Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Win L'amour fou on DVD

The life and times of a style icon should really be explored in a stylish documentary, and that's the tribute Yves Saint Laurent receives in L'amour fou, Pierre Thoretton's slick and touching film. Focusing on the five-decade relationship between the designer and his great love Pierre Bergé, the film skilfully weaves together extensive testimony from Bergé, well-chosen archive footage and eye-opening shots of the extraordinary art collection they amassed as it is auctioned off for a fortune. Although his genius for innovation and design is obvious, the real Yves Saint Laurent remains something of an enigma throughout, with Bergé's observations only taking us so far beneath the surface of his character. Nevertheless, L'amour fou is an elegant film that provides viewers with an accessible and intriguing introduction to the man and his work.

L'amour fou is out on DVD now and Phil on Film has three copies to give away. To have a chance of winning, just send your full name and postal address to This competition is open to readers from around the world (just make sure you can play region 2 DVDs) and winners will be notified on December 9th.

Good luck!

Friday, November 25, 2011

"If it doesn't feel right, don't do it" - An interview with Terence Davies

Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea is the director's first narrative feature since The House of Mirth over a decade ago, and it is a welcome reminder of the gifts that have made him one of this country's finest filmmakers. This story of a woman who abandons her marriage for a passionate but self-destructive affair is an adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play, and it proves to be a perfect fit for Davies, allowing him to once again travel back to the 1950's where he feels most at home. It's a beautiful, brilliantly performed film and I had the opportunity to talk to Terence Davies about it shortly before the film's UK premiere at the London Film Festival.

When we last spoke in 2008 you mentioned some projects you were working on but The Deep Blue Sea wasn't one of them. How did this come to be your next film after Of Time and the City?

Well, it came about by accident. Sean O'Connor, one of the co-producers, got in touch with me and asked if I would like to do a play of Rattigan's because his centenary was going to fall this year. I had never seen the plays staged, and the only ones I knew were the 1952 version of The Browning Version, which I love, and the late-1950's version of Separate Tables, which I also think is very good. I said I couldn't do them because I think those films are good and it would be very difficult to rethink a play. Anyway, I read the entire canon and I said I might be able to do something with The Deep Blue Sea. I had been taken to see it by my mother and all I could remember was one scene with Kenneth More coming down these stairs, so I didn't really know it, and I thought I could do something with that. So that's how it came about.

How did you go about adapting the play? You have adapted novels in the past, but was this a very different process?

At first I was a little worried because I had never done a play before. What I found from reading the entire canon is that Rattigan likes to put all of the exposition in the first act, and I don't particularly like that. It's telling me what went on before the curtain went up and it's not that interesting, I don't think. I felt that it had to be told from Hester's point of view, which means a lot of that exposition can go, simply because we can't know about it if she's not privy to it. That made it much easier, if I did it from her point of view, but of course it meant restructuring it, and I thought, "Where they're talking about the past, I want to see the past," so it was very much the subjective point of view of Hester's that then determined how it was written. The first draft was very, very tentative, because I was a bit worried and didn't think I could pull it off, but Alan Brodie of the Terence Rattigan Trust was absolutely wonderful and he just said, "Be radical with it," so I did. I always work in the same way – first draft, notes, second draft, notes, polish, and that's what we shoot – and that's what happened here. But I had to get the sub-textural meaning, not just what the story is, and in that tentative first draft I didn't really know what the subtext was. By stint of reading the play again and again and again, I realised what it was about. The subtext is about love, three forms of love, and a love that each person cannot get from the other, it cannot be reciprocated. Once I knew that, it made it relatively easy to adapt the rest of the play.

It's true what you say about the three forms of love at the heart of the film, because while the film is essentially Hester's story, all three characters find themselves placed in a difficult situation and dealing with emotions that they are ill-prepared for.

Yes, exactly. When Hester married William Colyer, she was probably like a lot of men and women who didn't know a lot about love and sex. He was obviously a very cultured man and they shared cultural things together. Perhaps he didn't have much of a libido, but that was part of the package and you didn't question it – well, certainly in the 50's you didn't, especially if you were a middle-class woman – but she discovers sex through this ex-flyer and that changes her completely. In a way she wants them both, she wants the culture that William brings and the eroticism Freddie brings, but he likes popular culture, he just doesn't respond to art or the highbrow, and while she gets that from William there's very little sex life there. They all want that different kind of love and they can't give it. William wants things back the way they were but she can't do it, even though she does love William in a way, she wants this intense physical relationship – all intense, all the time – but Freddie can't give her the cultural comfort she desires. Freddie, really, has been destroyed by war. When you're 18-20, as those fighter pilots were, you survive and you come back to a bankrupt, shoddy Britain, what do you do? Life seems to be crushingly dull. So it's about the nature of that ménage à trois, really.

You mentioned having to cut the exposition from Rattigan's play and one of the most striking aspects of your film is the way you open it, with an incredibly intense sequence scored to Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto. How did that come about?

It was always written like that because what I wanted to do, in mirroring the shot at the end that moves away from the house, is to say that in the whole of London you have this little house and this little tragedy. You have to introduce the people who are in the tragedy with succinctness so you know who they are. That's just a practical thing, but what I wanted to do with the Barber was to give that sense of, whenever you're going through whatever traumas you're going through, they're huge in your life. They might not be huge outside or to other people, but they're huge in your life. I wanted to make it succinct and say, this is a potent story about a woman who's driven to do this, and she's driven to it by love and erotic love. That concerto I've known for many years and I think it's one of the great concertos, the slow movement is so wonderful, and I just knew it was right. It wasn't originally written to accompany the first nine minutes, because that's how long the slow movement lasts, but I thought as we cut it that we could get rid of the voiceover – in fact we got rid of all of the voiceover, except over the credits, which really works – and just set the whole of that nine minutes to music. We show her trying to kill herself and we show her dilemma, why she's doing it. That evolved as we cut it.

In recreating 1950's Britain, how much of it was drawn from your own memories of that time?

The thing that is really important – and this is something that they often get wrong when they do the 50's in this country – is that while I know how it looked I also know how it felt, and that's a huge difference. I can remember everything being broken and shabby, because you couldn't buy on HP, that came later, so you had to make do with what you had. There was still rationing, for God's sake, and everything was down at heel, because the country was bankrupt. The cinematographer, the man who designed it for me and the woman who costumed it for me; the three of them talked about colour as a metaphor, and I've never heard anyone talk like that. That was thrilling because I thought, "I've got the right people, they know what they're doing." We had long discussions, I always do a lot of tests for the stock and the look of the film, and when you have three people talking about colour as a metaphor you know you're onto a good thing.

As well as evoking a period of British history, it feels like The Deep Blue Sea is also evoking a particular era of cinema. As I watched it I felt the influence of directors like Douglas Sirk, David Lean and Max Ophüls. Did you have any specific films or directors in mind as you shot it?

[Laughs] Well, that's very complimentary. They were sort of half there because you can't see Letter From an Unknown Woman and forget it, you can't see The Heiress and forget it, and of course you can't see Brief Encounter and forget it - you just can't. They were there subliminally. In fact, when she stops short of killing herself on the tube, that was a direct lift from The Passionate Friends, and when she's in the chair at the very beginning in front of the fire and she looks at her husband, I've stolen that from Brief Encounter. [Laughs] I suppose we don't say stolen, we say homage, don't we?

As long as you're stealing from the best you're doing OK.

Yes, it's not bad is it? [Laughs]

Another thing that reminded me of that bygone era of cinema is the supporting characters who pop up in the film from time to time. The no-nonsense landlady and the man who acts as doctor for Hester felt like they could have appeared in a David Lean or Michael Powell film.

Well, when Ann Mitchell came in to read for Mrs Elton it leapt off the page. I mean, she had known these women and had been brought up with these women, so she just inhabited this role. I had always wanted Karl Johnson to do Mr Miller and I said, "I don't want you to audition, I want you to do it. I don't know who to ask if you say no" and he said of course he'd do it. He's so wonderfully crunchy and irritable, he was just a joy, they both were. In fact they all were a joy, I had a wonderful cast. They don't do any "character acting," they just are. That's what I said to all of the cast, I said, "don't act it, feel it" because the camera captures truth but it also captures falsity. If it doesn't feel right, don't do it.

The other thing I liked about Mrs Elton is that you give us a glimpse into her home life with her ailing husband, and that goes back to what you said about everyone having their own tragedies behind closed doors.

What Ann loved about that particular scene was that we gave a working-class character the role of telling Hester about love. She tells her that love isn't all the rubbish that's spoken about it, love is about wiping someone's arse. That's what you do, you go on and you do it in a way that they can carry on and keep their dignity, that's what real love is. I think at the end, Hester does find true love, because without overtly saying it she can say, "If you're happier without me, you can go, Freddie." God knows, her future is bleak, she's not trained to do anything, but she has found a strength by letting him go. That's true love, I think.

Rachel Weisz is extraordinary in this film and while I have admired many of her performances in the past I think she's working at another level here. Was she always your Hester?

No, not at all. I saw her when I was watching television one night. I don't watch a lot of television but I switched it on and there was a film on, I think I had missed the first ten minutes, and then this fabulous girl came on. It was Beeban Kidron's Swept From the Sea and I waited for the end credits. Then I rang my manager and said, "Have you heard of someone called Rachel Weisz?" and he said, "Terence, you're the only person who hasn't" [Laughs] I just thought she would be wonderful as Hester. We sent her the script, she rang me, we talked and I said, "If you say no, I have no idea who I'll ask," and she said she'd do it. The same with Simon Russell Beale, they just said they'd do it.

And Simon Russell Beale is somebody who doesn't do a lot of cinema.

No, and he should! He's wonderful on camera and he gets the tempo very, very quickly. I've told him that he has to do more. It's just tragic that he's not doing film.

It has been over a decade since The House of Mirth so you must have experienced such a thrill being on set and working with actors again.

It always is a thrill. That's my raison d'être, it really is. I'm very proud of it because we only had a small budget of £2.5 million and we shot it in 25 days.

That's amazing, it looks great for such a small budget.

When you know what you want you can husband your resources, you really can, if you know the meaning of the scene and you know the number of shots that it needs. Very often on set you'll think, "Oh, that's a bit dull, I can improve that by doing it another way," and I'm pretty good at thinking on my feet. On two occasions the camera broke down and we lost half a day each time, but I wasn't worried because I knew what the shots were and I knew we'd get them, and we did. We did it because everybody pulled together and everybody, I mean literally everybody, was so committed to the film. It was the most wonderful display of commitment from everybody, from the people who financed it right down to the actors. It was quite marvellous.

All of your films have been set in the past. Can you imagine ever making a contemporary movie?

Well, I did write a contemporary comedy but I couldn't get the money for it. Whether it will ever happen or not I don't know, your guess is as good as mine. I would have liked to have done it because I thought it was a good and funny script. You never know. Maybe one day.

One of the projects you mentioned the last time we spoke was the novel Sunset Song. I've since read it and I think it's an extraordinary book that I'd love to see adapted for the screen. Is that likely to happen?

Oh, I really want to do it. I've actually got four projects. There's Sunset Song, which is written. I've just got to do a polish on a script about Emily Dickinson, because I love Emily Dickinson. There's an adaptation of an American novel by Richard McCann called Mother of Sorrows, and I've already finished an adaptation of an Ed McBain novel. So there are four, potentially.

That's great, so much to look forward to.

Well, I hope so. It's just as long as I get the production money. If not I suppose it's back to the old Labour Exchange. [Laughs]

Review - The Deep Blue Sea

"Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly." Those words of warning ultimately prove prophetic for Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) in The Deep Blue Sea, but Hester doesn't heed that advice. She is a woman consumed by a passion that has transformed her and has convinced her to disrupt the stable, comfortable life mapped out for her in order to taste something more exciting. Hester has walked away from her wealthy and respected husband (Simon Russell Beale) for a younger man, former RAF pilot Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), whose dashing, devil-may-care attitude has a rejuvenating effect on woman tired of spending quiet nights in front of the fire with a husband who loves her, but not in the way she needs to be loved. She has pursued her desire for physical, erotic satisfaction, but when we meet Hester at the start of the film, she is contemplating suicide in Freddie's small flat. Her mother-in-law's pointed words have come true, and her passion has led to something very ugly.

The Deep Blue Sea is an adaptation of the play by Terence Rattigan and the most notable aspect of its production is that it marks Terence Davies' return to narrative cinema more than a decade after his superb take on Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. It's wonderful to have Davies back and within minutes of The Deep Blue Sea beginning we feel as if we are in safe hands with a man who is in his element in this milieu. The film takes place in the early 1950's, an era that Davies recreates in a detailed, richly atmospheric fashion. The film feels lived-in, with the drama largely taking place in a shabby bedsit or smoky London boozers, where everyone partakes in one of Davies' customary singalong scenes. As well as evoking a particular time and place, the film also gives Davies the opportunity to pay homage to the cinema of that bygone era, with the early films of David Lean, the beautiful style of Max Ophüls and the melodrama of Douglas Sirk all being notable influences on his approach here.

In fact, the opening of the film is pure melodrama, as Davies condenses the backstory and Hester's suicide attempt into an intense montage accompanied by Barber's Violin Concerto. It's a bold move that creates a heightened sense of emotion immediately, but after this prelude, the film settles into something rather more traditional and reserved. It's a resolutely old-fashioned film, and one that easily leaves itself open to accusations of being little more than a filmed stage play, but to do that is to ignore Davies' extraordinarily elegant and deliberate use of the camera. His direction creates a sense of intimacy with these characters and allows us to experience their emotional tumult first hand as they each deal with the thorny dilemmas Hester's infidelity has created for them. I was particularly moved by Simon Russell Beale's performance as Sir William Collyer, a man deeply in love with his wife and incapable of comprehending her course of action or doing anything to win her back.

The film is a real showcase for Weisz, however. As in The House of Mirth, Davies has drawn from an actress a subtle, complex, emotionally charged performance that instantly eclipses all of her previous work. Hester is an intelligent woman torn between her head – which tells her that a life with Sir William is the only sensible option – and her heart, and Weisz's portrayal of her inner conflict is incredibly astute. Davies shoots her like a 40's movie star and gives her the space she needs to bring Hester to vivid, multi-dimensional life, ensuring it's fascinating and affecting to watch as she falls apart under the duress of this self-destructive relationship. The Deep Blue Sea is a film about loving someone intensely and also realising when the time has come to let that person go, and in Davies' hands it handles these themes with honesty and perception.

What the film perhaps lacks is the powerful and cathartic emotional climax that audiences will crave, instead leaving us with a quiet sense of sadness and resolve that is embodied in Weisz's performance. That is a minor gripe, however, because The Deep Blue Sea is a gorgeously crafted film that is clearly the work of a great filmmaker in tune with the very essence of his material. Despite the success of Davies' documentary Of Time and the City, this feels like the director's real return to filmmaking, allowing him to once again display his uncanny visual sense, deep empathy with actors, piercing emotional insight and – above all – his deep and abiding love for cinema, which he brings to bear on every frame of this marvellous film.

Read my interview with Terence Davies here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Blu-ray Review - Touch of Evil

The Film

Orson Welles's career is a tale of genius, compromise and heartache. By the time he was hired to direct Touch of Evil in 1957, he was already regarded as something of a spent force, a man who peaked with his debut and had grown into a liability for studios. Touch of Evil was supposed to be his way back into the studio system. He delivered the final cut of the film on time and on budget and felt he had elevated the story into something special with his dynamic direction and close work with the actors. The next thing Welles knew, Touch of Evil had been reedited by Universal into something that he recognised only as a cheap, chopped-up version of the film he wanted it to be. It had lost almost twenty minutes and some of Welles's most daring stylistic choices had been discarded. Frustrated and angry, the director wrote a 58-page memo explaining what exactly he felt the film needed to be to achieve its maximum potential. His plea was ignored.

It is natural to take sides with the aggrieved artist in situations such as this, but looking back, perhaps it's not so hard to understand why Universal hesitated over releasing Touch of Evil as Welles presented it. They expected to sign off on a straightforward cop thriller with big stars that they could sell to a mass audience, and they were surely knocked off balance by the film they received. Touch of Evil is overblown, lurid and morally ambiguous; full of mannered performances and grotesque close-ups of sweaty, leering faces. For all these reasons we can understand why Universal hated it, but it's for all of these reasons that I love it.

Welles knew what he had with Touch of Evil. The story is a piece of trashy pulp noir, and he plays it to the hilt, developing a menacing, seedy atmosphere that permeates every corner of the cheap bars and motels that the film takes place in. It's the story of a police investigation into a car bombing, which is depicted at the start of the film in one of the most audacious tracking shots ever conceived and executed on film. Shorn now of the opening credits and Henry Mancini's score, the restored version of Touch of Evil allows us to appreciate even more the brilliance of this sequence, with the tension being developed through the deliberate camera movements and use of diegetic sounds. Welles also introduces two lead characters as the car, carrying its ticking cargo, drives past, with Mexican cop Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new bride Susie (Janet Leigh), who are drawn into the plot when the car explodes just as they share a kiss.

Enter detective Hank Quinlan, a larger-than-life character unforgettably played by Welles, who looms into view hobbling on a cane and casting a narrow eye over the Mexican cop daring to enter his jurisdiction. Quinlan is one of the great screen antagonists; a casually racist detective who always gets results and is willing to play fast and loose with the facts and due process in order to obtain them. He has some marvellous scenes with Heston ("You bet your sweet life I won't" Quinlan retorts when Vargas insists that he won't have any trouble from him) but the scenes that really sting occur between Welles and Marlene Dietrich, making an indelible cameo as a fortune teller who once shared a relationship with Quinlan. A lifetime of regret lingers in their brief interactions. "You haven't got any," Dietrich tells Quinlan when he asks her to read his fortune, "Your future's all used up."

Touch of Evil is not the perfectly crafted masterwork that Citizen Kane is, but I'd argue that it's something even better. It's a huge, bombastic affair and the style of the thing overwhelms the stodgy story – but what style. The bravura opening sequence suggests right at the start that this is a director utilising his full box of tricks. Every time I watch Touch of Evil I'm staggered by his striking camera angles, thrilling long takes, superb use of light and shadows, and bold editing patterns. I love Touch of Evil because it gives us Welles at his most adventurous and daring, and because it represents the last flowering of his undeniable brilliance within the studio system. He was some kind of a man.

The Extras

There have been many different versions of Touch of Evil, and this new Masters of Cinema package brings the all the cuts and offers them in both the 1.85 and 1.37 aspect ratios. There are fantastically informative commentaries and documentaries, as well as the customarily fascinating Masters of Cinema booklet, all of which shed fresh light on the film and its troubled history. This really is the only Touch of Evil you'll ever need.

Touch of Evil is available on Blu-ray now.

Buy Touch of Evil here

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review - Snowtown

To all outsiders, John Bunting (Daniel Henshall) appears to be a nice guy. An affable, easygoing character with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, John steps in to shore up a one-parent family that has recently been shattered by revelations of paedophilia. He encourages the boys abused by neighbour Jeffrey to write the word "FAG" on his windows and helps them splatter ground-up kangaroo remains over his porch, until this campaign of intimidation drives the man away. By this point, 16 year-old Jamie (Lucas Pittaway) and his younger brothers adore the new man in their mother's life, but John has not yet revealed the depths of cruelty and violence he is capable of.

Snowtown is the story of the most notorious serial killer in Australia's history. Between 1992 and 1999, Bunting was responsible for 11 murders, with the victims mostly being those on the margins of society. Justin Kurzel's film refuses to sensationalise the story, or even attempt to conform it to a familiar narrative, which makes Snowtown an extraordinarily tough film to watch; a detached, impressionistic portrait of horrific crimes that keeps the emphasis on absolute realism throughout. The film is shot in bleak hues by Adam Arkapaw (who also worked on Animal Kingdom, with which it shares some similarities), and the intense score provided by the director's brother Jed Kurzel plays a key role in the film's oppressive atmosphere. However, while you might suspect that Snowtown is a tough viewing experience because of the violence, that's not really the case. There's only one notable scene that shows a murder in all of its agonising, gory detail, and for the most part it's Kurzel's craft that gets to you, as well as his keen sense of what to show and what not to show.

What Snowtown does show so brilliantly is how a damaged, vulnerable young man like Jamie could easily fall under the spell of a man like John Bunting. He takes advantage of the destabilised Vlassakis family to give himself a platform in the town and then he manipulates the widespread hysteria over the paedophile menace to justify his own murderous desires, as he targets perceived gays and perverts who he feels won't be missed if they suddenly "disappear." He starts exerting his control over Jamie. We notice how he is always lurking in the background of shots in which Jamie is the focus, controlling the youngster's actions, and Henshall's stunning portrayal slips from avuncular chumminess into sadism and intimidation in the blink of an eye. Henshall is the only professional actor in Snowtown, the rest of the cast being drawn from the local area, but the naturalistic performances are convincing across the board.

But for all of its qualities, I'm having a very hard time recommending Snowtown. Ultimately, I left the screening wondering what I actually got from the film, beyond a general sense of emptiness and depression after witnessing such nihilistic cruelty. The final straw for many will be the already notorious "bathroom scene," which is crucial from a story point of view – cementing Jamie's complicity – but it's almost unwatchable as cinema. Snowtown is hugely admirable as filmmaking and I respect its completely uncompromising approach to telling this story, but the film seems inconclusive at its close, having failed to fashion a sense of purpose from these horrors. We despair at what we've witnessed and congratulate ourselves for having endured such a gruelling experience, but then we walk away from the picture knowing we never want to watch or think about it again.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review - Wuthering Heights

There have been many screen versions of Wuthering Heights but we haven't seen one quite like this. Andrea Arnold's take on Emily Brontë's novel is very much the work of the same young director who showed through her films Red Road and Fish Tank that she is a filmmaker with a distinctive, uncompromising voice. That voice may be just what a tale as familiar as Wuthering Heights required to make it feel fresh and new on screen, and for at least half of this extraordinary picture, Arnold appears to do just that. For many independent filmmakers, such a prestige project might be seen as a step towards mainstream respectability, or a bid for awards credibility, and there's something appealingly perverse about the fact that Arnold has in fact taken this opportunity to produce her most challenging work yet. However, while it's easy to applaud her refusal to adhere to the customary tropes of so many genteel literary adaptations, the unforgiving austerity of her approach does make this Wuthering Heights a tough film to love.

Arnold immediately immerses us in the harsh world of 19th century Yorkshire, with the moors being filmed in a richly atmospheric fashion by the director and her supremely talented cinematographer Robbie Ryan. Even if it fails in certain departments,
Wuthering Heights is an undeniably impressive visual achievement; visceral, beautiful and replete with striking images. Arnold and Ryan often let those images take prominence over the dialogue, which is blunt and naturalistic (I'm not sure Brontë ever penned the words, "Fuck you all. Cunts."), and that's a smart decision. Shooting in 1.33 and utilising handheld, intimate camerawork, they find shots that speak volumes about the relationship that develops between orphan Heathcliff (played as a child by Solomon Glave) and the spirited Cathy (Shannon Beer): their clasped hands plunging into mud, the torrential rain hitting their upturned faces, furtive glances stolen through a crack in a door.

The two untested young actors who play the lead characters as youngsters repay Arnold's faith in them. Glave has an interesting sullen quality while Beer is a thoroughly engaging screen presence, who superbly portrays her character's growing curiosity about and interest in the dark-skinned addition to their family. Their performances are a little raw but their scenes together feel terrifically alive, aided by the director's frequent cutaways to shots of the natural world that surrounds them; images of death and bleakness acting as a counterpoint to their charged emotional connection.

Alas, that's only half the movie. When
Wuthering Heights jumps forward a few years to find Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) now married and Heathcliff (James Howson) returning to Earnshaw farm after a long, unexplained absence, I immediately started to sense that something had gone awry. All the vitality and boldness of the first half had drained away, and the two adults who step into the roles of Cathy and Heathcliff struggle to invest their turns with the same natural depth of feeling that their young co-stars possessed. In particular, the casting of Howson proves almost disastrous for the film, with his flat, uncharismatic and shapeless performance creating a hole in the centre of the picture where a complex, fascinating protagonist should be.

But it's not just the actors who fail to build on the fine work done in the first half, as Arnold also seems to lose her grip on the material in its latter stages. The film grows repetitive, recycling shots and motifs from the first half but without any of the accompanying impact, and this film about obsessive love, violence and passion ends up feeling oddly detached and increasingly unsure of itself as it progresses.
Wuthering Heights is an arresting attempt to capture the dark nature of Brontë's novel, but as brilliantly evocative as Arnold's rendering of the wild, windswept landscape is, it fails to capture the similarly turbulent emotions at the heart of the tale. On a number of occasions in the film's second half, Arnold has Howson headbutt a wall or a tree, presumably in an effort to show us how much the lovesick Heathcliff is suffering, but while it certainly looked very painful, I never felt a thing.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Review - Tabloid

Errol Morris has described his new film Tabloid as a love story – his first since his feature debut Gates of Heaven – and I guess it is a love story, in a way, but one that's quite unlike any other. It's a film about the crazy extremes that people will go to for love, the dark roads it takes people down and the blinkered denial that accompanies someone utterly devoted to another. Morris' protagonist is Joyce McKinney, a dream subject for this filmmaker; he just sits her down in front of his camera and listens as she talks, talks, talks, peeling back layers on a story that gets madder by the minute. It's no accident that the film is called Tabloid; Morris shares a tabloid reporter's gift for sniffing out a good story and squeezing every drop of entertainment from it.

If you don't know who Joyce McKinney is or what incident earned her such notoriety, Morris' lively film wastes little time in getting us up to speed. McKinney was a one-time Miss Wyoming who fell in love in the late 70's with a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson. He fell just as hard for her, they began planning their life together and then – fearing the effect this sexy blonde was having on one of their flock – the Church suddenly spirited him away. At least, that's Joyce's version of events, but Tabloid is partly a film about the slippery nature of the truth and with nobody available to put across Kirk's side of the tale, Joyce's account is all we have to go on. Dismayed by the loss of her one true love, Joyce gathered together all of her money, a faithful collaborator (who was clearly besotted with her – another example of love making people do crazy things) and a pilot to follow Kirk to Devon, where he was now living. That's where the story started to get really interesting.

The tale of Joyce McKinney and Kirk Anderson later became known as "The Case of the Manacled Mormon." It had all the ingredients for a tabloid sensation – sex, crime, religion – and Morris gets plenty of mileage out of the salacious details and surprising twists the story consisted of. Joyce defiantly claims that she didn't kidnap Kirk at gunpoint, take him to a remote cottage and chain him to a bed before having sex against his will. "How can a woman rape a man?" a bemused Joyce asks, "That would be like pushing a marshmallow into a parking meter." Joyce is a fabulous, fascinating character; bubbly, verbose and completely unselfconscious. There is no equivocation in her rendition of her story – everything happened like this, and everyone else is a liar – and her apparent sincerity, or delusion, is oddly persuasive.

But the most telling line in Tabloid is spoken by Daily Express reporter Peter Tory, who says that McKinney has her side of the story and the tabloids have theirs and "somewhere in between lies the truth." Morris doesn't come down on either side of the argument; he allows each participant to share his or her own subjective reality and lets us decide who to believe. Tory (who is amusingly enamoured with the word "spread-eagled") and Mirror photographer Kent Gavin are great value as interviewees, recalling the lengths that the two warring papers went to as battle for control of the story escalated. Joyce's seedy past was exposed, with one paper depicting her as a wronged angel and the other as a whore, and both upped the ante until the story lost momentum and Joyce was, for a while, forgotten (the bizarre twist that later took her back into the public eye almost takes Tabloid into science-fiction territory).

The point isn't laboured by Morris, but it's impossible to watch Tabloid without wondering how the McKinney story would play today in a media-saturated society that is more obsessed with trashy tales than ever before. Tabloid has been described as Morris' lightest and most playful film for some time, but at its core – as with most of these titillating tales – there's an abiding sense of sadness, with portrait of a woman who misguidedly gave up everything for a futile love and was left alone long after the reporters and photographers moved on. The most vivid and haunting moments in Tabloid are found in the archive footage of a young, beautiful, hopeful Joyce reading extracts from her unfinished fairytale romance. And the title of this incomplete tome? A Very Special Love Story, naturally.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Review - Oslo, August 31st

At the start of Joachim Trier's Oslo, August 31st, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) wants to die. He wakes up one morning, gets dressed, walks down to the river, fills his pockets with stones and then plunges in. Moments later Anders emerges, gasping for air, and dejectedly crawls his way out onto the riverbank. He walks back to the drug rehabilitation clinic where he has spent some time trying to get clean and straighten out his life, and he is handed an opportunity to finally take a step in the right direction. He has a job interview in Oslo, at a magazine where he will be able to put his skills as a writer to use, and we hope that Oslo, August 31st will present us with a man who, having failed to take his own life, will grasp at this fresh start with both hands. But Oslo, August 31st isn't that film. Life simply isn't that easy.

Anders' attempt to reconnect with society provides Oslo, August 31st with its narrative backbone and the protagonist's fragile grip on life gives it a gnawing sense of dramatic tension. Will Anders sink or swim, as he re-enters the world he last experienced as a hedonistic drug addict, spiralling towards self-destruction? His odyssey unfolds over the course of a single day, as he plans to make the most of his time in Oslo by meeting an old pal and his sister, and getting in touch with an ex-girlfriend who lives in New York, although the numerous unanswered messages he leaves for her suggests she isn't so keen on reconciliation. The experience is a disconcerting one for Anders, however, as he discovers that some old acquaintances have moved on with their lives while others still bear grudges for misdeeds that the old Anders committed. All of this is compounded by a sense of quiet shame that he exhibits, notably in the job interview when, having seemingly impressed the editor with his intelligence and insight, he suddenly clams up and bolts as his problematic history comes up.

All the while, we can sense something slipping inside Anders, with Lie – who also starred in Trier's impressive debut Reprise – giving a magnificent central performance that exposes so much anxiety and insecurity through his eyes and body language. He's a subtly expressive actor whose smallest gestures are telling, and he brings a remarkably vivid sense of emotional truthfulness to the heart of the picture. Trier and his excellent cameraman Jakob Ihre follow Anders at a close but respectful distance, the camera always finding the right spot to let us share in his turmoil without seeming to intrude upon it. Oslo, August 31st is a character study that finds warmth and coldness, humour and flickers of anger in its central figure, and Trier's skilfully constructed screenplay ("freely adapted," the credits tell us, from Pierre Drieu La Rochelle's Le Feu follet) sheds light on his life and situation through his natural, superbly played interactions with other characters.

The director does occasionally risk letting some of these encounters run on a little too long, and at a certain point in the second half, as Anders gradually slides back into his old bad habits, a grim inexorability takes hold of the movie. But there are so many moments here that dazzle – a late-night scooter ride through empty streets, an impromptu spot of swimming in the dawn light – and the way Trier uses editing and sound design to bring us into Anders' subjective point of view is exceptional. In particular, there's a sequence at the film's centre that stands alongside anything I've seen on screen this year, as Anders sits in a cafe and casually listens to the various conversations that take place at tables around him. For a couple of minutes we hear people discuss work matters and life matters, share some gossip and laugh at each other's jokes; and in the midst of all this chatter, all this life, we find Anders sitting quietly and alone, eavesdropping on a world that he doesn't feel he belongs to anymore.