Archive for the ‘Romance’ Category

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Directors: Ben Blaine and Chris Blaine

Writers: Ben Blaine and Chris Blaine

Country: UK

Runtime: 98 mins

Cast: Fiona O’Shaughnessy (Nina), Abigail Hardingham (Holly), Cian Barry (Rob), Elizabeth Elvin (Sally), David Troughton (Dan)

This blood-soaked modern-day Blithe Spirit is a real treat

Nina Forever is a perfectly-realised first full cinema feature by the Blaine brothers, Ben and Chris, in which a young couple, Holly and Rob, find theselves haunted by Rob’s deceased former girlfriend, Nina. A rather moving comedy-horror, Nina Forever is like a modern-day rendering of Blithe Spirit. Here, though, Noel Coward’s posh drawing rooms are replaced by a cramped flat on a fog-bound housing estate, the stock room of a supermarket, and a graveyard over which an electricity pylon looms ominously. Oh, and there is lots of blood and sex.

Holly is a trainee paramedic with slightly morbid leanings, who works in the supermarket during the day. There she meets Rob, who is trying to get over the death of his girlfriend Nina, the victim of a car crash. Unfortunately, whenever the two of them try to get it on between the sheets a scarred and bloody Nina appears and makes it clear to “silly little girl” Holly that death is not going to stop her staking a claim to Rob.

It is a credit to the Blaine brothers’ script and Abigail Hardingham’s performance that we are able to engage in a pretty big suspension of disbelief by accepting Holly’s return to Rob after the first alarming bedroom encounter with Nina. Credit must also go to Cian Berry who gets laughs as the bereaved Rob, by playing it completely straight. Fiona O’Shaughnessy revels in the role of Nina, coming on as a wide-eyed (blood-soaked) innocent whilst delivering the bitchiest of comments.

There are some recognisable and delightful everyday observations that add to the comedy, such as when a long-awaited text message turns out to be a special offer from a local pizza parlour, and when a luckless chap on a bus finds himself stuck between a quarrelling Rob and Holly. But beneath the comedy there is a very real recognition of the pain of grief and the difficulty of moving on with life after a loved one dies.

Nina Forever brings a refreshing originality to the comedy-horror genre.

Rating: 4/5

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Director: Alan Rickman

Writers: Jeremy Brock, Alison Deegan, Alan Rickman

Country: UK

Runtime: 117 mins

Cast: Kate Winslet (Sabine De Barra), Stanley Tucci (Philippe, Duc D’Orleans), Jennifer Ehle (Madame De Montespan), Alan Rickman (King Louise XIV), Helen McCrory (Madame De Notre), Matthias Schoenaerts (André Le Notre )

A stylish but undemanding period romance

Let me say right away that I think I may have enjoyed this period drama rather more than it deserved to be liked. Directed by Alan Rickman, A Little Chaos has some genuinely good qualities. The sets and costumes are lavish, the cinematography is beautiful, and there is some top class acting. Notably, Kate Winslet is in her element playing a woman striving for independence in a man’s world, smart but not overconfident.

As Sabine De Barra, a landscape gardener, she secures a position – in the face of male competition – to lead the construction of the grand gardens at the Palace of Versailles. The man who appoints her is André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), the head gardener to King Louis XIV. At Sabine’s first interview, however, André is not impressed by the lack of order in her designs, telling her: “In my world anarchy is by royal command and even chaos must adhere to budget”. However, upon reconsideration he decides that she can provide the kind of original eye that the gardens need.

His decision marks him out as a man of sensitivity and, unsurprisingly, an attraction develops between him and Sabine. But in time-honoured fashion there are barriers to any romance. She is widowed and with a secret that is hinted at by the visions she has of a young girl dressed in white; he is in a loveless marriage to a woman who thinks nothing of paying men for sex but who will not tolerate him forming outside attachments. Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory) also has the ear of the Queen, so is able to exert control over her husband.

Sitting above all the courtly intrigue is the King himself, adroitly played by Alan Rickman who alternates between being fearsomely imperious and quirkily amusing. Will Sabine’s idiosyncratic vision meet his exacting requirements? And in the face of adversity will the gardens even be completed on time?

The film’s central weakness is its essentially Mills and Boon-ish plot, coupled with a certain lack of pacing. It’s pretty undemanding stuff, but may well find an audience for those who enjoy a straightforward old-fashioned romantic tale.

Rating: 6/10.

Theory_of_Everything

Director: James Marsh

Screenplay: Anthony McCarten

Country: USA/UK/Japan

Runtime: 123 mins

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking), David Thewlis (Dennis Sciama), Alice Orr-Ewing (Diana King)

Tears and laughter abound in this tale of romance, religion, and theoretical physics

It is a splendid coincidence that 2014 has seen two major movies about great British scientists, first Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) and now Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. When, as a young doctoral student, Stephen Hawking was first diagnosed with motor neurone disease he was given two years to live. Now aged 72, he continues to work on the very thing that he himself has cheated: time. The Theory of Everything is based on the memoir of Hawking’s first wife, Jane, titled “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking”. It tells the intertwined stories of Stephen’s intellectual indomitability in the face of a debilitating, incurable illness, and his life with Jane until their eventual separation in the mid-90s.

Despite the reputation of Hawking’s bestselling “A Brief History of Time” as a book that many have bought but fewer read, The Theory of Everything doesn’t burden the audience with scientific detail. In fact, I envisage that from this point on physics teachers across the land will use a potato and a pea to explain the tension between gravitational forces and quantum forces. It is Stephen and Jane’s romance that is to the fore through much of the film. With his large glasses permanently perched halfway down his nose and hair swept across his eyes, the young Stephen appears superficially to be the epitome of the nerdy scientist. Yet his personality is a curious mix of bashfulness and confidence, laced with humour. He and Jane, who studies medieval Iberian poetry, are clearly attracted upon first meeting, despite their first conversation revealing that he is an atheist and she a Christian.

At the Cambridge May Ball, when asked about the poetry of the 1920s Jane teases Stephen with Yeats’s lines: “Seek then / No learning / from Starry Men / Who follow with Optic Glass / The Whirling Ways of Stars that Pass”. “Ouch!” says Stephen. He in turn, asked about the science of the 1920s, talks romantically about space and time in relationship terms: “People always thought they were too dissimilar, couldn’t possibly work out. But then along comes Einstein, the ultimate matchmaker, and decided that space and time not only had a future, but had been married all along”. Standing beneath a starry sky, Jane quotes the bible (“In the beginning was the heaven and the earth…”), which leads Stephen to take her hand and ask her to dance, a significant moment because he earlier said that he never dances.

Stephen’s illness manifests itself even before he has been awarded his PhD, but despite the prognosis of imminent death he continues to work. Jane determines that they must fight the disease, even though she has been warned that the only outcome can be defeat. She and Stephen get married, have children, and she does all she can to support Stephen. Over the years, however, the strain begins to tell. At Stephen’s suggestion Jane joins a local choir, only to find herself attracted to the widowed choirmaster. Later, Stephen finds himself attracted to Elaine, a nurse who has been brought in to assist with his caring. Following the publication of “A Brief History of Time” Stephen tells Jane that Elaine will be accompanying him to a meeting in America, at which point it becomes clear that their marriage is at an end.

Anthony McCarten’s sparkling script is full of wit, which adds depth and variety to a tale that might otherwise have been a standard one about triumph over adversity. Those of us who have recently seen the re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot fail to have been thrilled and amused by the first words that Stephen speaks with the aid of his voice synthesiser: “Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do…”. Although there is not a natural dramatic end point for the story, McCarten contrives a device to wrap things up that is moving and satisfying.

Eddie Redmayne gives a remarkable performance as Stephen Hawking, whose increasingly severe symptoms are displayed, with attendant frustration, in accurate detail and without exaggeration. Nonetheless, even when Stephen has become entirely immobile Redmayne is able to convey his mischievous wit with just a look. Surely Redmayne will be shortlisted for the upcoming Oscars. Alongside Redmayne, plaudits are also due to Felicity Jones for her portrayal of Jane, who is absolutely convincing as the woman whose love and devotion eventually gives way to exhaustion and resentment, but ultimately mutual acceptance.

Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography must also be mentioned. Almost every scene, both interior and exterior is bathed in glowing – often golden – light. Cambridge has surely never appeared so beautiful. This lighting not only suits the theme of romance, but also serves as a reminder of Jane’s religious belief and Stephen’s interest in the stars.

The Theory of Everything is a wonderful film that will have audiences laughing even as they choke back the tears.

Rating: 10/10

The Theory of Everything was previewed at the British Film Institute on 8th December 2014.

AGWHAN_poster

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour

Country: Iran / USA

Runtime: 99 min

Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains

Judging by the feedback of the London Film Festival audience for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, there is a pretty good chance that this first full feature by Ana Lily Amirpour is going to become a cult classic. The story concerns a female vampire (“the girl”) who wanders the streets of an imagined Iranian town, Bad City. Her appearance is striking: she wears a chador open at the front to reveal a striped T-shirt, and her blank, uncomprehending eyes are ringed with dark mascara. In an early scene we get a glimpse of her fearsome power when she kills Saeed (Dominic Rains), a frighteningly thuggish pimp/drug dealer.

Subsequently, the film follows her developing relationship with a young man, Arash (Arash Marandi), who previously had his luxury car stolen by Saeed as payment for his father’s drug debts. There is a sense that both of them are lost. Arash is a typical young man, trying to forge an identity for himself, but being muscled aside by bigger, more confident men whilst trying to attract girls at a party. The girl encounters him whilst he is lost in the city at night, high on ecstasy. We do not know anything about her past or where she has come from, and she herself seems confused by her own existence. Strangely, though, although she does kill again, she seems only to kill those whose lives she judges to have little or no value.

Although I enjoyed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it is somewhat flawed. On the positive side, much of the imagery and cinematography is beautiful. Sheila Vand is utterly captivating as the girl. The first 15 minutes or so are really quite enthralling, with a clearly-identified “good guy” (Arash) coming into conflict with an obvious scary villain (Saeed). However, having established Saeed as a seriously frightening bad guy, he then gets bumped off. The girl, who is also a deeply sinister presence to begin with later becomes a much softer and likeable presence. What starts out as a horror-drama gradually develops into a kind of comedy romance. The change was a little confusing for this viewer, at least.

After Saeed’s death the film drifts along a little, and there are some longeurs, but somehow it gets by on charm. Part of the charm comes from Vand’s lost and lonely vampire, who I just wanted to give a big hug, but much of it comes from Arash’s pet cat. Yes, you heard that right – a cat. Just as some suggested that Inside Llewyn Davis was an ironic comment on Blake Snyder’s screenwriting classic “Save The Cat”, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour seems to have unironically implemented the entire cat concept in this film. It does make for enjoyable viewing, but ultimately I wondered if perhaps I had enjoyed the film rather more than it really deserved.

Rating: 6/10

Shown at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

Director: Robert Flores

Writers: Paul Jarrico & Allen Vincent (from a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell)

Country: USA

Runtime: 69 mins

A tour de force of acting from Peter Lorre as a tragic immigrant whose life is changed by a fire

According to the British Film Institute’s programme notes, Peter Lorre didn’t think much of the script for The Face Behind the Mask. He would often be the worse for the drink in the afternoon, leading director Robert Flores to get as many as possible of his scenes shot in the morning. It is therefore all the more remarkable that Lorre gives an utterly sublime performance, ranging from happy and innocent through to mean and ruthless, and ultimately loving and tragic.

Adapted from a radio play by Thomas Edward O’Connell, the story concerns Janos Szabo (Peter Lorre), a newly-arrived Hungarian immigrant in New York. Happy and optimistic, he makes the acquaintance of police Lieutenant James ‘Jim’ O’Hara (Don Beddoe), who helps him find accommodation. But disaster strikes: there is a fire in the hotel and Janos’s face is badly disfigured. Unable to find work because of the way he looks, Janos finds himself helped and befriended by Dinky (George Stone), a crook with gang connections. Janos doesn’t want to become involved with the gang, but when Dinky is too ill take take part in a job Janos takes his place out of loyalty. Through his earnings from crime Janos is able to purchase a fairly lifelike mask so that people can bear to look at him. However, surgery to repair his face his still beyond his means.

A watchmaker, Janos turns out to have technical skills that are valuable to the gang. By dint of his intelligence and ability he leads the gang on more jobs and rises to become the leader, deposing the former boss Harry (Stanley Brown). However, money can’t buy everything and the doctors tell him his face is effectively beyond repair. But then Janos meets Helen (Evelyn Keyes), who is blind, and the two fall in love. Janos decides to put the world of crime behind him, but his past catches up with him when Harry gets the idea that Janos has betrayed them.

The one weakness of the film is right at the start. The events leading up to Janos’s disfigurement are a little too pat and rather rushed. However, once these scenes are out of the way the pacing improves and the story settles down. The relationships between Jarnos and Dinky, and between Jarnos and Helen, are deftly handled and convincing. But more than anything else, it is impossible not to be impressed by Peter Lorre’s performance. It is hard to think of another actor who, in the space of a single movie, could move so convincingly between comically naive innocence and frightening menace. The end of the film, when it comes, is truly touching.

Rating: 8/10.

Shown as part of the Peter Lorre season at the BFI Southbank, London, in September 2014.

West_Beirut

Director: Ziad Doueiri

Writer: Ziad Doueiri

Country: France / Norway / Lebanon / Belgium 1998

Runtime: 105 mins

A funny and moving account of growing up in a conflict zone

My first exposure to Ziad Doueiri’s directorial work was his excellent 2012 film The Attack (reviewed here on 27th February 2014), the story of an eminent Palestinian surgeon whose wife – unbeknownst to him – carries out a suicide bombing. Thanks to the British Film Institute’s “Discover Arab Cinema” strand, I have now had the opportunity to  catch up with one of Doueiri’s earlier films, West Beirut. Unlike The Attack, however, this film has a number of comedic elements that offset the more serious underlying themes. The story concerns the experiences of two friends, Tarek and Omar, growing up in the Beirut of 1975, the year in which civil war broke out and the city became divided into the Muslim west and the Christian east. Doueiri himself grew up in Beirut during this period and it is perhaps this experience that gives the film a sense of raw immediacy. HIs own son Rami plays Tarek the bigger (and possibly older) of the two boys, with Omar played by Mohamad Chamas. 

Tarek is a typically impulsive and rebellious teenager. In an early scene that is perhaps an ironic nod to Casablanca, we see him undermining the teacher at his French-run school by singing the Lebanese anthem through a bullhorn as she is leading the others in the Marseillaise. After giving him a lecture in the superiority of French civilisation she sends him out into the corridor, from where he witnesses gunmen ambush a bus in the street. The next day, there are militias on the streets and Tarek’s parents are unable to deliver him to school. They learn that Christian militias have blockaded routes into the eastern part of the city. 

As the civil war envelops Beirut tensions rise between Tarek’s parents. His mother wants to leave the city, but his father is adamant they should stay, pointing out that they aren’t guaranteed a warm welcome elsewhere. He notes that the Lebanese are regarded as “deluxe” refugees in Switzerland and that sniffer dogs are set upon them at Heathrow Airport. 

Meanwhile, Tarek himself is motivated by other concerns. After shooting some sneak footage of the attractive girlfriend of Omar’s uncle he is determined to get the film developed. Unfortunately, the processing shop is now behind a militia checkpoint and Tarek is not allowed to pass. Tarek hardly seems aware of the danger that he is putting himself in, but Omar has a greater political awareness and tries to restrain his friend. Omar is also exasperated when Tarek makes friends with a Christian neighbour, May (Rola Al Amin), who openly wears a crucifix. Omar considers that this friendship is putting them both in danger. A turning point comes when, by a quirk of fate, Tarek inadvertently finds himself in the one location where people from both the east and west can still congregate: Madame Oum Walid’s brothel. Here, militia men check their guns at the door and mingle freely inside. Tarek discovers that there is even an agreed-upon code that allows patrons to pass through otherwise hostile areas – they need to fly a bra from a prominent place, such as a car aerial.

As if to remind us how real these events were for the inhabitants of Beirut, the film is interspersed with archive documentary clips from that period. However, Doueiri does not involve us with political arguments and, indeed, there is a lot of humour. What is brilliantly conveyed in West Beirut is that most people caught up in the conflict are just ordinary people trying to lead ordinary lives. They could be living anywhere. Tarek’s mother is a lawyer in the local courtroom. His father is currently trying to find work. The boys like pop music and Tarek has a Western sci-fi movie poster on his wall. One indication of the way in which people under duress might change comes from Omar, who tells Tarek that his father has decided their family should regularly attend the local mosque. In other words, this is religiosity arising from insecurity.

West Beirut is a hugely engaging and enjoyable film, ultimately very moving, and is one to look out for.

Rating: 9/10

Spring in a Small Town

China 1948

Director: Mu Fei

Writer: Tianji Li

Runtime: 93 mins

A dreamy beautiful tale of secret love

Set in the Yangtze Delta in the wake of the Sino-Japanese war, Spring in a Small Town is a beautifully mesmeric drama that transcends its basic love triangle plot. I was reminded of David Lean’s Brief Encounter, only here the encounter is not so brief as the conflict between desire and duty extends over several days.

The film opens with a shot of the central female character, Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei), walking by the ruins of the city walls, which give a view across miles of countryside. In hypnotic tones, she narrates the story, providing us with a context for what follows. Zhou lives with her husband Dai Liyan (Shi Yu) in the war-ravaged ruins of Liyan’s grand family home, together with Lyan’s teenage sister Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmei) and their servant Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming). Liyan claims to be suffering from tuberculosis, though Zhou believes he is neurotic – clearly, he is depressed about the loss of his family’s wealth which, as he puts it, happened “on my watch”. Zhou and Liyan occupy separate rooms, barely speak to each other, and the latter spends most of his days sitting unhappily in the garden. Zhou comments that she “does not have the courage to die” whereas Liyan “does not have the courage to live”. Xiu is the only real life in the household. Approaching her sixteenth birthday, she has less connection to the family’s past and so views the future with optimism.

This stasis is exploded with the arrival of Liyan’s old friend Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei). The two have not seen each other for ten years, during which time Zhichen has become a doctor, working in “the interior”. Liyan is ennervated by his friend’s arrival but, crucially, it is clear to the viewer that Yuwen and Zhichen were formerly lovers. More than this, their passion for each other has not dimmed. When the entire family go on walks along the city walls, or down the river by boat, Yuwen and Zhichen exchange glances and momentarily touch hands. On the occasions when they manage to be alone together they agonise over their plight but, Hamlet-like, neither can commit to decisive action.

The film never comes close to melodrama. Rather, the whole thing has a dream-like quality to it, perhaps reflecting the delirious state of people in the grip of romantic love. Zhou’s narration is one contributory factor to this atmosphere, her tones becoming particularly hushed and breathy when she is describing what is happening now as opposed to in the past. Another factor is director Mu Fei’s use of dissolves within darkened interior scenes.

**SPOILER ALERT**

The psychological tension is ramped up when Liyan decides that Zhichen would be a good husband for Xiu. The latter takes walks with Liyan along the city walls. At one point Liyan asks her why the family always choose to walk there. She tells him “When you look so far into the distance that you can’t see anything at all, you start to realise that the world isn’t so small after all”, adding that it would be very easy to suffocate within the confines of the family home.

The drama reaches its height when Liyan falls ill. This episode raised several questions in my mind, which are still puzzling me. Having realised that his wife and friend are in love, Liyan pays a solitary visit to Yuwen’s bedroom. He sits on the side of her bed, reaches across and touches her pillow, but this action seems to make him cough, whereupon he takes a seat by the side of her bed with a look of concern on his face. What is the significance of this scene?  It is as though Yuwen is allergic to his wife. Is that coughing attack a coded reference to Liyan being either gay or impotent?

Liyan returns to his own bedroom where we seem him drinking more than one cup of tea. There are also medicinal-looking bottles by the tea urn. He goes to bed, whereupon he slips into unconciousness and is discovered in this state by the servant. But what causes him to become unconscious? Is it purely psychological? Has he overdosed on some medicine? Or has he aggravated his heart by drinking excessive quantities of tea. It is not entirely clear. When Yuwen is brought to see him I thought I noticed a fleeting smile cross her face, but this is quickly replaced by a look of concern and a return to duty.

According to Noah Cowan’s article about Spring in a Small Town in the July issue of Sight & Sound, Fei Mu saw himself as a promoter of Confucian values. To the extent that these are reflected in this film, it is perhaps that everybody tries to do their duty. This leaves us with a curious ending in which Xiu and the family servant see off Zhichen as he returns to the interior. By now, Xiu nows that Zhichen is in love with her sister-in-law, but she asks him when he will return. He tells her he will be back in the spring, whereupon she suggests he return in the summer. We then see Yuwen standing on the ruined city walls staring out into the distance. Liyan approaches her and she points out something in the distance to him, bringing to mind Xiu’s earlier words that this view reminds us that the world isn’t so small after all (perhaps recalling Humphrey Bogart’s words in Casablanca, that “the problems of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”).

Rating 10/10

Spring in a Small Town is currently being shown in an extended run at the British Film Institute at London’s South Bank, and is also available on the BFI Player.

OXV

Is your life determined by your frequency?

UK 2013

Director: Darren Paul Fisher

Writer: Darren Paul Fisher

Runtime: 105 mins

Retitled as Frequencies in the USA.

 

**Mild spoilers included**

Since time immemorial young people have had to negotiate obstacles to their relationships. Typically, these come in the form of parents, love rivals, class barriers, or just lack of interest from the object of one’s desire. Now, in possibly the most cerebral boy-meets-girl movie you are ever likely to see, writer/director Darren Paul Fisher has found a new way to keep young couples apart. He has imagined a world very much like our own, except for one thing. In this world scientists have discovered that people differ in the types of “frequencies” they possess. Not only are high frequencies associated with higher levels of intelligence, but with higher levels of luck too. For it turns out that people’s frequencies are also linked to the physical environment, and good things just happen to fall into place for the lucky ones possessing high frequency. Moreover, a low frequency and a high frequency person are not allowed to spend more than one minute per year in each other’s company, because to do so would be to disrupt the natural order of the physical world, whereupon bizarre events occur.

Crew and cast members at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival

Parents, of course, want their children to be high frequency but there is one drawback: the higher the frequency, the lower the empathy possessed by the person. Young schoolgirl Marie (Lilly Laight) is high frequency and possesses an astonishingly high IQ, but lacks empathy and so cannot have feelings for others. However, she has learned to display facial expressions that convincingly mimic the expression of actual emotion. Zak (Charlie Rixon) thinks Marie is lovely, but although his IQ is (merely) above average he is low frequency. In an arresting opening scene, we see the school’s children lined up in a corridor, all wearing school uniform, and all clutching shiny green apples. As Marie stands at the front of the line on the left, an apple rolls up beside her foot. It is Zak’s apple, and as she hands him it back she flashes a beautiful smile that quickly vanishes as she faces forwards again.

We later learn that the rolled apple was no accident, but a deliberate action engineered by Zak’s friend Theo (Ethan Turton). As time passes Theo and Zak work together to figure out a way for Zak to be with Marie. In turn, Marie is willing to meet Zak for brief periods as part of her own experimentation with the effects of frequencies. During one such meeting as teenagers, Zak (Dylan Llewellyn) and Marie (Georgina Minter-Brown) extend their meeting – in the school field – past the course of a minute. As they do so, a bunch of suitcases from a passing airplane crash surreally into the grass, illustrating just what can happen when there is a clash of frequencies. But whilst Marie lacks empathy, and so cannot feel anything for Zak, she wishes that she did have feelings. This spurs Zak on in his attempts to find a way to be with Marie.

Director Darren Paul Fisher answers questions at Sci-Fi-London 2014

Later, Zak – now a young adult, played by Daniel Fraser – turns up at Marie’s house (Eleanor Wyld plays adult Marie) and announces that he has found a way for them to be together. He only partially explains to her how this works, but it transpires that certain two-syllable non-words can affect the physical surroundings, preventing the usual disastrous effects of two mismatching frequencies meeting. Zak’s and Marie’s frequencies move closer to each other and she falls in love with him. However, because – unknown to Marie – her feelings are the result of his manipulation, can her love be real? On the other hand, she wanted to be able to have feelings, so isn’t it just an expression of Zak’s own love that he gave her what she wanted? Where does free will enter into all of this? Is there such a thing? Philosophical questions about the manipulation of frequencies become especially pressing when Theo publishes “The Manual”, a book that enables people to engineer events in ways that suit themselves.

The dangers of creating a complex set of intellectual problems in a movie are that the eventual solutions aren’t entirely convincing. OXV: The Manual is no exception, and the way matters are resolved is possibly a touch clichéd. However, by this point I had enjoyed the story, and the very impressive performances by the entire cast, so much that my goodwill towards the film allowed me to not mind the slightly obvious nature of the ending. Speaking of the cast, there were two particularly notable things about the performances. Firstly, the actors who played the characters as children were superb. Their performances were very natural and assured, which is quite a feat when so much depended on facial expressions. Secondly, with different actors portraying the characters at different ages it was remarkable just how consistently those characters behaved in their different incarnations.

Rating: 9/10

Colonel Blimp (2)

UK 1943

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Screenplay: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Running time: 163 minutes

 

**SPOILERS ARE INCLUDED**

Arguably, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is the greatest of the great films made by the fabulous duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. It was restored in 1983 and again in 2011. Among the additional features with the most recent version is an interesting and informative piece by  Martin Scorcese describing the process of restoration.

The film is an original story based on David Low’s cartoon character from the 1930s, depicting a pompous and jingoistic red-faced old buffer, who issues ridiculous and often self-contradictory pronouncements from the Turkish bath at his club. For many years, the term “Blimpish” was often used in Britain to refer to somebody holding such attitudes, though it is less often heard now. Powell and Pressburger’s character, played brilliantly in three different ages by Roger Livesy, is not actually named “Blimp”, nor does he die, and nor is he a colonel (he eventually attains the rank of Major-General). The character of Clive Wynne-Candy is, in fact, a far more human and sympathetic individual than his cartoon counterpart.

The story begins in World War 2. A group of Home Guard soldiers are preparing for a training exercise. Lieutenant “Spud” Wilson (James McKechnie) has learned from a woman nicknamed “Mata Hari”, close to the top brass, that the exercise is to begin at midnight. Reckoning that initiative counts for more than rules in modern warfare, he leads his men in a pre-emptive strike on Wynne-Candy’s club, capturing the Major-General himself and all the other officers. Wynne-Candy is elderly, bald, plump, and sports a large walrus moustache. He is apoplectic at the intrusion, uttering the immortal words: “Yer damn young fool, war begins at midnight!” He knocks Spud into the pool, then jumps in after him and the two disappear beneath the water.

We then see a much younger Wynne-Candy emerge from the pool: it is now 1902, and our young officer is on leave from the Boer War. He and his fellow young officers are brash and loud, to the annoyance of the older patrons of the baths. However, despite his youth Wynne-Candy has distinguished himself in battle, earning the highest award for bravery, the Victoria Cross. He receives a letter from a British woman in Berlin called Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr). She is concerned about a German by the name of Kaunitz (David Ward) who is spreading “lies” about British behaviour in the Boer war, such as the story that they are operating concentration camps. She wants Candy to go to Berlin to counter the propaganda. Candy’s superiors tell him not to go, but he ignores them.

In Berlin, Candy tries to tease Kauntiz, who he knows from an earlier encounter, but it escalates into an argument in which Candy manages to insult the honour of the entire German army. He gets drawn into a duel with the Germans’ champion, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The depiction of this is one of the great cinematic moments. There is a long lead up to the duel itself, building the tension but also emphasising the absurdity of the whole enterprise. Then, as sabres start to clash, the camera zooms out and upwards, away from the action, and through the roof of the building itself, so that we are looking down on the compound as snow falls beautifully from the sky.

The story picks up in a hospital where both duellists are recovering from their wounds. Wynne-Candy’s face is bandaged: his upper lip has been almost severed and he subsequently grows an ample moustache in order to cover the scar. It is a neat element of the story, building an empathetic bridge with the older Wynne-Candy who we saw at the start of the film. During their stay at the hospital, and over countless games of cards, the two officers become friends. Moreover, Theo and Edith Hunter fall in love, and she stays in Berlin to marry him. Candy is delighted for them both, but only when he returns to London does he realise that he too has fallen for her. He deals with his feelings by going on a hunting tour and we see the walls of his room in London filling up with the animal-head trophies. In one of the DVD/Blu-Ray extras, Stephen Fry notes that this scene is so politically incorrect as to be almost inconceivable in a modern movie. However, this scene is not just about Candy’s loneliness or his enjoyment of hunting; it also reminds us that Britain at this point in history had the largest empire the world has ever seen (the trophies all come from empire countries).  The reminder is a salutary one, as the First World War is just around the corner.

When the Great War breaks out, Candy again serves his country. However, his old-fashioned notions of honour are beginning to look dated. He treats the interrogation of a German prisoner like a chat between gentlemen. The German remains silent and Candy is called on business. Once he has gone, a South African member of the British Army takes over and makes it clear that his methods of questioning will be less refined (these methods are left to the viewers’ imaginations). Candy views Britain’s victory in World War 1 as a demonstration that “right is might” – honourable methods will always defeat dirty tricks such as poisoned gas. He meets a nurse – Barbara – who bears a striking resemblance to Edith (also played by Deborah Kerr), and the two get married. Theo is held as a prisoner of war in Derbyshire, but when hostilities cease Candy takes him to a dinner where various British dignitaries are present. They all represent different parts of the British Empire, and try to assure Theo that Britain holds no grudges and just wants to help rebuild Germany as a trading partner.

When the Second World War breaks out Theo seeks refuge in Britain, as he despises the Nazis. Sadly, his two sons have joined the National Socialist Party. When he recounts how they did not attend Edith’s funeral, he appends this with a quiet “Heil Hitler” that manages to be both pitiful and vitriolic. He is reunited with Candy, whose own wife has also died in the intervening years. Following the fall of Dunkirk Candy is due to give a speech via the BBC, but this is cancelled by the powers-that-be, who have read it in advance. Theo tells Candy some home truths from the perspective of a man who has lived under the Nazis: if Britain clings to old-fashioned notions of honourable warfare, they cannot expect the enemy to do the same. In fact, the enemy will laugh at them and despise them. Only by being prepared to fight dirty will the allies be able defeat the tyranny of Nazism. Candy is dropped by the regular Army but obtains a senior position in the homeguard, at which point the film comes full circle.

The Mata Hari referred to in the opening turns out to be his driver, Angela, who resembles both Edith and Barbara (and is also played by Deborah Kerr). Spud Wilson is her boyfriend, and when she realises the trick he is going to pull she tries to stop him. In the final scene, Candy remembers how he ignored orders as a young officer, as well as the trouble it caused, and his anger dissipates. He vows to follow the actions of his own Commanding Officer by inviting Spud to dinner. As Spud and his men march past in the street, Candy raises his arm in salute.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp works on several levels. The escalating argument between Candy and Kaunitz in 1902 can be seen as a microcosm of the absurdities that can cause conflict between nations. By contrast, the friendship of Candy and Theo shows how the people of different nations are not really all that different, and asks us to consider why, if individuals can get along like this, why can’t their countries? The film also gives a salutary reminder that before and after the First World War Britain held a large portion of the world under its dominion. And, of course, the core message that honourable methods could not defeat the Nazis would not have been lost on the audience in 1943.

But this is not just a film about war and political attitudes. It is a film about ageing and understanding. When we first encounter Clive Wynne-Candy it would be easy to dismiss him as a blinkered old duffer, which is no doubt what Spud Wilson thinks he is. By the end of the film we realise that Major-General Candy is a man who deserves our respect, just as he was respected by his German counterpart Theo.  The increasingly vicious nature of warfare may have rendered his ideas of honour redundant, but perhaps we should simply be appalled by modern warfare rather than by notions of honour. Moreover, for all his faults – which include the hardly unique matter of believing the one-sided propaganda of his own nation – Wynne-Candy was a man who stood up to be counted when it really mattered. He lived, he loved, and was a good friend to Theo, who would undoubtedly have been deported but for his intervention.

On the technical side, the way that Theo and Clive Wynn-Candy age through the three phases of the film is truly masterly. Especially in the case of the latter, despite all the advances in make-up and prosthetics since 1943 I struggle to think of any film that has so convincingly depicted youth, middle age and old age with the same actor. Roger Livesy himself gives the performance of a lifetime as Candy. It was also a stroke of genius to use a young Deborah Kerr to represent a different woman in each time period, thus emphasising the love that Candy had for Edith, Edith who married his friend Theo.

One of the accompanying features to the 2011 DVD/Blu-Ray mentions that Winston Churchill was aghast at some of the film’s content and wanted to block its release. To his great credit, J. Arthur Rank, head of the Rank Organisation, stood up to Churchill and the film was released. Perhaps Churchill’s objection was not so surprising: As Stephen Fry points out, to some degree Churchill himself was Colonel Blimp.

Rating: 10/10

 

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What would it be like to live forever? This question must have crossed most people’s minds at some point. In Only Lovers Left Alive, the centuries-old vampires Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are responding to their immortality in different ways. Although they are lovers, they are keeping things fresh by living apart, she in Tangiers and he in the run-down city of Detroit. Eve is happily reading all the books she can lay her hands on; indeed, so practiced are her reading skills that she is flipping a page every couple of seconds. Adam, on the other hand,  is depressed. Musically skilled, in previous centuries he has given away his music to the likes of Schubert. He has also hung around with Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft. Now, though, he spends all his time at home making what he calls “funeral music”, electronic drones. Adam is losing faith in a world run by the zombies, the name that he and Eve give to humanity. He is at such a low point that he commissions the production of a single wooden bullet, and practices pointing a gun at his heart.

Adam and Eve no longer kill people (or convert them to vampires) in order to obtain blood. In Tangiers Eve obtains her blood supplies from a vampire with connections, who turns out to be the author Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), portrayed here as the author of Shakespeare’s plays. In Detroit, Adam buys his supplies from Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright) at the local hospital.

During a phone conversation Eve discovers how depressed Adam is, and arranges to travel back to Detroit (carefully organising her connecting flights so that she will only be travelling at night). But she has only been back in Detroit a short while when her wayward sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) shows up and throws their lives into turmoil, not least by tucking into their dwindling supply of blood.

Only Lovers Left Alive is not really a horror movie as such (indeed, because vampires typically exhibit fairly human-like qualities I would suggest they are rarely as frightening as zombies, possessed children, and demonic houses); rather, it is a supernatural romance/drama that also includes some amusing dialogue. The relationship between Adam and Eve is nicely played and quite touching, and you don’t need to be a vampire to identify with the problems caused by the unwanted arrival of an awkward family member.

The one aspect of the story that did require some suspension of disbelief was the idea that a man who has lived through the hundred years war and the black death could think that the world is getting worse, to the degree that he is contemplating suicide. Jarmusch draws a parallel between the vampires’ dependence on limited supplies of blood and humanity’s dependence on oil and water (the latter identified as the next resource to be fought over). However, such social commentary is kept to a minimum and it is the couple’s romance that is very much at the heart of the film.

Visually, Only Lovers Left Alive is always interesting to look at. Adam and Eve are tall and wan, and Adam in particular is very much the dandy (at one point Eve blames his depressive tendencies on Byron’s influence). His house, where many of the scenes take place, is like an interesting old junk shop, full of slightly outdated recording equipment, and he has an impressive collection of old guitars. We also get a glimpse of modern Detroit, which of course is in a sorry state. A scene inside the delapidated Michigan concert hall gives us a very real sense of the transitory nature of things.

Anyone seeing this movie in the hope of experiencing a few scares and thrills is likely to be disappointed, but if Byronic characters and gothic atmospherics are your thing then you are in for a treat.

Rating: 8/10