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.

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja, Finland-Latvia, 2019) – LIFF2

Finding life on the margins

Another film festival another Nordic film about grief – see Koko-di Koko-da. However Dogs Don’t Wear Pants doesn’t quite play out as expected. After a brilliant intro when protagonist Juha (Pekka Strang) is traumatised by loss, the narrative moves on a decade or so to find him still unable to function socially. He stumbles into a commercial BDSM dungeon and thinks he finds a way to reconnect with his loss.

Spoiler alert! It seems the film is going to suggest that Juha can be cured of his grief by his relationship with a dominatrix, Mona (Krista Kosonen), in the sense that it will take him to the ‘edge’ and so will recognise that his life is worth living after all. (Incidentally, Krista Kosonen’s appearance and icy demeanour reminded me of Major Kusanaga from Ghost in the Shell). However, co-writer and director J.-P. Valkeapää makes it far more interesting as he suggests the ‘perversions’ are actually potentially better than a bourgeois lifestyle; the moment Juha makes a key decision we are given a close-up of his discarded watch, a symbol of conspicuous consumption.

As is appropriate, many of the scenes are excruciating to watch (having had a tooth removed recently didn’t help my experience) though not sexually titillating. The widescreen compositions are often gorgeous, enhanced by the lurid lighting of the BDSM den. Characters are sometimes framed as if in the margins by doorways further enhancing the psychological position of the characters.

Juha has a young daughter, Elli; the intro is an inversion of Don’t Look Now‘s (UK-Italy, 1973) with the mother as the victim. A narrative strand deals with Elli’s ‘coming of age’ but it doesn’t investigate her trauma and my sympathies were more with her than her dad. She starts a relationship with a boy of her age but this, too, is fragmentary. Similarly, Mona’s motivation for her lifestyle is under-developed: on the one hand it could be argued she doesn’t need one, on the other, because she also seems to be traumatised given her tearful breakdown toward the end of the film, we do need an explanation. Also, I’m not sure the title works particularly well, as its quirkiness does not sum up the film. I also get sense that the male character development is deemed to be the important trajectory, whilst the females are ‘sounding boards’. I’m not saying all films have to be even-handed in terms of gender representation but because Dogs hints at backstories for the women it should develop them more.

Despite these criticisms, when the film is released (apparently September 2020 in the UK), if you’re not too squeamish, I recommend a viewing.

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.

Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren , China-France-Japan, 2015)

SF melodrama

To an extent most films are melodrama because they rely upon a narrative that, by its nature, is contrived and try to engage emotions through exaggeration. That said, melodramas – and there are many different types – do form a distinct genre; in them the emphasis is on relationships, often using a particular time and place for context. Jia Zhang-ke’s films, however, although melodrama (A Touch of Sin may be an exception), emphasise the time and place as much as the characters. Mountains May Depart has an epic scope, it covers 26 years of Tao Shen’s life; at the start she is a young woman having to choose between two male friends.  Strikingly the years cover 1999-2025, so the final section of the film can be defined as science fiction! There aren’t many films that move from the past to the future, unless it’s a time travel narrative; 2001: A Space Odyssey (UK-US, 1968) is one. Whether the final segment is strictly SF is debatable, although there is some futuristic technology, but as writer-director Jia is clearly making a comment about the China of 2015, like most SF it is a film that is about the now.

Somewhat bizarrelyit can be argued the film is based on The Pet Shop Boys’ song ‘Go West’. It frames the  narrative which is about the lure of western capitalist values: just like the song, there are scenes on a beach; friends depart; the west (Australia in the final segment) is seen as a kind of utopia. The protagonist, Tao Shen (played brilliantly by Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife), is seen dancing exuberantly at the start. One of her friends, Jingsheng (Zhang Yi), is a successful businessman; the other, Liangzi (Dong Liang Jing), is alienated from the go-getting world that China had become at the end of the 20th century. The film is set in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, in the Shanxi province of Northern China; as are a number of his other movies. Fenyang, we see, has an amazing pagoda which sticks out in contrast to the rundown nature of the town. There are some typical Jia almost-surreal shots: blasting dynamite in the ice floes on the river; an aeroplane crashes at the roadside. From a western perspective, China is an unusual place but Jia accentuates this weirdness as a melodramatic emblem of how capitalism is making China a place where no one belongs – Still Life is a great example of this. Jingsheng even names his child ‘Dollar’, such is his love of money.

Whilst the ‘loser’ character somewhat peremptorily drops out of the narrative, the focus is undoubtedly on Tao Shen who struggles to reconcile a life of wealth with a soulless existence. In the final scene, she achieves some kind of redemption though it obviously can only be temporary.

Rafiki (Kenya-South Africa-Germany-Netherlands-France-Norway-Lebanon-UK, 2018)

The love that dare not

This is an effective ‘coming of age’ film from an unlikely source: Kenya. Co-written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu the film was banned in its native country because it ‘promoted lesbianism’. If anything, the film shows how difficult gay love is in a homophobic society so ‘promotion’ doesn’t exactly cover it. The discriminatory formulation harks back to Thatcher’s disgusting ‘section 28’ that, in 1988, was designed to prevent local authorities in Britain from ‘promoting homosexuality’. So disgust with Kenya for banning such a tender, and not explicit, film must be tempered, in the UK, by the acknowledgement that 30 years ago our government was promoting similarly homophobic messages. No doubt our colonial laws, homosexuality was only ‘made legal’ in 1967 in the UK, contributed to the difficulties Kenya has in acknowledging different sexualities.

Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva are superb as the unlikely couple: Kena quiet and withdrawn; Ziki loud and flamboyant. They are daughters of local electioneering politicians which adds a social dimension to the film’s melodrama. The importance of the Christian church in Kenyan society is acknowledged and so is its homophobia. The pastor’s sermon against difference is shown to encourage the attacks Kena and Ziki suffer; Kahiu shoots a mob scene in a genuinely scary manner. The film itself is as brave as its characters.

The film also portrays patriarchal society, particularly through Kena’s dad, as problematic. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy, he owns a shop and happily gives credit to shoppers that seems to be more than part of his campaign for reelection (presumably as a local councillor). However that hasn’t stopped him abandoning his wife for a ‘younger model’.

Ziki allows Kena to fulfil her potential by giving her confidence; initially her ambition was to be a nurse. However, she is obviously bright enough for even more challenging roles in health care. The ending of the film is nicely ambivalent for no matter how much the audience (I doubt homophobes will be still watching at this point) want the couple to be together, that is not a straightforward option in contemporary Kenya.

The Last Tree (UK, 2019)

Challenging tropes

Writer-director Shola Amoo’s second feature is a semi-autobiographical ‘coming of age’ tale of a black lad who lands in an urban environment after the idyll of a Lincolnshire upbringing. The trope of bad-town versus good-country, inflected by race, are hard to avoid but Amoo deftly challenges some expectations. When we meet young Femi he is being fostered by Mary, superbly played by Denise Black who subtly conveys the conflicts that must be experienced by foster carers: the love and care as well as the pain of departure. It’s no surprise that Femi, when he is moved to Brixton, South London, in the care of an inadequate mum, suffers from the change.

Much of the film focuses on the 16-year-old Femi, approaching his GCSE exams, and his conflicts with local gangs, peer group and teachers. As Akala’s brilliant Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire shows, there are real tropes involved in growing up as a black lad in an inner city environment; they are not simply generic. The need to act ‘tough’ and portray a hard image, that Akala describes, is superbly showed in the film when we’re party to Femi listening to The Cure on his headphones but tells his mate it’s Tupac. Sensitivity in males is not much of an option, neither are Femi’s dalliances with crime, another accessory of the poverty-stricken environment. Sam Adewumni brilliantly portrays the conflicts that lurk beneath his tough demeanour. Amoo strikingly uses extreme close-ups, and the soundtrack, to create expressionist moments that emphasise it’s Femi’s experience we are sharing.

Nicholas Pinnock is suitably charismatic in the role of a sympathetic teacher and, generally, I found the classroom scenes authentic (I am an ex-teacher) which is not my usual experience. However, I’m not sure how many teachers go ‘above and beyond’ the way Pinnock’s does but this is melodrama so exaggeration is more than acceptable. I couldn’t work out the symbolism of ‘the last tree’; though trees are often present in the mise en scene; then again, trees are often present wherever you are (apparently there are more trees than people in London).

If there is a false note in the film then it is the concluding scenes in Lagos, Nigeria. Femi is introduced to his father and while it is clear that Amoo is not suggesting that going ‘back to Africa’ is a solution, I was slightly puzzled by the ending on the beach. Maybe it’s not about Africa but a reference to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (France, 1960), the classic nouvelle vague ‘coming of age’ film. Regardless, The Last Tree is well worth seeing and Amoo is a talent to watch.