On Chesil Beach – The road not taken

This is a review of “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan

I watched this film without having read the book on which it is based, although the fact it was adapted for the screen by the author suggests that the film is true to what he aimed to convey in the novella.
It starts and ends on the stony Dorset spit of Chesil Beach, where Tom and Florence choose to spend their honeymoon in 1962. On the evening after the wedding, the tensions between them are obvious, in marked contrast to the intense friendship, easy exchange of ideas and affection they display in the many flashbacks which show the course of their relationship from their first meeting when Tom gatecrashes a CND meeting, desperate to share with someone the fact he has just graduated with a First. The differences between them are also obvious from the outset. Tom is impulsive, scruffy, has trouble controlling his feelings, yet is clearly thoughtful and compassionate. His childhood has been blighted by the terrible accident suffered by his artist mother, which has left her unable to care for herself, let alone her children, and prone to erratic, uninhibited behaviour. Florence comes from a privileged middle-class background. Whereas Tom’s father is head of a rural primary school, hers runs a successful engineering business, while her dominating and insensitive, snobbish mother is a colleague of Iris Murdoch. Yet there are hints of possible concealed abuse. Always beautifully dressed and fastidious, despite her apparently sheltered life, Florence shows a steely determination in her ambition for the string quintet to which she belongs to perform at the Wigmore Hall to widespread acclaim.
Although these differences might be expected to prove the cause of a painful realisation of their incompatibility, in fact the problem lies elsewhere. The year was 1962, before the explosion of the “Swinging Sixties” and ready availability of the pill, when a bright, highly educated girl with no brothers could remain painfully ignorant of sex, while her male partner, although not so uptight, might well prove completely unable to handle the situation. This is a very poignant scenario for demonstrating how a failure to act at a critical moment, or an ill-judged reaction may change the course of one’s life for ever, and even close friends or relatives may feel unable to intervene.
Since the original novella was criticised by some as being too short to justify consideration for the Booker Prize, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ian McEwan felt compelled to add two scenes at the end. I agree with those who felt that these seem a clumsy and superfluous over-explanation of what might have motivated the two main characters, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for problem of conveying on screen the thoughts and impressions more subtly revealed in the written word. Although the film has been very well received, I found some of the scenes too abrupt and disconnected, many of the dialogues quite stilted, and was unconvinced by the sudden dramatic change in the relationship between Tom and Florence when it came to their wedding night.
The film has some beautiful photography, the two main characters are well-acted, there are moments of humour amid the anguish, like the ghastly hotel dinner served to the newly weds in their room by suggestively obsequious waiters, but watching “On Chesil Beach” fully engaged me. On reflection, my sense of disappointment at the end lifted somewhat, and I began to see interesting angles to the film, like the visual metaphor of the long spit on which one half of the couple could walk away to follow a different path in life, while the other stood rooted fatefully to the spot.

Tanna – a remarkable film

This is a review of the film Tanna

On the South Pacific island of Tanna (part of the Vanuatu archipelago), the women of the Yakel tribe are joyfully preparing for the initiation of the beautiful young Wawa as a woman.  She is turn is delighted by the return to the village of Dain, the chief’s grandson, a Pan-like figure with his pipes and head-dress of long, green leaves. The carefree tropical forest idyll of rhythmic communal dancing and song is shattered by an attack by the neighbouring Imedin tribe, in what has become an ongoing feud. It is decided to cement peace by invoking the tribal laws of Kastom, which advocate arranged marriages between tribes. What will be the outcome of the refusal of the young lovers Wawa and Dain to give each other up?

Based on a true chain of events in the 1980s which led to the recognition of love marriage as a part of Kastom,  this film makes a powerful impact not only through the stunning photography, but also the acting ability of a cast of native tribespeople with no prior knowledge of cinema, or life beyond their village, and also the clear evidence that an apparently primitive residue of “uncivilised native life” may in fact be a cohesive society, based on well-developed values which  can make our media and celebrity-dominated culture seem rather hollow.

The film’s authenticity stems from the fact that at least one of the directors lived with the tribe for months, observing their customs and winning their trust.  Unselfconscious in their semi-nakedness, they go  about their work and communal celebrations, moving with a striking grace or dignity, not to mention their fitness in covering miles of rough terrain. We see how they are at one with the lush forest, weaving skirts and cloaks from grass, twisting leaves into headbands and necklaces, using a small inverted tree as a broom to sweep clear the forest floor around their huts, clearing the ground efficiently for planting aided only by a pointed stick.

When in need of advice they ascend a nearby continually active volcano to sit at the crater rim where the erupting lava is linked to the spirit of the goddess Yahul.  This is not some sugar-coated Rousseau fantasy of life as a savage,  but a convincing portrayal, by turns humorous, violent or poignant, of a vulnerable way of life. This deliberate rejection of colonisation and conversion by missionaries (the background history makes interesting reading) is unlikely to survive much longer, but one understands the desire to preserve it in preference to one in which the villagers  have exchanged their native skills of self-sufficiency for a life of poverty in a money-based economy corrupted by the worst aspects of “civilised western” life, or of parroting some debased form of Christianity. As Dain says of a group of happy-clappy evangelised tribespeople, “These Christians freak me out”.

“The Post” – Truth at what price?

 

This is my review of  “The Post”  .  
It can be no coincidence that Steven Spielberg’s engrossing film, “The Post” has been produced in the first year of Trump’s presidency, with the heightened concern over the freedom of the press to expose government suppression of the truth in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

In 1971, The Washington Post had its first female publisher in the form of Katharine Graham, who had assumed this role in the family firm after her husband’s suicide. Brilliantly played by Meryl Streep, who has gained her 21st Oscar nomination for this part, despite being a glamorous society hostess, Graham often suffers from a crippling lack of confidence, and it is clear that the suave advisors on her Board assume the right to manoeuvre her into making the decisions they favour. This film reminds us continually that, however oppressed some “Me Too” women may feel now, sexual inequality was ingrained into society fifty years ago to an extent most young people may find hard to credit.

Graham has taken the initiative to employ the abrasive Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) as chief editor. His irritation knows no bounds when the arch-rival paper, “The New York Times”, lands the scoop of publishing the leaked “Pentagon Papers” which reveal how, over three decades, four successive presidents, including the charismatic Kennedy, have lied to the public over the fact that resources are being poured into fighting a war which cannot be won in Vietnam, at the cost of thousands of young American lives. When Nixon’s regime gets an injunction served on “The Times” to halt production, the baton passes to “The Post”, if they want to risk taking it. If they can track down the source of the leak and obtain the leaked documents, should they publish the details instead? Since Bradlee compromised his position in the past when socialising with the Kennedy family, how can he condemn Graham if she tries to shield McNamara, the author of the incriminating papers which he never intended for public consumption? About to float her business as a public company in order to gain vital investment support, will the vacillating and dominated Graham find the courage to take a stand as a matter of principle?

What could be a dry film is in fact quite gripping since, with a good script, some excellent acting (apart from the odd mumbler), and attention to period detail, it raises some important issues. To what extent should newspapers protect their sources? Do unethical means of obtaining information justify the ends? Should one jeopardise people’s jobs and the future of a newspaper for the sake of a principle? When might revealing the truth be against the national interest?

It is fascinating to see the recreation of a computer-free world in which papers have to be produced with hand-set type by vast, cranking machinery. Stolen papers have to be reproduced page by page on a snail’s pace copier. But is it credible that after painstakingly cutting the “top secret” note off each sheet, no one thought to number the pages? Or that even the most quick-witted journalists could make sense so quickly of 4000 odd pages which had become mixed up?

I liked the touch of a silhouetted Nixon at a White House window as he petulantly issues orders that no one from “The Post” is ever to be admitted to the building again, together with the foreshadowing of the Watergate break-in which was soon to bring him down.

Darkest Hour – a dogged Churchill despite his “black dog”.

This is my review of the film  Darkest Hour

In this film which has attracted attention for Gary Oldman’s remarkable transformation into what many regard as an uncanny replica of Churchill, the focus is on a fraught period in May 1940 when European states were falling like ninepins as German troops scythed through them, Italy was collaborating with the Third Reich, France about to capitulate and the entire British land army trapped at Calais and Dunkerque.  In what seems a hopeless situation, and anxious not to repeat the carnage of young men in World War 1, a wily Lord Halifax manoeuvres to force Churchill to agree to peace negotiations with Hitler, with Mussolini acting as intermediary. We know that ultimately, Churchill will not give in, so the interest lies in seeing how, with the entire War Cabinet and the King against him, scant help from an America sworn to neutrality, and such a dire military position in mainland Europe, he can possibly survive as Prime Minister, if he persists In taking what looks like an increasingly forlorn stand.

No punches have been pulled over the portrayal of Churchill as, frankly, a physical mess – a large cigar perpetually in one hand and tumbler of whisky in the other, or close by, with a bottle in view for a top up.  He has clearly made major mistakes in the past, is at the best of times irascible, capricious, inconsiderate, over-emotional yet inexplicably adored by his long-suffering wife  played by Kristen Scott-Thomas –  who has perhaps worn better through being less self-indulgent.

“How does he manage to drink so much during the day,” enquires a disapproving King George V1 – “Practice” comes the quick-fire reply. Yet as depression due to lack of sleep born of anxiety  combines with his perpetual state of being not quite – or not at all sober –  to take their toll, he appears increasingly shambling and pathetic.

I will have to read another biography or two to establish whether this is a just portrait of “the great man”, but the film almost manages to redress the balance with the  flashes of self-deprecating humour, charm, and gift for delivering a thundering speech to mobilise his audience when required, enabling us to glimpse what his appeal must have been. Nowadays, a less deferential public than the one we see during his improbable trip on the Underground might be much more critical, except that our weakness for mavericks and celebrities can still  sway us to rally to a challenging course of action on emotional grounds.

It is in many ways a typical wartime period drama, with London crowds in 1940s style but unduly well-fitting and brand new clothing with sleek hairstyles. Even the London dustmen look too clean and tidy. Most of the interiors, a House of Commons chamber very different from Westminster, rooms in Buckingham Palace and Churchill’s residence seem very dark – perhaps to indicate the black-out.  Yet there is some excellent camerawork, sweeping down from the  London rooftops into grand inner courtyards of government buildings.

Our continual harking back to past glories and acts of bravado sometimes seems like a kind of ostrich-like escapism from our current problems – a kind of self-delusion, of which Churchill himself  was of course accused when he refused to negotiate with Hitler. With the wisdom of hindsight we can see that Churchill was right, although his moral justification only won through with the military  support of the Soviet Union and America.  The film glosses over the rejection of Churchill once the war was over. No longer needed to boost morale  and stubbornly battle on, his approach seemed not only outworn, but a barrier to the new drive for social change which the war had released.

This is a well-made film without being great which has inspired me to start  reading the biography of Churchill by Roy Jenkins which has lain on a shelf for years.

Three Billboards East of Ebbing, Missouri – A brew of comedy and violence too dark to see the depth

This is my review of: Three Billboards East of Ebbing, Missouri.

Furious over the lack of progress in tracking down her daughter’s brutal murderer, Mildred Hayes spends money she can ill afford to install three huge billboards on the outskirts of the well-named, typical Southern states small town of Ebbing, Missouri. The stark wording reads: “Raped while Dying”;  “And still no arrest”; “How come Chief Willoughby?”  The conservative, gobsmacked townsfolk are understandably appalled and disapproving; not least because Willoughby seems to be a decent man , although lamentably ineffectual in failing to fire his incompetent, racist side-kick Dixon, who is shown at one point torturing black suspects.  Some critics have deplored writer-director Martin McDonagh’s failure to treat race relations more sensitively, but that is not the main point of this film, focused as it is on Mildred’s desire to avenge her daughter’s death. When Mildred’s provocative action arouses an obsessive hostility in Dixon the stage is set for a one-woman feud with the police.

Mildred is a deeply flawed character, almost as bad as Dixon. Aggressive and foul-mouthed, she overacts when her wishes are obstructed. Perhaps she is driven by a sense of guilt over having parted with her daughter on bad terms, but she shows remarkably little concern for her long-suffering and surprisingly pleasant (in view of what he has had to put up with) son – it is the minor characters who are likeable in this film.  Just as Dixon may have been “driven to the bad” by a ghastly, smothering mother for whom he cares, Mildred may have been damaged in ways which are not made clear, apart from the inference that her ex-husband has left her for a teenage bimbo. It is perhaps “out of character” that such a tough, independent-minded woman should have tolerated a partner’s violence, and appear resentful over his departure. In a typical juxtaposition of violence and humour, we see  him one moment with his hands round Mildred’s  neck, the left  colluding with her in a sheepish, eye-rolling glance over his girl-friends inanity.

This film has won many awards and plaudits, audiences may be excited by the violent drama and be entertained by the “no holds barred” interplay of comedy and sociopathic brutality.  Compared to “run-of-the-mill” thrillers and action films, the film has an original take on the theme of victimhood, does not flinch at breaking taboos, and gives a talented and well-cast female actor the chance for a lead part. However, Frances Mc Dormand has the ability to rise to greater challenges than offered here. The film lacks the subtlety and depth to succeed at a deeper level.

In a recent interview, writer-director Martin McDonagh has deflected some critics with the explanation that, “the film isn’t about good or bad, left or right. It’s just about trying to find the spark of humanity in people – all people”. But this is not enough to make a film outstanding or even good. For that, it must enable one to see the world – people or situations – in a different way, which does not happen in this case. The arch-baddie is too exaggerated in his stupidity, bigotry and gratuitous violence to be credible, his dramatic change of heart is implausible. Some characters may indeed  display sparks of humanity, but that does not stop them from planning vicious acts of revenge likely to prove counterproductive, self-destructive or even unjust in being directed against the wrong targets.

Although writer-director Martin McDonagh may simply have run out of steam at the end, at least the ambiguous ending seems well-judged. Defenders of the film may argue that in taking an amoral stance, McDonagh leaves it to us to reflect on the issues involved.

Mountain: In thrall to indifferent mountains

This is my review of Mountain directed by Jennifer Peedom.

Stunning photography – was it made with the aid of drones or intrepid helicopter pilots? – reveals the stark beauty and vast scale and complexity of landscapes most of us will never be able to see close at hand. Time lapse photography to show clouds moving to obscure huge peaks, the plethora of stars in a night sky free from pollution, white valleys rising and falling as the snow builds up and melts, add dynamism to landscapes we may previously only have seen in static pictures. Suddenly one realises that two dots in a vast expanse of ice are in fact human- mountaineers planning an ascent. Then, with nail-biting tension, we see rock climbers high up on sheer faces, hands bare as they feel for invisible finger-holds, apparently unroped and alone. Footage of skiers weaving down near vertical slopes through trees, or surfing avalanches; mountain bikers hurtling along narrow winding ridges hundreds of feet above rocky valley floors; a tight-rope walker suspended between two pinnacles above a void, all capture the addiction to the adrenalin rush which must drive some to risk their lives for an experience which they cannot really share with the “normal world” from which they must feel disconnected on their return to it.

Accompanied by some freshly composed atmospheric music and beautiful classical pieces, Dafoe’s commentary – sometimes needlessly overblown – traces the short history of mountaineering, since for centuries local people treated high places as the land of gods and devils, to be avoided by ordinary mortals. We see clips of some of the intrepid C19 travellers who began to explore the mountains, totally under-equipped by our standards. The ascent of Everest triggered the growing stream of climbers, assisted by technical aids, often swinging from their belts like a kind of ceremonial metallic skirt, who now form a snail-pace queue up to the world’s highest peak.

This film is a totally absorbing work of art, with many memorable scenes and will appeal not only to mountaineers but people like me who are terrified of the idea of climbing but fascinated by the scenery and why people risk their lives in this pursuit. Yet I agree with the reviewer who would have liked more information on the location of the shots with a little cultural detail e.g. on prayer wheels and flags, explanation of some of the equipment used, the identity of some of the historical characters and events shown. As it is, the film assumes perhaps a little too much prior knowledge.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Happy End – Heartless in Calais

This is my review of Happy End [DVD].

One often hears of the minutes if not hours of film discarded on the cutting room floor to extract the essence of what the director aims to convey. In this case, it is as if Michael Haneke has perversely challenged us to make sense of a film largely constructed from the shots which would normally be edited out. We hear about a character taking an overdose, crashing a car, even dying, but rarely witness these dramatic incidents. Often we do not realise that we have seen a significant event until its effect becomes apparent later. The scenes of glacial slowness, require great concentration, not only because they are mostly in French with subtitles, but also because one is continually trying not to miss the vital piece of action which may in fact not occur in a situation where basically not much is happening.

Despite its bleak theme, which appears to be the director’s stock in trade, the ironically-titled “Happy Ending” is leavened by moments of dark humour and has the ingredients for a gripping and moving psychological study of how we may damage each other. It involves the Calais–based Laurent family, their wealth made from the construction industry and other businesses, who all follow the bourgeois conventions of polite society in public, but seem incapable of real warmth, natural affection and normal emotion in private. They live out their dysfunctional relationships against the background of the impoverished black migrants who haunt the port town.

We initially experience their formal bourgeois life from the viewpoint of the approaching teen-age Eve Laurent who receives a somewhat reluctant welcome when she comes to stay in the extended family home with her father Edward, after her mother, his ex-wife, takes a lethal overdose of antidepressants. Eve appears outwardly to be an innocent, sensitive young girl, but from the outset there are signs of a troubling darker side to her character, leading one to speculate to what extent she may have been damaged by her self-absorbed parents’ neglect, or possibly inherited some of the family’s less appealing personality traits.

There is a cast to raise expectations high, with Jean-Louis Trintignant in the role of patriarch sinking into senility, from which he seeks to escape through suicide – unless he can find someone prepared to put him out of his misery– and Isabelle Huppert as his ambitious daughter Anne who is romantically involved with her British lawyer, played by Toby Jones. Anne’s important business deals are undermined by a serious accident on a building site for which her son Pierre may be to blame. Rejecting his mother’s love and her plans for him to take over the business, are his drunken outbursts due more to his sense of inadequacy than to a genuine anger over his family’s lack of concern for the poor as anything other than a source of cheap domestic labour?

For me the film does not work partly because it is like a single-phrase tune. As indicated already, the work is so fragmented, with long shots and overlong, disjointed, initially incomprehensible scenes and sociopathic characters, that I rarely felt engaged, was often frankly bored, only continuing to watch in the forlorn hope of an effective denouement which I never expected to occur.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars