“Peterloo” film by Mike Leigh” – “By the law or the sword”

Review – 

Apart from 2019 being the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo massacre  when 60,000-80,000 people marched to St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, director Mike Leigh may have seen parallels with Brexit: two examples of British society sharply polarised to breaking-point and possible violence.

The director’s clear aim is to demonstrate injustice through a systematic, step-by-step reconstruction of the detailed events building up to the debacle. He wants us to be in no doubt that high grain prices after the Napoleonic Wars and  continued restrictions on imports owing to the infamous Corn Laws led to intolerable hardship amongst the working poor. This made them receptive to the call for “one man one vote”  (women supporters seeming to accept without question that they were not to be included in this) and the creation of a new constituency  in the burgeoning city of  Manchester to rectify the out-dated situation in which the whole of Lancashire only had two MPs.

Mike Leigh is of course famous for his minutely observed dramas involving the interplay between ordinary people, developed through painstaking improvisation. It is unclear to what extent the actors were encouraged to shape the dialogue in this case. I rather formed the impression that Mike Leigh has drawn heavily on the speech patterns  and existing political writings of activists of the day. Certainly, some of the soldiers’ reported instructions are included verbatim: “Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry; disperse the meeting!” and “For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!”

The director is right in thinking that Peterloo has become a forgotten blot on our history, neglected in schools, but I agree with the critics who find his approach  too didactic rather than dramatic. There are simply too many lengthy rabble-rousing speeches, all tending to  bludgeon us with the same points. Yet it was interesting to see the divide between those making the simple case for the vote, and the more radical young hotheads who wanted to march on London with a petition, and  depose the Prince Regent and his mad father George III with violence in the event of a refusal to meet their demands. The orator Henry Hunt invited to address the crowd  brought another angle to events with  his flamboyant style and egotistical self-regard, yet more worldly-wise, shrewder assessment and awareness of the dangers of risks involved.   In the main, the other characters tended to be stereotypes in the case of the poor, and caricatures as regards the uncaring mill-owners, brutal magistrates, and Blackadderish, pantomime figure of the effete, hopelessly out-of-touch Prince Regent.

When it eventually comes, the massacre is convincingly staged in its progression from a joyous break from the daily grind drifting into apprehensiveness,  disappointment that Hunt is inaudible for the majority in a world without microphones, then disintegrating into the bloody confusion of fear, outrage, and grief. Journalists  of the day hit on the name “Peterloo” to draw a bitter contrast with the recent victory of Waterloo, but the film fails to leave us with a footnote  about  the ensuing crackdown on reform – few of the surviving demonstrators would live to see anything approaching votes for all.

I admire Mile Leigh’s integrity and refusal to bow to commercial pressures,  but this potentially excellent film suffers from an excess of speechifying,  is probably at least thirty minutes too long, and, in the dramatic build- up as the crowd gathers, the switching between different groups and locations appeared quite disjointed and clunky.  The director’s skill  in marshalling details, examining ethical issues and exploring emotions seems shown to better effect in films with the focus on a small tightly knit group of people rather than a largescale thud and blunder epic.

 

 

“Graduation” – Romanian film directed by Cristian Mungiu


This is my review of the Romanian film “The Graduation”.

Hospital doctor Romeo may have become estranged from his chain-smoking librarian wife through their mutual disillusion with life in post-Communist Romania, which has not live up to their expectations. Their hopes are pinned on their bright daughter Eliza who is set to win a scholarship to study in England. As a result of an ill-timed mugging, her hand is too injured for her to write in the final exams. Determined to act out of character and pull strings to ensure his daughter obtains the necessary grades, Romeo finds himself in conflict with both his wife and the daughter they have taught to be honest. Eliza’s infatuation with her biker boyfriend, who ironically has no compunction over having cheated in his own exams, may be an additional factor in her desire to stay in the dead-end community from which her parents are so keen to save her.

This novel is a fascinating study of ethics and morality in a society which has slipped into bribery through custom and practice. How can one live with integrity in such a world. To what extent may the ends justify the means?

In addition to the convincing character studies and well-developed plot, there is a strong sense of place. My only criticism is that the meaning of certain scenes, apparently peripheral to the main plot, remained unclear to me. I also found the ending somewhat downbeat. Yet as a naturalistic, authentic piece of drama this is very powerful. The title is a little misleading, since “graduation” is normally applied to leaving university rather than school.

“Land of Mine” – more than a mere tale of thud and blunder.

This is my review of “Land of Mine”.

In the aftermath of World War 2, the Danes thought it just punishment for prisoners of war to be deployed defusing the thousands of mines buried in the coastal sand dunes by Germans to ward off any Allied invasion.

Initially, the embittered army Sergeant Rasmussen charged with supervising the POWs takes a sadistic pleasure in subjecting them to his capricious brutality. There is poignancy in the fact that the POWs are teenagers, virtually children drafted in at the end of the war to boost German numbers. These are clearly scapegoats: barely understanding what they have been fighting for, they can in no way be held responsible for the sins of the Third Reich.

Based on a true story, which suggests that it could have made a gripping documentary, the film is distinctive in creating an at times unbearable sense of tension, despite and in fact probably increased by the slow pace and agonising detail as we watch, time after time, the painstaking process of loosening and removing a large screw in the middle of the flat cylinder of the crude yet lethal object that is a mine. It is hard to imagine that this could explode at any moment with a shocking suddenness, and easy to see how, performing the same monotonous activity for hours on end, a young boy could lose concentration for a moment, his hand might shake, he might fail to hear a warning, with fatal consequences. Some people will find this film unwatchable, and I felt voyeuristic at times watching it and wondering who was about to be blown to smithereens.

It seemed to me that personal dramas (a twin who can no longer bear to live after his brother has been blown up, the crisis when a little girl who lives oddly close to the minefield strays onto it with her doll) had been inserted to “pad the film out” and create a framework for the tension that is at the heart of this, but these may have been based on research.

My only criticism of a visually striking and well-acted drama, is that I found it hard to distinguish the boys from each other at the outset, and understand some of the relationships between them which would have helped me to engage with them more fully.

Although we should not need to watch such films to sense the horror of war, “Land of Mine” made me aware of a piece of Danish history I had not appreciated, and of a moral dilemma in the aftermath of war which I had not considered. Perhaps more effort should have been made to identify leading Nazi prisoners to make reparations by defusing these mines.

“The Wife” – Behind every great man…..


This is my review of  “The Wife”    starring Glenn Close and Jonathan Price

When Joe Castleman receives the early morning call to confirm his award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, his supportive wife Joan seems as delighted as he is. It is soon apparent that he is something of a monster: vain, selfish, inconsiderate and unable to resist the flattering admiration of attractive younger women. Yet, such is her admiration for his talent, Joan seems prepared to tolerate all his shortcomings and devote herself to meeting his needs, even when her loyalties are strained by Joe’s conspicuous of interest in their son David’s efforts as a writer. Could it be that Joe would feel threatened if his son’s talents in the same field were recognised?

When Joe’s aptly named would-be biographer Nathaniel Bone comes searching for cracks in the great man’s perfect marriage, even daring to suggest that perhaps it is not so idyllic, given that Joan long ago sacrificed her own writing ambitions, despite being considered very promising, she sends him packing, adamant that she is fulfilled in her role. Nathaniel is astute in his sense that Joan’s self-effacing dedication is over-intense, and he is doggedly persistent in getting at the truth to feed his own ruthless ambition as a writer.

In a series of flashbacks, which sometimes seem too fragmented, we see the early stages of Joan and Joe’s relationship, as the film gradually works up to the climax in which the truth is revealed. In this well-acted film, which provides a presumably accurate portrayal of the rather grandiose annual ceremony in a wintry Stockholm, I was caught up in the plot and it was not until afterwards that I began to question its plausibility. Overall, this is a poignant study of marital relationships formed a generation ago, of self-delusion and the price of ambition.

Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski

This is my review of  Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski

In an impoverished rural Poland in the aftermath of World War Two which left the country under Communist control, talented pianist  and composer Wiktor tours the countryside with producer Irena to collect authentic folk music sung by ragged, toothless men playing crude string instruments.  This is to be arranged for performance  by troops of beautiful  blonde girls in pristine traditional dress as part of a patriotic drive to raise morale and a sense of common identity. When a Party boss insists on inclusion of songs in praise of Stalin, Wiktor has to bite his tongue. “I was dubious about this music-stuff, but there’s something in it”,  their philistine wheeler-dealer manager Kaczmarek concedes at one point, as the troupe’s popularity grows, and invitations to perform extend to trips abroad.

Wiktor is soon drawn to Zula, a pretty blonde teenager, confident, versatile singer and dancer,  whom it is hard to believe is “on probation” for knifing her father. According to her, this was to put an end to his sexual abuse. The couple’s passionate physical relationship is clouded  by Zula’s casual admission that she is informing on Wiktor at the behest of Kaczmarek, who has a hold on her because of her past.  When the troupe visits Berlin, and the professionally  unfulfilled and frustrated Wiktor makes a plan to defect to the West, will Zula follow him?

There follows a protracted drama in which the two main characters seem unable to live without each other, yet fail  to co-exist in harmony together.  I struggled to grasp exactly why this is the case, or what we are supposed to make of their relationship. They are not necessarily incompatible just because Wiktor comes from an educated, “bourgeois” background, whereas  the more working class Zula succeeds artistically through “gut feeling”, and may feel lost away from the familiar restrictions of Poland in the  freedom of Parisian café culture where the soulful Juliet Greco-style songs which she is well able to perform solo may seem more unsettling than the safe, controlled, traditional  group folk-singing to which she is more accustomed.

Zula appears capricious and unstable, perhaps understandably because of her troubled past. Although he is perhaps too self-absorbed to appreciate her needs, Wiktor’s  patience and forgiveness seem tried beyond belief, until he too seems to suffer a mental breakdown, maybe a kind of “mid-life crisis” by which point I did not care too much what happened to the pair as the film reaches an ambiguous conclusion.

Pavel Pawlikowski dedicated this work to his parents, who apparently had a stormy relationship, but it is unclear to what extent they serve as models for this drama. The choice of black-and-white film adds to its striking visual impact providing a vivid evocation of life in 1940s Poland and 1950s Paris: the recurring face of a Madonna painted on the wall of a ruined church, the nose smashed in some bombardment; the uninhibited vitality of a drunken Zula, jiving to “Rock around the Clock” in a Parisian jazz café, a world away from the precision of her Polish group folk dances.

I understand why this film has attracted such plaudits, but for me there was an emotional vacuum at its core, in the “cold war” between the lovers.

 

Apostasy: blood ties

This is my review of the film Apostasy.

Written and directed by Daniel Kokotajlo, a former Jehovah’s witness brought up in what can only be described as a cult following his mother’s conversion, this film has a chilling authenticity, although I am unable to judge the extent to which it may present a distorted picture. Single mother Ivanna devotes her life to keeping her daughters Luisa and Alex “on the straight and narrow” and spreading the word to the wider community. I think there is a hint at one point that her husband has gone away after falling short as a Witness.

Earnest and thoughtful, if somewhat immature for her eighteen years, Alex feels guilt and shame that her acute anaemia required her to have a blood transfusion at birth. Believing that blood contains the human soul and therefore cannot be contaminated by that of another person, she tries to muster the courage, having technically reached adulthood, to reject a transfusion in the future should it be become a matter of life and death. By contrast, the more out-going and questioning Luisa has a boyfriend from outside the Jehovah Witness community, with tragic consequences.

“Apostasy” is likely to resonate strongly with lapsed Jehovah’s Witnesses, but even an atheist can become engaged and outraged by the heavy-handed paternalism of the Elders, with the reframing of ideas and twisting of arguments to justify their beliefs and explain away predictions which fail to come to pass, like the end of the world in a particular year. Most shocking is the crude system of social control : the “disfellowship” and “shunning” of those who refuse to conform, the bullying and lack of compassion for those judged in need of meetings to guide them back into the fold.

A gripping experience, this film leaves one feeling a little depressed, but more understanding of those who have found it impossible to “walk away” from the social pressure to continue to belong to a group, and their inability to break away from what looks to the external observer like conditioning, even brainwashing,. One may feel anger at Ivanna’s stubborn intransigence as she encourages Alex to turn the pages of a mawkish book featuring children who have died for their faith by refusing treatment. At the same time, there are occasional twinges of pity for Ivanna when she reveals the pain of having to suppress the innate maternal instinct to preserve one child’s life at any cost, or to forgive the boundary-breaking and mistakes of adolescence.

Some may criticise the film for painting such a joyless picture of a life centred on the unlovely Kingdom Hall next to what looks like a stark ring road. I was surprised by the incongruous visits to a nail bar which supplied a rare bit of colour, and how did Luisa afford to run her car?

It is interesting, although annoying for Daniel Kokotajlo, that this film came out about the same time as Ian McEwan’s “The Children Act” on a similar theme, although the two complement each other in their different approaches, and I think that “Apostasy” is more focused, realistic and ultimately moving.

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.