being the space where daring and fascinating texts are being produced. I’ve avoiding spoilers here, the advice is simple: see it.

Roy Stafford bemoans the dearth of foreign language films in our cinemas, yet BBC4’s 9pm Saturday night slot of foreign language TV crime, where the series was broadcast in the UK, has proved to be a, relative, hit. Why aren’t these viewers, many of whom it’s reasonable to assume are averse to subtitles, not translating their enthusiasm to foreign language cinema? When I show subtitled films to children their negative reaction, to finding the film they’re watching isn’t in English, usually subsides quickly when they realise that they don’t notice the words at the bottom of the screen after a few minutes. Yet very few of these will use that realisation to go on and watch more subtitled films. We live a world of the ‘blockbuster’ and texts that are seen are the ones that everyone else is seeing (something of a tautology I know). So even the BBC4 niche slot becomes, for the ‘chattering classes’, a ‘must watch’ for the ‘water cooler’ discussion at work.

How do we stop the narrowing of our cultural life that is threatened by the commercial difficulty of distributing foreign language films? The BBC, as a Public Service Broadcaster, must take the lead in this. The absence from television of programmes, other than one-off Culture Shows, that deal with ‘difficult’ films is a disgrace. One of the ways I was introduced to cinema was via a season of Jean Renoir films on BBC2, introduced by Gavin Millar, in the late 1970s. The BBC may argue these films are now widely available on DVD but how can audiences get to grips with the history of cinema without guidance?