Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Humphrey Jennings, Vera Drake and my new favourite voice - Reviews #205

My continuing adventures in popular culture, both high (movies) and low (EVERYTHING ELSE):

FILMS:

Humphrey Jennings revisited:



Spare Time (1939)
- "Spare Time is a time when we do what we like." Yes it is.

Humphrey Jennings' first great film shows a documentarian in transition. The opening two passages, set in Sheffield and Manchester, are altogether mesmerising, but show a somewhat aloof fascination with the working classes - a species previously alien to the Cambridge graduate - which had grown during his time working on the Mass Observation project. He seems sympathetic, but not empathetic, observing their rules and rituals without truly engaging with his subjects. That's especially true, I think, of the still contentious 'kazoo band' sequence, which hints at Jennings' past as a surrealist and manages to be utterly unforgettable, aggressively bizarre and also a little cold.

It's the final chapter, 'Coal', where Spare Time comes into its own, as Jennings alights in a Welsh mining village and something in his soul is stoked: the result a warm, tender portrait of soot-choked generations finding release through music in church halls and romance in sweetshop doorways, the whole piece scored by a beautiful amateur rendition of Handel's Largo. I've seen it on the big screen, the small screen, and in my mind's eye a thousand times, and it still takes the breath away.

The film also contains a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance for my all-time favourite newspaper headline: "Her scent was bats' delight". (4)



A Diary for Timothy (1945) - A masterpiece from Britain's most poetic propagandist, Humphrey Jennings, with an E. M. Forster script read by Michael Redgrave and directed at a newborn baby, who hears a chronicle of his first six months on Earth: of the sacrifices of WWII and the challenges ahead. It's more literal and staged than most of Jennings' others, but full of his sublime visual juxtapositions and the understated, heart-melting vignettes that became an increasing part of his wartime work. It also contains the only existing footage of John Gielgud's Hamlet (ooh sir), perhaps the most celebrated of the century. (4)



The Dim Little Island (1949) - Humphrey Jennings' reputation as "the only true poet that the British screen has yet produced" (Lindsay Anderson, 1954, that quote being the one that's always wheeled out) is based largely on his wartime work.

After an outrageously colourful career as a poet, surrealist and Mass Observationist, Jennings joined the General Post Office as a documentarian, which upon the outbreak of war was renamed the Crown Film Unit and started making propaganda films, including Jennings' calling cards: Listen to Britain and A Diary for Timothy, the latter a mainstay in my all-time top 10 since I first saw it in 2005.

The Dim Little Island, his penultimate film, was made four years after the end of the war and is preoccupied with what happens next, as the country is at once patronised and accused of going to the dogs. In turn, a comic artist (Osbert Lancaster), an industrialist (John Ormston), a naturalist (James Fisher) and the legendary composer Ralph Vaughan Williams give their thoughts on their chosen subject - and therefore on Britain itself - before Jennings starts cross-cutting, drawing some unexpected parallels between their ruminations.

The film lacks the seamlessness and effortless poetry of Jennings' best, not least because of the mannered, awkward voiceovers from Ormston and Fisher, clunky in both content and delivery. But the vivid footage and discussion of Britain at a turning point in its history, busily shedding its influence and relevance, makes it a fascinating historical piece, while the marriage of Vaughan Williams' beautiful music and erudite thoughts to Jennings' incisive, instinctive feel for imagery leads to some truly wonderful moments towards the end of this short, sometimes very special film.

It also shows my lovely office, which made me very proud. (3.5)

***



CINEMA: Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004) - Vera Drake has the feel of one of those campaigning films of the 1950s and ‘60s – such as Victim, which lobbied for the legalisation of homosexuality – but made some 40 years after the law was changed. In that sense, perhaps it has no real reason to exist, but as a character piece and a historical document, it’s sort of fascinating. It’s also exceptionally well-acted.

The title character (Imelda Staunton) is a housewife and domestic cleaner who also works as a freelance, free-of-charge abortionist, helping out girls who get into trouble by pumping them full of soapy water, thus helping them to miscarry. But one day things go wrong, and her poor but idyllic working class existence implodes.

It’s really an ensemble piece, and though some performances do tend towards caricature (the shallow sister-in-law, the rapacious middle-woman, the stupid Irishman), they’re mostly extremely good, as the film effortlessly evokes the atmosphere of a working class community very similar to the one in which my dad grew up. Phil Davis is absolutely superb as Vera’s husband, Adrian Scarborough creates a multi-faceted, multi-layered character as his aspirational brother, and Eddie Marsan is the last word in anxious suitors as the adorable bundle of nerves courting the Drakes’ daughter. If Daniel Mays is caught acting a few times, he still makes a good fist of his conflicted character, wrestling with what he sees as his mother’s betrayal of her family, and of basic decency. As the middle class counterpoint to Drake's working class charges ("you had to have that, it was in no way extraneous," says Leigh a little defensively in the Q&A accompanying this screening), a compelling, breathless Sally Hawkins does at least enjoy a more pampered termination, having suffered through hell to get there.

Best of all, though, is Staunton, who has spent rather too much of her screen career playing wittering gossips. As the saintly Vera, who spends the first half of the film basically acting like your nanna and the second half choking back tears as her world crumbles to dust, she is little short of revelatory, Leigh’s intensive preparations – including an 11-hour in-character improvisation of the film’s turning point – provoking a wealth of complex emotion, impeccably captured by a series of immaculate, uncompromising close-ups.

In some ways, the film is almost nostalgic for the Britain that was, before pop culture hammered a rivet between the generations and Thatcher sounded the death knell for society, but there are untold horrors lurking beneath that cosy, perkily poverty-stricken surface, and Leigh isn’t afraid to show them all, ably assisted by an oft-overlooked actress at the peak of her powers. I don’t think it’s necessarily a great movie – I’m not sure quite what its point is, except that the law should have been changed in 1967, which it was – but it’s gripping and gruelling, while casting light on an under-reported chapter of British history.

(PS: I saw this as part of the Tricycle Theatre's British Screen Classics series, and at the end I got to meet Leigh, Staunton and Davis, which was just awesome. Thanks to my excellent wife for bringing a pen with her for autograph purposes.) (3.5)

***

BOOKS:

As well as the two Sandy books, this one:



Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (2011) - Wow. Just exquisite. Hilary Mantel's follow up to Wolf Hall is a fast, sleek, linear sequel without a wasted page. Bloody and brilliant. (4)

***

TV:



Wolf Hall (Peter Kosminsky, 2015
- It's a little hard to tell how good this edited highlights package is; without the bits between the bits that we know from Mantel's Booker Prize-winning books, perhaps it wouldn't work so well. It's also fair to say there's a little too much of people just walking around, while Bernard Hill and Jonathan Pryce are both largely going through the motions. Those shortcomings are largely blown away, though, by Mark Rylance's astonishing performance as brooding courtier Thomas Cromwell, his acting the most mesmeric I've seen since Rebecca Benson tore up the Apollo Theatre in last year's Let the Right One In, and reminiscent of Jason Robards at his early '60s peak. His voice is also utterly seductive, it may well be love. Kosminsky's unusual visual sense also grew on me, as did the sparing, simple traditional score, and the female characters were perfectly cast across the board. (3.5). I think.

***

THEATRE:


Sometimes starring Beverley Knight.

Memphis (Shaftesbury Theatre) - An explosive first half, full of stunning stagecraft, gives way to a somewhat muted second that's set too much around a sterile, uninteresting TV show. The story - about an interracial couple in '50s Memphis - is also rather slight, but the numbers are strong without being sensational, and the cast is first-rate, especially alternate female lead, Rachel John. (3)



Antigone (Barbican) - A frequently dazzling introduction to Greek tragedy, with Juliette Binoche a beautifully compromised heroine, and seamlessly modern staging. A few lulls, though also - surprisingly - a few lols. (3.5)



"There is no present or future - only the past, happening over and over again, now." A Moon for the Misbegotten (film, 1975) - In 1956, Jason Robards exploded onto Broadway in a then-neglected play by Eugene O’Neill by the name of The Iceman Cometh. As Hickey, the play’s bruised, brooding, evangelical salesman, flogging temperance to a bar-load of barflies, he gave a performance of bristling intensity that’s among the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen, thankfully captured in a 1960 live TV broadcast that’s essential for anyone who cares about theatre or drama or really life in general. That revival, directed by Jos√© Quintero, led to the comprehensive rehabilitation of a play that up until then had been regarded as one of O’Neill’s weaker efforts.

Thirteen years later, Robards and Quintero returned to O’Neill in A Moon for the Misbegotten (Robards had also appeared in a film of Long Day's Journey Into Night, playing a younger version of his character here), and once again it was filmed for broadcast, with one set, a minimum of credible make-up and a pair of Irish accents so improbable that you could sue the actors for lying. Regardless of how you feel about those things – and I’m pleased with the first, apathetic about the second and got over the distraction of the third after 20-odd minutes – it’s a stunning achievement, a remarkably grown-up, literate and moving film with the writer’s usual damaged souls marinated in alcohol, spewing out their skeletons as the liquor tips them into despair.

Colleen Dewhurst is Josie Hogan, a rough, big-breasted farmhouse girl with a reputation as a slut, who attracts the attention of a charming Broadway actor (Jason Robards), plagued by dark moods and a bleak past. Her father – played by Ed Flanders, 10 years her junior – is a drunk who may be a tyrant or a bastard or a great dad – it’s a play of shifting perceptions – and whose unconvincing ageing make-up has gone a bit crusty. Dewhurst and Flanders both struggle to come up with anything approaching a credible Irish accent – her attempt is particularly baffling – and yet both performances are nothing short of astounding, blessed with a vast depth of emotion that comes out in subtle inflections and fleeting gestures. Rather that way round than the other (hello, Meryl Streep, I am looking at you – when did you last make me feel anything).

And Robards, that eternally underrated actor, who played few lead roles in films because he was considered a bit ugly (how could anyone that talented be ugly? I suppose he did have an enormous head), is simply amazing, inhabiting O’Neill’s avuncular, semi-autobiographical boozehound, ravaged by self-loathing, while surely drawing heavily on his own fertile experiences as a substance-abusing manic-depressive. Swinging from uncertainty to euphoria to tenderness to bitterness, self-recrimination and finally self-awareness, he’s desperately moving and unwaveringly, compulsively watchable.

I’m not sure it’s for all tastes: the camera generally goes to the right places, but there’s little in the way of staging or action, just lots and lots of talking, some of it cyclical, some of it funny, most of it profound in O’Neill’s familiarly sad, elegiac and battered humanist style, lent an unbearable, unforgettable weight by two actors in exceptional form, and another who has probably never been surpassed. (4)



Maxine Peake in Hamlet (film, 2014) - Maxine Peake is a Hamlet of relentless game-playing, caustic sardonism and frequent spit-flecked fury in this engrossing, arresting Royal Exchange adaptation of Shakespeare’s finest. The story, as you may know, is that “a ghost and a prince meat, and everyone ends in mincemeat”. While the script is recycled from a West End production in 2009, and the supporting cast is a little bland, causing attention to wander when its hero(ine) is off-screen, that scenario is lit by staging of minimalist invention – including an ingenious ‘apparition’ scene featuring oversized yellow lightbulbs lowered to the stage floor – some perturbing grace notes (the Prince of Denmark mock-wanking), and the hottest Hamlet since John Barrymore. (3)

and sort of theatre, in a way:



Stephen Merchant: Hello Ladies... Live! (2011) - I'm generally a fan of Stephen Merchant, but I found this document of his first - and so far only - stand-alone stand-up show strangely slight, hackneyed and lacking in ambition. It includes newspaper clippings from 10 years earlier, which are funny but suggest a certain paucity of invention, and laboured gags about his height, his stinginess and Ricky Gervais. At times you can see the working, as he moves laboriously or unconvincingly from one topic to another. There are a few good jokes, though, and he has excellent comic timing to make up for a comic persona that's rather less appealing than the real-life Merchant appears to be. (2.5)

***

Thanks for reading.

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