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Category Archives: British Film

Mary Magdalene

Landscapes and coastlines reminiscent of southern Australia give this film a grounded feel that exceeds most other depictions of biblical stories. Even the perspective lent to this story by looking at it through the eyes of Mary of Magdala puts me in mind of the strong and courageous women of the Australia Henry Lawson depicted.

In this harsh environment, Mary’s voice emerges subtly and beautifully over the course of the film. Rooney Mara depicts her with a graceful sensibility that builds in courage and awareness as the story progresses.

The male disciples appear as little more than a contentious rabble, much like the church they founded. They tend to follow Jesus about, rather than travelling with him, which is a different way of depicting them than I’ve seen in the past. They argue with each other, ignoring him largely, and it is Mary who points out after Jesus’ resurrection that in their fervour they’d forgotten to listen to the man they — rather pretentiously — called teacher.

This film, though, is more than merely a feminist reading of the gospel. Jesus certainly isn’t depicted here as a feminist, and nor is he depicted as omniscient. Instead, the messiah is shown as a man who was accessible and responsive to others; one aware of the people around him and open to a greater understanding of their experiences. This, really, should be central to the Christian faith: while denominations of the church continue to argue amongst themselves about petty nonsense like whether to worship on Saturday or Sunday or whether vegetarian Catholics should take communion or whether queer people should be treated like human beings, this film depicts a Christ with ears as well as a mouth. It shows him as a man listening: in all my years listening to a myriad of teachings about Jesus, I’ve never once heard a sermon about the example he set as a listener. And yet the gospels, both canonical and apocryphal, frequently depict him listening.

I feel that this film depicts the events of the gospel — canonical, apocryphal and fictional — in a wholly engaging and enlightened manner. And most importantly, it does so from the perspective of one of the most important participants in the events themselves. Truly enlightening and exciting.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 18 March 2018 in British Film, Film, Porchlight, See Saw Films

 

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God’s Own Country

It might be being promoted as a “British Brokeback”, but apart from an agrarian context and some primal and near-violent sex scenes, God’s Own Country shares little in common with the groundbreaking American epic.

Brokeback Mountain was created at a time when the west was only beginning to understand gender diversity, and it portrayed a romance that was hindered by both law and societal expectations. God’s Own Country, on the other hand, is set in an England that is both legally affirming of homosexual partnerships and increasingly open to them culturally. The films, therefore, sit beautifully together as a study of thematic progression.

Set near Bradford, in England’s north, the story follows a young man whose father is increasingly unable to manage the farm. An Eastern European farmhand is hired to assist with lambing, and he proves to pretty damn good with his hands in more ways than one.

Now, from an Australian perspective, I do have to point out that there seems to be one rather gaping plot gap: thoughout the film, a large town is visible in the background of many farm scenes, yet for some reason, the lads are sent to spend several days camping in an abandoned hayshed presumably to be nearer the livestock needing attention. How on earth this farm can be large enough to require a sleepout is beyond me (the town is visible from both the hayshed and the homestead), but it is essential to the plot, as this is where the romance begins, so I did have to consciously suspend my disbelief at this incongruity.

Disbelief suspended, I was deeply moved by the brilliant performances of Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu. Gutteral, earthy and completely unlikely as a couple, the pair evoke great pathos, and unlike Brokeback Mountain, which suffers from the two-thirds-through “when will this end?”  illness, God’s Own Country is compelling throughout.

 
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Posted by on Monday, 4 September 2017 in BFI, British Film, Film

 

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Macbeth

macbethI fear I may be less impressed by this film than I should be.

The fact is, I think it’s very true to Shakespeare’s intentions. Had the muse of fire that we know as the cinema been invented during his lifetime, I expect this is very much how he would have imagined his play. A very Scottish Thane, rather than a slightly Gaelified English Lord, is met in battle, defeating King Duncan’s enemy in a bloodbath. He meets witches on the heath as it snows, and his wife is met in a rustic wooden cottage in a tiny village. When the king arrives, he stays in a tent. There is no hint here of English imperialism; Shakespeare’s English fable is as it should be: foreign.

In this aspect, the film distinguishes itself. It avoids the unfortunate assumptions of English and American producers which lead to a hybrid English/Scottish aesthetic, and presents The Scottish Play as if it were actually Scottish.

The performances also: spectacular! Fassbender is the quintessential Macbeth: astute, hirsute and when needed, a brute. He mixes genuine humanity with resolute barbarity. Marion Cottilard, too, is as conniving and “full of direst cruelty” as she ought to be, until her husband’s unerring barbarity tips her over the edge.

But still, I find myself craving a little more imagination. This is the Macbeth I read in high school and at university. I teach this Macbeth. It is the standard Macbeth. The Macbeth with factory fittings, or you might say, it is a Macbeth in original, mint condition. I don’t dislike it, but it’s hardly worth noticing.

At least with Geoffrey Wright’s film I thought it was disappointing. This is worse. Macbeth is protrayed absolutely perfectly, as is medieval Scotland, and I don’t care. I should care: Justin Kurzel, the film’s Australian director, should have given me a reason to care! I paid £14, an absurd sum, to be made to care, and yet, I don’t care. This is a perfect film for teaching Macbeth, unfortunately, and will probably be with us for many years to come as a result. I’m not unhappy about that. I just don’t care.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 25 November 2015 in British Film, Film, See Saw Films

 

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Suffragette

suffragetteSuffragette is the story of a fictional woman in early twentieth century London, who becomes involved with the Suffragette movement to enfranchise women in the United Kingdom. Maud Watts is an ordinary mother, working in a laundry to help make ends meet. We see the journey she takes as she goes from merely supporting suffrage, to actively and militantly campaigning for it.

This technique of using someone who becomes involved in a movement to illustrate how people interacted through history is one I appreciate. I think it provides a view of history that is easier to relate to, and is possibly more accurate as it doesn’t present history merely through the eyes of leaders.

In this instance, the ploy is largely successful. It is easy to empathise with Maud, especially as her son is taken away from her. But it is this element of the plot that somehow gets lost along the way. One minute she is a mother, and the next she is just a suffragette, and her son is neither seen nor mentioned again.

From a feminist perspective, perhaps there is nothing wrong with this. But the purpose of creating this fictional character as a lens through which to view history is to humanise the story. The tragedy of losing such a precious relationship could not be understated, and its impact on the protagonist should not have been overlooked. It is at this point that the film goes from being brilliant to being somewhat clinical, and having the feeling of a docudrama, rather than a film.

The dialogue, nonetheless, is brilliant throughout, and demonstrates an impeccable skill. Carey Mulligan’s performance as Maud is professional and engaging.

I just wish the writer, Abi Morgan, had stuck more doggedly to her initial approach.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 21 October 2015 in BFI, British Film, Film, Film4, Pathe

 

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Paddington

paddingtonIt’s not always that I manage to get lost in a film, and this one took me by surprise!

Halfway through this year, as my daughter’s tenth birthday approached and I was living in the antipodes, I popped (I literally cycled) over to Harrods and found a copy of Michael Bond’s famous novel and a Paddington teddy bear. I then rode with that bear over to Paddington Station and snapped his picture with a Great Western train, and popped them into a parcel for my girl in Melbourne. And to find shortly afterwards that Studio Canal was about to release a major film just meant that I could share this a little more with my daughter.

Well, it hardly needed this kind of personalisation, as it turned out. A simple but playful approach to telling the story makes this film very relatable and engaging. Add some brilliant performances by some remarkable actors and it is truly something special.

Hugh Bonneville is essentially just reprising Lord Crawley in his role as Mr Brown, but Sally Hawkins, who plays his wife, is just brilliant. The children are likewise splendid, but I have come away in awe at Nicole Kidman‘s transformation into Millicent. I was in some doubt about whether it was Kidman or not, her transformation was so thorough.

It’s very rare for me to tear up in any film, so it was a surprise to do so in this one, which is definitely not a tear-jerker by any stretch of the imagination. The film’s setting in the part of London where I spent several happy months living this year, and the truism it finishes on that “anyone in London can fit in”, really sang to me. And although the practicalities of life drag the romance of any place violently down to earth, this film manages to capture much of London’s charm without really whitewashing it. Although, I could be terribly biased!

But whatever way you look at it, this is simply a great story told with vitality and boldness. Rarely does any film manage to tell a story as well as this one does, so it really shouldn’t be missed.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 31 December 2014 in British Film, Film, Studio Canal

 

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Filth

filthI’ve been a big fan of films that play hard and fast with psychosis over the years, and Filth is, I think, one of the best. It keeps you on your toes trying to figure put the difference between reality and the subject’s experiences, but it doesn’t do this at the expense of character and plot.

The protagonist here, Bruce (James McAvoy), is brilliantly portrayed with incredible pathos and drive. Apart from an unfortunate lull in the third quarter, which many films suffer from, he drives the plot forward brilliantly.

The super-plot is both straightforward and innovative. Frank is in line for promotion, but so are several other detectives in his Edinburgh unit. By setting them up, he manages to move himself up the ladder, building the likelihood of promotion by a steady process of elimination. His plan goes well until his own psychosis gets the better of him.

McAvoy is supported, though, by a cast of well-developed characters, all of whom are brilliantly relatable and portrayed by great actors.

The spectre of Trainspotting is heavy in the air with this film. There are familiar sequences and phrasing, but the whole is a unique and engaging story that warrants a second look.

 
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Posted by on Monday, 25 November 2013 in British Film, Film, Steel Mill Pictures

 

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Les Misérables

les miserablesI’ve just been to see Les Misérables and it seems the angst-ridden trailers that I’ve seen everywhere for this film would have been sufficient. It seems the marketers were given very little to work with and all the best bits of the film were used in the trailer, so there’s not really a need to pop along and see it.

I really hate to say it, but it’s the Australasians that let the film down (yes, New Zealand, when he does badly, Russell Crowe is a Kiwi; we’ll only claim him as an Aussie when he does well). Hugh Jackman is a little awkward but tolerable; the problem is that whenever he’s on screen, I’m seeing Hugh Jackman do Jean Valjean, rather than seeing Jean Valjean. The awkwardness with which he carries the role just undermines the suspension of disbelief.

I fully concur with those who have criticised the choice of Russell Crowe for the role of Javert. He is not entirely inappropriate, but it seems that although he can hold a tune, he can’t hold both a tune and a character at the same time. I believe he could have carried the character well enough were this not a sung-through musical, and I also have a feeling that there is scope for a film version of Les Misérables adapted to prose rather than the musical, which doesn’t really do the story any favours.

The film does have a few redeeming points, though. Whenever Anne Hathaway is on screen, I forget the awkwardness of Jackman and Crowe; she is engaging and poetic in every sense. Edward Redmayne is likewise convincing as Marius, and his chemistry with Amanda Seyfried‘s adult Cosette is palpable. Along with Isabelle Allen, these performers almost manage to redeem the film from the clunky performances of the two Australasians commanding the big dollars.

Whatever its faults, this film does one thing particularly well, in my opinion; while most productions that I’ve seen, whether for stage or screen, position Les Misérables as a quintessentially French story, this film sets the story amidst the mere backdrop of revolutionary France, allowing the characters greater autonomy from their political circumstances. It is my opinion that the story would sit just as well in front of any struggle for independence and liberty. It would be as at home before the Battle of the Chesapeake, the Eureka Stockade, the Myall Creek Massacre or Tiananmen Square, because the focus in this story is the journey of the individual characters within a particular political context. And of course, this being a story originally written by a Frenchman, its French context is de rigueur.

And perhaps that’s the big thing to learn from this rather expensive mistake of a film. What the world needs is an adaptation that takes the story of Les Misérables and depicts some fictional Aboriginal characters going through the same experience in the lead up to the Myall Creek Massacre… with prose dialogue to ram home the point. I’ll take that one. Anyone want to pick up Tiananmen Square?

 
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Posted by on Friday, 18 January 2013 in British Film, Cameron Mackintosh, Film, Working Title Films

 

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Sightseers

Sometimes a film starts out poorly, but improves out of sight by the end of the exposition. Such a film is Sightseers, which begins with an elderly woman making a miserable groaning sound for several minutes, while her daughter tries to get her attention. None too quickly the horrible old woman is removed from the scenario as her misfit of a daughter and her equally awkward boyfriend pack a caravan and head off.

I must admit one thing that drew me to this film was the idea of Brits taking a caravanning holiday. I have always been curious to know the whys and wherefores of using a caravan to explore such a tiny island, and if there’s anyone out there with the same idea, I can tell you I have gained no insight into the phenomenon from watching this film.

What I did gain was a fantastically funny and gory 95 minutes. It was a little like a Tarantino film without all the corny one liners that really don’t work. And unlike a Tarantino film, it had characters. Real characters, with feelings and depth and backstories that you could only guess at. In some ways it was a bit like Shakespeare without the superfluous repetition, which of course brings us to the blood faster.

No, Sightseers is definitely not for children (not even my children!). It has one of the most hideous scenes of human mutilation I’ve ever seen in a film; and even this one has that wonderful capacity to combine gore and humour in the one image.

Don’t bother with Sightseers if you’re a little squeamish, but if you like a bit of blood with your humour, this is the film you’ve been waiting for.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 3 November 2012 in Big Talk Productions, British Film, Film, Film4, StudioCanal

 

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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Seems to me one of the most common accusations levelled at some films is that they’re predictable. And of course they are. Most films are made to be sold, and sold within a particular genre. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen deftly avoids such categorisation, and is one of the best character-driven films I’ve ever seen.

Of course the problem faced by film makers who choose material like this is how to sell it. Having seen clips for it, I mostly dismissed it, and only made the effort to see it when I had just seen a whole bunch of films and wanted another. It was not my first choice, but of all the films I’ve seen this week (and I’ve seen a lot more than usual this week), this was the best.

The story is centred on a couple of public servants who find themselves at the centre of an exercise in international relations. Emily Blunt plays a consummate professional who has mastered the art of eternal optimism. And Ewan McGregor plays an infinitely more staid and predictable realist. These two find themselves pursuing the whimsical dream of a Yemeni Sheikh, played engagingly by Amr Waked, to introduce the sport of Salmon fishing to his dry homeland.

The story charts an unpredictable course through the ups and downs of the project, but along the way the central characters, even the Sheikh to some extent, become intensely human as they navigate life. It sounds corny, I suppose, but this really is an intensely human story, with all the pathos you could wish for, and none of the schmaltz. How screenwright Simon Beaufort and novelist Paul Torday managed this, I don’t know, but I take my hat off to them. I wish I could be relied upon to write like that.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has become one of my favourite films, just like that.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 17 June 2012 in BBC Films, British Film, Film, Lionsgate, Unpredictable

 

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The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep‘s magnificent Maggie Thatcher well and truly matches Helen Mirren‘s remarkable Queen. It helps, of course, that the script is so well written by Abi Morgan, but to humanise this incredible woman is a great achievement, whoever you give the credit to.

Of course, it is only her most obvious frailty that provides the window of opportunity. Morgan’s script capitalises on the ageing Thatcher’s senility, and I don’t think there is any other way really to bring the woman down to earth enough for an audience to relate to her as a character.

The film lacks some of The Queen‘s zing. It creates magnificent character, but because of its broad sweep, it fails to create such a clear focus and the character is only just enough to cover the rather flat narrative structure.

The Iron Ladyis a very good film, and one well worth watching. But just in case any of you Poms were thinking about it, I’ve now seen enough biographical films about your twentieth century politicians. They’re really not that interesting.

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 14 February 2012 in British Film, Film

 

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The King’s Speech

Don’t ask me why, but I’m a sucker for a title with a double meaning! Usually, though, they represent a pretty ordinary film, play or novel. In the case of The King’s Speech, the film is far more clever than its title.

Set in 1930s England, with the world on the brink of war, this is the story of an unfortunate chap with a speech impediment. Not a particularly big deal, perhaps, unless the unfortunate chap happens to be the king of a constitutional monarchy in which the only useful thing a king does is to speak to his subjects. In such circumstances, there is only one thing for it; run through the gamut of speech pathologists until you find one who has a bit of common sense. Such a personage, of course, would have to be an Australian. You just can’t make stuff like this up!

It’s true. The film, I mean; it’s a true story. And it’s not in any way dry or sombre or mundane as biographical films are prone to being; it’s a thoroughly engaging story, made all the more real by its heart-warming depiction of our queen in her childhood, her mother in her prime, and the relationships of this extraordinary family.

If you’ve not seen it, do so. If you don’t like it, you’re probably not human.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 15 January 2011 in Bedlam Productions, British Film, Film

 

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The Ghost Writer

To the extent that Americans love a good conspiracy theory, the Brits are equally keen on questioning the integrity of their Prime Minsters. Roman Polanski caters for both predilections in his magnificent new film, The Ghost Writer.

Ewan McGregor plays the titular character, a writer hired to massage the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister into shape following the mysterious death of another ghost writer. Gradually, and innocently (which is refreshing), he discovers a web of intrigue and finds himself reluctantly wrapped up in it, at his own peril.

However much I like this as a film, it’s the story, penned originally as a novel by Robert Harris, that I find so magnificently intriguing. Remaining almost entirely fictitious, and needing no awkward date stamp, this story draws a shocking parallelism from the circumstances surrounding the era of fear following the 9/11 attacks. And surprisingly, since it parallels so literally the Anglo-American response, it is as relevant here in Australia as in the US and UK.

I can’t say too much about it, lest I spoil it for you, but this is a great film, and you must go see it. That is all.

 
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Posted by on Thursday, 19 August 2010 in British Film, Film, France 2 Cinema, French Film

 

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Harry Brown

Harry Brown begins with one of the most guesome scenes of urban violence imaginable. The purpose of this scene, almost unrelated to the rest of the film, is perhaps to numb us a little for what is to follow. The violence of Harry Brown is, perhaps, of the same calibre as Quentin Tarantino‘s films, but Daniel Barber’s use of violence is otherwise entirely incomparable. It is targeted, purposeful and meaningful to the same extent that Tarantino’s is aimless and vague.

Michael Caine is at his best in this film. In case you were wondering, no, he’s not funny; he strikes with absolute perfection that degree of pathos that could so easily turn into melodrama, without even a hint of going too far. He is supported by an impeccable script and visionary cinematography.

I have long been a devotee of those films that can take the most grotesque aspects of the human condition and appeal, even in that context, to our capacity for hope. Trainspotting was one of the first I encountered, and remains one of the best examples of the transcendental in film. Harry Brown certainly stands well beside it.

And in case you read my previous post about seeing Robin Hoodat Perth’s Picadilly cinema, you may be interested to know that Leederville’s art deco Luna cinema was the perfect venue for a film of this calibre!

 
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Posted by on Monday, 7 June 2010 in British Film, Film, Marv Films, UK Film Council

 

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Sherlock Holmes

Film interpretations of literary works are unfortunately subject to comparison with their wordy counterparts and generally make a poor comparison. Sherlock Holmes’ three writers deftly sidestep this risk by taking Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters and situation and giving them a new plot. The result, I think, is a crime story that the master crime writer would have been proud of.

This film departs dramatically from the tradition of depicting Holmes as a Victorian aristocrat and instead shows him as a hero not unlike Spiderman or Mr Incredible, but with substantial flaws that both endear him and make him repugnant to a twenty-first century audience. Robert Downey Junior plays him admirably, but Jude Law’s Watson is the star performance here. Just as in Doyle’s novels, where Watson is the link between the reader and the aloof Holmes, Law’s Watson gives the audience a central character that makes the detached genius accessible.

This film is unmistakably a product of the twenty-first century, but it manages at the same time to illicit that same sense of intrigue from me that reading Doyle’s stories does. The makers of this film have been bold, even brazen, in their interpretation of Doyle’s characters and situations, but the gamble has paid off, and Sherlock Holmes is, as a result, the first film to do Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters justice.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 1 January 2010 in American Film, British Film, Film, German Film, Warner Brothers

 

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The Road to Guantanamo

There is a particular atmosphere in films that depict the victims of the Holocaust, and I found it incredibly disturbing to sense that same atmosphere in this excellent documentary recently aired on the SBS.

The Road to Guananamo is the story of several Pakistani Britons from Birmingham who found themselves caught up in the war in Afghanistan immediately following the 9/11 attacks, and who are ultimately imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, accused of being members of Al Qaeda. That this can happen to innocent travellers is hardly surprising, but the stories of their treatment at the hands of mostly American guards is no less shocking and outrageous than the many depictions of Jewish victims of the Nazis during World War II.
Apart from its moral position and emotional impact, which is similar to what I have felt when watching depictions of how the German Jews were treated in the early forties, what I found astonishing was the realisation of how conditioned I am. As these young men were relieved from their Afghani captors and handed over to the Americans, I felt, when I heard the American accent, a sense of relief; I felt their ordeal was finally over. Of course, the worse was yet to come, and the Americans proved themselves incapable of justice.
The film unselfconsciously takes advantage of our conditioning, allowing us to feel some confidence in the American gaolers before showing them to be as evil and conniving as their Nazi predecessors; and putting the story into this context highlights that the problem lies with the fascist element in the perpetrating society. While I cannot vouch for the voracity of the prisoners’ accounts of their gaolers’ actions, I am more inclined to trust their accounts than the rantings of governments beseiged by criticisms. What appalls me more than the behaviour of the American guards is the knowledge that Australians were imprisoned with these Pakistani Britons, and that our government was no more loyal to our people than the British were to theirs.
It is rare to see such a cogent and compelling story about the need to heed the lessons of history. While I know that the American people are every bit as honourable and worthy of respect as the Germans are, this film demonstrates that no people, least of all the Americans, should be complacent in holding their politicians accountable.
 

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Slumdog Millionaire

I’ve always been moderately fond of Danny Boyle’s films. I wouldn’t call myself a fan, I just notice his name on the end of films that I like quite regularly. Slumdog Millionaireis different. I loved it, and was shocked to see his name flash up at the end!

Although the plot is somewhat convoluted with a bit of ambiguity in its chronology, the story is intriguing, and although I went when I was kind of focused on something else (namely a meal at my favourite Lygon Street cafe), I was engaged quickly, and the film held my attention until the end.
There are some great performances from some child actors, and spectacular performances from the adult cast, but the star of this film is definitely the cinematography. From the slums of Mumbai to the Taj Mahal to the beauty of India’s countryside, even the most dire of circumstances is presented beautifully, composed with a delicacy that is not common in films about this subject matter.
There aren’t many films that successfully depict the horrible realities of our world and retain a sense of possibility and optimism, but Slumdog Millionaire does this beautifully. I suppose I will have to reassess my opinion of Danny Boyle. If he makes another film as good as this one!
 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 15 April 2009 in Celador, Film, Film4, Indian Film, Pathe

 

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