My week in film: Suffragette and two rom-coms

Since returning from London Film Festival, I made it a priority to see Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette. It should be a priority for everyone to see this film, especially given that it’s the first ever theatrical feature film to tell the story of the suffragettes. Gavron and writer Abi Morgan chose to focus on the lives of working women in 1912 in East London, as a title shot at the opening of Suffragette makes clear – an indication of their awareness of the omissions in the film, such as any representation of women of colour who also had a large part to play in women’s suffrage. This conscious decision to base a film on a specific faction of the movement serves the film well as it allows a human drama to be the relatable centre of what was very tough and complex time. Still, perhaps Suffragette should be only a starting point for more films on the subject as there is undoubtedly so much more to learn.

The film itself is a solid drama, and Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, who sacrifices all she has for the cause of equality, gives a sympathetic and passionate performance believably showing her character’s journey from passivity to action. Despite this, and committed performances from the rest of the cast, it’s hard not to feel that the filmmakers have played it safe. On one hand, a solid, well structured, classic narrative is exactly what the subject needs to make it accessible to as wide an audience as possible. On the other hand, it’s hard not to come away from the film feeling that the last sequences – documentary footage of suffragettes in action – are the most interesting part of Suffragette. Perhaps Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film from the BFI’s National Archive (released in venues across the UK from October – December) will provide further inspiration.

Elsewhere, I decided to catch up on some British rom-coms I’ve missed in recent years. Man Up, written by Tess Morris and directed by Ben Palmer (responsible for The Inbetweeners Movie) stars the hilarious Lake Bell (who you’d recognise from Wet Hot American Summer and too many other film and TV roles to mention), and Simon Pegg. Bell plays Nancy, a thirty-four year old journalist who is on her way to her parent’s fortieth wedding anniversary when she accidentally takes the place of forty year old Jack’s (Pegg) blind date at Waterloo station. Due to a resolution to put herself ‘out there’ she decides not to correct Jack’s mistake and the two have the date he was meant to have with a twenty-four year old banker.

Simon Pegg and Lake Bell in Man Up
Simon Pegg and Lake Bell in Man Up

Of course, they actually get along really well, despite their different outlooks on love (he’s post-divorce, but optimistic, she’s cynical) and some shared cultural references including a love for The Silence of the Lambs, sparks chemistry that inevitably leads to their third act union, despite the one big deceit that their meeting is based on. It’s very predictable, but then rom coms never set out to be anything but, and provides a diverting ninety minutes that’s mainly enjoyable due to Bell’s brilliantly physical performance.

About Time (2013), on the other hand is deeply problematic. Richard Curtis’ third feature as writer/director is just as shamelessly romantic as Love, Actually but reveals the blatant male privilege at the heart of his films. Domhall Gleeson plays Tim, who is told by his father (Bill Nighy) soon after his twenty-first birthday, that he and all the other men in his family have the ability to travel back in time. Just what white men really need then, an advantage over everyone else.

Rachel McAdams and Domhall Gleeson in About Time
Rachel McAdams and Domhall Gleeson in About Time

Tim uses his power to find a girlfriend and becomes happily coupled with Mary (Rachel McAdams). He makes mistakes along the way, but generally, he lives a charmed life. His sister Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson), on the other hand, is troubled, drinks a lot, can’t keep a job and needs her big brother to save her.

Though Curtis’s screenplay seems to cover its main flaw by having Mary and Tim’s first meeting take place free from any advantage (they meet at a blind restaurant – is that a thing?), so that their chemistry is demonstrably authentic, Mary remains a character who is manipulated into perceiving a false version of Tim. His mistakes are corrected with ease and the course of their courtship runs ever smoothly.

Women are excluded from this ability to make the best of their lives. There’s even a scene in which Tim does transfer his power to Kit Kat, but the result of this puts his life a risk, so he reverts back to keeping his power a secret. Imagine if both Tim AND Kit Kat had this power instead? How fascinating it might be to see brother and sister with an equality of opportunity in life, a social experiment that sees how each gender chooses to improve upon their decisions – THAT I’d like to see.

Also viewed: Silence of the Lambs, X-Men: Days of Future Past, This Must Be The Place.

IFFR 2015: Interview with Norfolk director, Martin Radich

In writer/director Martin Radich’s Norfolk, screening in the Hivos Tiger Awards Competition, a nameless man (Denis Menochet) – a mercenary – lives an almost solitary life in a run-down farm house in the titular region. Aside from his son (played by Barry Keoghan), the only contact he welcomes from the world beyond is through six televisions, arranged on chairs, transmitting the news and entertainment of the day. An apparently self-imposed isolation is explained by way of a dream he describes to his son, the meaning of which seems to be: if we try to help each other, we will hate each other in the end.

Norfolk’s pessimistic outlook is emphasised by an aesthetic that imbues the English countryside with dread. Using a palette of colours all on the spectrum of gloom and dirt – ochre, brown, impenetrably dark blue – Radich and cinematographer Tim Siddel, present us with a locale that’s neither wholly past nor present. This is a place where loss hangs in the air, the characters seeming to carry their ghosts with them as though hope is a luxury they can’t afford. Having worked extensively as a cinematographer, Radich admits he was perhaps unusually particular about finding the right person to achieve his vision of a timeless Norfolk; ‘’I wanted to find someone who wasn’t part of that London advertising aesthetic… someone who had the same philosophical outlook as me.’’ On working with Siddel, Radich describes it as ‘’a joy’’, the pair utilising in-camera techniques for ethereal soft focus, and a ‘’children’s camera’’ to allow for spontaneity on set. Melding different shooting formats was important in achieving the right texture for the film, says Radich; ‘’If you’re going to be committed to an idea, just commit.’’

At the centre of Norfolk is Menochet’s striking performance as the mercenary tasked with one more kill that will threaten his son’s future happiness. Whilst writing the screenplay, Radich imagined a ritual enacted by the character before he commences his deadly missions. Whilst shooting, the director allowed Menochet to interpret these sequences in whatever way he felt; ‘’we did no rehearsals at all, he just did what he did and it was very, very powerful.’’ Without discussing with Radich the connection he would draw upon for the performance, Menochet’s gesture’s in the resulting scenes evoke a deep, deep rage that the director feels are; ‘’an indication of how dedicated he was to the character.’’

In Norfolk the deadly serious tone is broken by moments of odd humour in the performances that play with the timelessness of the piece as a whole. Despite the mercenary’s economical attitude to communication, punctuated by allegorical lessons and statements about moral relativity, his gravitas is countered by a logical self-awareness on the part of his son, and Keoghan delivers his lines with a straightforward approach that re-situates the action in the present. Radich says this incongruity was essential for the film; ‘’the intention was always to have a bit of humour in this dark place.’’

Originally published in the Daily Tiger, 24 January 2015. Republished with permission from International Film Festival Rotterdam.

My week in film, 20 Feet from Stardom, Calvary, The Double and more…

This post will hopefully mark the resurrection and continuation of My week in Film… (though this new instalment technically covers a selection over two weeks) after a lengthy hiatus due to my day job as a Festival/Programme Coordinator. Inevitably when working for a film festival the only films I’m able to see are those in the programme, however due to the month-long nature of AV Festival (my current gig), and an average schedule of one film per day, I did manage to see Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson). With Glazer’s unnerving film I was equally impressed and irked by the melding of documentary style shooting and stylistic, art-horror sequences, not to mention a fantastic performance by Scarlett Johansson, whilst Anderson’s latest film was simply joyous, perhaps closest to Fantastic Mr Fox in tone and noticeably more vicious (Goldblum’s fingers!) than previous offerings.  Clavary Attempting to catch-up with current releases, I saw the much-hyped Calvary in which, following The Guard in 2011, Brendan Gleeson again brings his considerable charisma to the central role for writer/director John Michael McDonagh. That the film is an allegory is clear, and the attempt to approach the subject of the Catholic church’s culpability and guilt with the director’s characteristic dark wit is engaging and entertaining, but I couldn’t forgive what amounted to a cast of caricatures in place of real characters, and a self-awareness in the dialogue that was outright smug. For a well-balanced review, see Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. 20-feet-from-stardom-review-photo20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013) was everything I expected from this Oscar winning documentary – an all-star cast of contributors including Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler and Bruce Springsteen, singing the praises of the backing singers who brought depth and soul to their recordings from the 1960s to the present. Slickly edited with a strong focus on showcasing the very talent that normally goes unnoticed, what is so enthralling about the lives of these singers – including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and The Waters – is hearing of their less-successful solo careers and the suggestion that despite their raw talent, what prevented them from becoming ‘stars’ was sometimes their lacking in the ability to self-promote, to perhaps take on the role of the exhibitionist that seemed to come so naturally to performers like Tina Turner or The Rolling Stones. For Táta Vega, there could only be one Aretha, no matter how often her substantial talent was compared to the legendary soul singer. The film undoubtedly provides the recognition these singers deserve, revealing one astonishing performance after another, that will surely change the way we listen to songs like Gimme Shelter or Young Americans forever. the-double-trailerFinally I saw Richard Ayoade’s The Double, an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, which sees Jessie Eisenberg play a man named Simon James – a person infuriatingly incapable of even the simplest of human interactions – whose life is irrevocably harassed by the presence of his doppelganger, James Simon. Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine create a distinctly desperate world for their protagonist, whilst Andrew Hewitt’s score provides a perfect prickliness to compliment Simon’s drab environment. Perhaps the most joyous part of Ayoade’s second feature is the fictional action sci-fi TV show seen on monitors littered throughout the otherwise grim world the characters inhabit. Appearing at crucial moments as if to antagonize Simon’s ineffectuality, Paddy Considine stars in a gleefully retro styled show called The Replicator, in a nod to Ayoade’s involvement as writer/actor in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004) which also provides perhaps the perfect continuation of Considine’s performance as a ‘psychic’ alpha male, would-be home wrecker in Submarine.


Also viewed: Celluloid Man (Shivendra Singh Dungarpoor, 2012), full review here, the glorious Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013) – just as good on second viewing, Say Anything (Cameron Crowe, 1989) – in which, though it makes obvious why John Cusack became such a big star, is actually a rather baffling film, switching from tender youthful romance to high-stakes crime dad, fear of flying awfulness. Finally the past fortnight also saw me revisit Jean Renoir’s La Règle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939), which is still just a remarkable film.