Monday, 9 January 2017

Jane Austen, Pride, and Martin Scorsese pandering to my every whim – Reviews #254

I've only watched two films since 22 December (what the hell?), as I have been Broadening My Horizons*.

Thanks to everyone who read and shared my blogs last year. It topped 9,000 views in a month for the first time ever in December, which might not sound like a great deal, but meant a lot to me.



Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014)

"Our lives shall not be sweated,
From birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies,
Give us bread, but give us roses."

The best British film I've seen since Attack the Block, taking a premise that seems merely like a liberal wet dream and fashioning an astonishingly erudite, funny and intensely moving movie, which works as an examination of our shared humanity, a startling recreation of the last stand of our country's working class, and a much-needed rallying cry at a time when the left has never seemed weaker or more irrelevant.

Ben Schnetzer plays Mark Ashton, a gay rights activist who persuades his friends to protest on behalf of the miners engaged in the longest and bloodiest strike of the post-war era; like the gay community, they've been smeared and attacked by the government, the police and the right-wing press. There's division on both sides − his colleagues have been persecuted by alpha males their whole lives; the miners think the poofs will turn them into a laughing stock − but their uneasy alliance grows in sincerity and power as it progresses.

Pride is of a piece with those popular and critical British successes of a previous generation − Brassed Off, The Full Monty, Little Voice and Billy Elliot − which effectively juxtaposed artistic or social endeavour (a key tenet of British working class life since time immemorial, just watch Humphrey Jennings' Spare Time from 1939) with the plight of community, as Thatcher systematically decimated the country's industrial heartlands. But I found it more even persuasive than those films, mixing Brassed Off's intellectual rigour and daring with The Full Monty's box office crowdpleasing, and Little Voice's embracing of the outsider hero.

A lot of that is in Stephen Beresford's script, which has a very clear voice, right from the off, full of distinctive, imaginative and beautifully balanced dialogue. I particularly enjoyed this exchange:

"I've never met a lesbian before."
"I've never met anyone who irons their jeans before."

There's also one instantly classic bit of dialogue that perfectly epitomises the collision between two worlds, as veteran mining committee secretary Gwen (Menna Trusler) alerts her colleagues to the presence of their visitors with the immortal words: "Dai, your gays have arrived."

It's in the film's emotional moments, though, that I found it most persuasive, and altogether unforgettable. Many of these are from Andrew Scott's tormented Gethin, given a lifeline by the venture, and from Schnetzer, astonishingly good as the driven, prepossessing and amiable Mark, whose flipside is a pained, alienated despondency. I had no idea he was a native New Yorker until googling him afterwards. There's also one of the best single-scene bits in aeons from Russell Tovey as Mark's friend Tim.

Occasionally the film becomes too cartoonish, usually when Dominic West's flamboyant gay actor, Jonathan, is permitted centre-stage, or Lisa Palfrey peddles her one-dimensional villainy, and my main quibble on seeing the cast − that perhaps drama-school-educated, middle-class Londoners aren't the best choices to play working-class Welsh people − was validated somewhat by Imelda Staunton's slightly synthetic performance, though Bill Nighy is often very good as sympathetic committee member, Cliff. One of the script's real virtues is its rich tapestry of human life: there are at least six brilliantly-drawn characters − what's the last film you could say that about? And the rest of the casting is superb: Paddy Considine perfect as the gays' first friend amongst the miners − a measured, compassionate man − Joseph Gilgun as funny and lacking in vanity as ever, George MacKay attractively callow and genuine as a fledgling gay, and Faye Marsay as the spiky, angsty lesbian who said that thing about jeans above.

The two scenes that utterly floored me, though, were the 'Bread and Roses' set-piece − built around as perfect an evocation of working class pride and dignity (and feminism) as was ever written, and augmented with tearjerking visual grace-notes from Scott and Liz White − and a note in the credits that resolves that age-old question: can a brief statement about block voting at a political conference ever make you cry? Director Matthew Warchus's building up of momentum during those final scenes just couldn't be better, finding solace and inspiration in what was a crushing and humiliating defeat.

This is on iPlayer for a few more weeks, and I would urge you to watch it. It's uplifting, mature, intelligent, entertaining and important: a valuable corrective to modern myths about people and politics, relentlessly peddled by a hypocritical media and a political establishment who continue to con millions of people into voting against their own interests, and then to blame those who have even less for their straitened circumstances. (4)

See also: Matthew Warchus went on to direct my favourite play of 2016, so well done him. I wouldn't be doing my job if I omitted to mention that we'll be joined by Mike and Jonathan from the LGSM for a special screening of Pride at the Royal Albert Hall next month.

***



CINEMA: Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1951) − A Hollywood art film, and as such one of the most interesting American films of its era: a metaphysical love story in which a poet (Marius Goring), a racing driver (Nigel Patrick), a matador and the Flying Dutchman himself (James Mason) risk death or worse in their pursuit of former nightclub singer Ava Gardner, and who can blame them?

I've wanted to see this somewhat notorious curio since reading Lee Server's biography of Gardner more than five years ago, which painted the actress as a voracious, hedonistic auto-didact who left behind her dirt-poor Southern upbringing to become a muse to some of the era's greatest men (including Hemingway), before depressingly if flamboyantly self-destructing. Server was at pains to highlight the unorthodoxy, originality and vision of this film (if not always the execution), and I finished the book wanting to see it more than any other.

It took an intervention by Martin Scorsese (a deus ex machina if ever there was one) to determine that not only would that be possible, but to ensure that it'd be on the big screen, thanks to his curation of a special season at the BFI featuring various oddities that have inspired him over the years. And seeing this farcically ambitious film as it was intended allowed me to luxuriate in its Spanish coastal locales, its incomparably sensuous leading lady, and writer, director and co-producer Albert Lewin's decidedly odd approach to just about everything, from shot framing to the rules of narrative (no, Albert, to the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever done a dream sequence within a flashback within a flashback before; even The Locket didn't try, and that had flashbackitis).

It's a bold, serious-minded and, yes, dreamlike film – though not without humour – that asks us to believe in faith, in fate, in legends, as Mason's sailor is doomed to sail the earth unless he can atone for his sins by, erm, making a woman die for him (bit sexist). He's good, though it's Gardner, as a cruel beauty transfigured by love, who dominates – she was often derided as an actress, especially during this period, but her untaught naturalism has aged extremely well, immune to changing modes of performance.

She is also the flat-out sexiest, most erotic actress there has ever been on screen: not the prettiest, not even necessarily the most well-proportioned or of a type still considered fashionable, but she has what Billy Wilder once called 'flesh appeal', appearing in 3D when everyone else is in two, her visceral appearance allied to a knowingness, a mixture of the ruthless and the vulnerable, and an ease in her skin that is intoxicating. Especially on the big screen.

Her conviction and attractiveness are as much a key to making this film work as Lewin's impassioned writing and his and Jack Cardiff's remarkable visual sense: notably exemplified by that shot of Gardner's face almost as a landscape, Patrick some vague cipher approaching her eternal beauty (a shot that seems to me to be echoed by Vilmos Zsigmond in The Argument); or her scarf on a headless statue that points out to the sea that will ultimately take her (that's not a spoiler, it's revealed in the first scene). I don't doubt that it was Cardiff's photography that drew, Scorsese, a massive Michael Powell buff, to the movie. Cardiff shot several of Powell's most celebrated films, including The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus.

The film is a little long-winded, at times simply too po-faced, relies overly on voiceover, and occasionally tips over into pretension or silliness, but it's also a genuinely ambitious, literate and artistic film, full of imaginative language, camera angles and ideas, and with just the right actress to play the beautiful, sensuous and thoroughly doomed Pandora. In fact, the only actress who could have done it. (3)

See also: There's a little about One Touch of Venus, Gardner's 1948 vehicle, in this thing here.

***

A BOOK:



*A FEW SPOILERS*
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (published 1917)
– Jane Austen’s first completed novel, only published posthumously, is often cited as simply a parody of Gothic literature, but it’s immeasurably more: a witheringly sarcastic romantic comedy of manners, with precisely no intrusions from the supernatural or melodramatic, vastly more accessible and universal than I ever expected. Its spoofing, when it comes, is simply another comic device: Austen toying with the over-the-top expectations of her impressionable heroine, and suggesting that perhaps popular culture isn’t always the best guide to behaviour in the real world, a remarkably contemporary observation. You don’t even need to be a literature buff to get the Gothicism jokes, as Austen gently, deftly introduces the genre tropes in amusing discussions between the hero and heroine, before meticulously layering them one upon the other, then puncturing the bloated illusion with a sharp, incisive revelation.

The story has 17-year-old Catherine Morland, Austen’s most naïve heroine, going to Bath – where she finds love and friendship – and then on to Northanger Abbey, where she is assailed by intrigue of her own imagination. It’s faster and arguably funnier than any other Austen book, with a truly bruising wit – particularly when angled at braggadocious bore John Thorpe, who has Catherine in his sights – and some breathtakingly modern, absurdist observations from love interest Henry Tilney, whose satirical, laborious constructing of false positions is basically my entire sense of humour. There are also piquant, pungent passages dealing with superficiality, duplicitousness and greed, and startlingly clear-eyed, refreshing characterisation that seeks to rescue the novel from the clutches of the unbelievable. Having a character who starts to pay attention to a woman only because she clearly fancies him is a refreshing change from the hyperbole of many romantic novels.

About three-quarters of the way through the book, Austen arguably pushes Catherine too far, the heroine’s fanciful conspiracy theorising transgressing from the appealing to the appallingly insensitive, but even this potential (and indeed apparent) misstep is merely waiting for a suitable pay-off, and gets one in a denouement that has enormous, escapist fun in tying up loose ends with glee and elan – her callback to the notes in the ‘japan’ bureau is particularly and exceptionally charming.

In the Christmas Radio Times, a Bronte fan was sneering at Jane Austen for the primness of her heroines, but it’s both a misreading of those characters, and lacks insight into the differences between an author’s viewpoint and that of her creations. Catherine Morland becomes a woman over the course of these pages, but even before that she makes judgements chiefly about herself, and is shocked by cruelty and hypocrisy as opposed to a breach of accepted manners. Austen too, more than in any other book until Persuasion, showcases a contemporary sensibility that’s remarkably fair-handed, wise and good-natured, her blistering sardonism a formidable weapon turned only on the most deserving causes. She’s so fierce and funny, so strikingly modern, that painting Austen (or one of her heroines) as an endlessly shockable shrinking violet does her a ridiculous disservice, and seems to miss what it is that fans respond to so keenly in her work. (4)

Next up is Stephen King's 11/22/63, which I'm halfway through.

***

Thanks for reading.

*newcomers: this is an homage to my beloved A. A. Milne, I do know how to use capital letters

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