Cor blimey! We’ve reached the penultimate part of our British film series already? And it is another impressive line-up. We have not one, but two, more James Ivory period pieces to gush over. There’s various angles on war, which the British seem to be obsessed with. The master of suspense shows his face. Characters fly off to Spain to escape their pasts. There’s even a film set in Iran. And that is where we shall begin today.
Under the Shadow – Babak Anvari (2017)
Likely the only eyebrows raised upon the extraordinarily under-played horror, Under the Shadow, is that it managed to be the UK representative for the Academy Awards’ Foreign Language category. Very much a Persian-language film, writer-director Babak Anvari was born in Iran, and currently resides in London. The film was produced by a British company, and is set entirely in Tehran. The math of movie distribution and eligibility is irrelevant, as I am including Under the Shadow in our British Flicks series. I mean, this really is the dog’s bollocks. Anvari’s feature film debut is a startling, spooky, and utterly compelling picture, portraying elements of the supernatural amidst the Middle East conflict in the 1980s.
On the back of a being barred from her medical studies, Shideh has strong political views, and a no-nonsense sensibility. Although advised to leave Tehran as the war worsens, Shideh chooses to stay with her daughter Dorsa. Her husband, who appears not to share his wife’s views, is called away in his role as a doctor. With her doll, Kimia, Dorsa is a little perturbed, and her little world is further disrupted when she befriends a new boy in the building. With mention that the mysterious Djinn has entered the scene, nightmares increase, personal belongings go missing, and even a missile crashes through the building. Under the Shadow is a lesson in creating on-screen tension, with stellar turns from Narges Rashidi as Shideh, and little Avin Manshadi as Dorsa. – – – – – Robin
A Room With a View – James Ivory (1985)
There is a certain quality to E.M. Forster’s novels, that seems to translate onto the screen through the face of Helena Bonham Carter. Her persona, at once noble and rebellious, is able to communicate perfectly Forster’s portrayal of the thirsty-for-life youth, within the constraints of British aristocracy, and its ideas of normalcy and etiquette. It looks like James Ivory saw that same quality in Bonham Carter when he cast her for his adaptation of A Room With a View (1985).
Here, Bonham Carter is Lucy Honeychurch, who arrives at a Florentine hotel with her chaperone Charlotte Bartlett (dame Maggie Smith). The two ladies find themselves in an uncomfortable situation – their room has no view. As the perfect gentlemen they are, fellow guests Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) and son George (Julian Sands) offer to swap their rooms, but the encounter with them will show Lucy that there are many more views her life has been missing. Portraying Brits abroad, commenting on class, and casting some of the country’s most terrific talent, A Room With a View is the embodiment of British cinema. And if you, like me, compare sights to sensations, I’ll tell you that in my nervous system this film feels like lace touching your bare skin on a quiet afternoon. – – – – – Theodosia
Rescued by Rover – Cecil Hepworth, Lewin Fitzhamon (1905)
The star of Rescued by Rover, was the Hepworth family dog in the role of Rover, a smart canine. When the family’s baby daughter is kidnapped, Rover goes off to find her. Later, canine heroes such as Rin-Tin-Tin and Lassie would probably find inspiration from this, so one could could consider this film as the first dog rescue picture. While narrative films had been around for awhile, this movie still tells a story very well, and manages to be pretty interesting, although the plot is of course pretty predictable by today’s standards and the story is simple.
Although this is hardly a great dramatic story, this film is mostly of interest because of its age and the techniques that must still have been in their infancy at this time. Rather than a static shot of an event, this film features multiple shots running together over time and space to do it. Yes, of course this is now such a familiar thing that to point it out seems stupid, but there we have it. It is relevant and fresh. There’s something very magical about witnessing the birth of narrative film, and it great to see the early pioneers of cinema at play. Even in the early days of cinema, British filmmakers knew the power of suspenseful storytelling, and having an underdog (yes pun intended) as their main character. – – – – – Bianca
Morvern Callar – Lynne Ramsay (2002)
Based on Alan Warner’s book, with the title taken from the name of the main character, Morvern Callar utilizes the unusual name freely in its writing. Perhaps to many folk, Morvern is a somewhat unfamiliar name. On a number of occasions in Lynne Ramsay’s 2002 film, the title character (played by the always electric Samantha Morton) has to repeat her name, or spell it out. This is a drama for sure, but the funniest scene in the movie might be when, while on holiday in Spain, Morvern’s friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott), has to go through a mini-rigmarole when accepting something in Morvern’s name.
These moments, and many other here, are testament to a rich, thoughtful story-line that depicts the everyday interactions of Morvern, and the secret she somehow manages to keep from Lanna. The revelation to us, the audience, is clear from the opening scene. It is Christmas, and Morvern has not long realized her boyfriend has taken his own life. Instead of using the money he left for his funeral, Morvern sweeps Lanna off to Spain, whose overwhelming gratitude shadows the real source of the money. Their friendship takes a little battering as Morvern struggles to “act normal”, but they appear to bury the hatchet rather quickly. It’s convenient for the film’s narrative, sure, but such a compassionate loyal friendship forms a structural part of Morvern Caller. As to the way Morvern handles the death of her boyfriend, well, that would be telling. – – – – – Robin
The 39 Steps – Alfred Hitchcock (1939)
Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is a Canadian visitor to London. At the end of “Mr Memory”‘s show in a music hall, he meets Annabella Smith, who is running away from secret agents. He accepts to hide her in his flat, but in the night she is murdered. Fearing he could be accused on the girl’s murder, Hannay goes on the run to break the spy ring. Trust and betrayal have been a recurrent theme in several of Alfred Hitchcock’s works. The 39 Steps, made in 1935, has the all the classic elements of the master filmmaker that set the standard for later Hitchcock films.
The 39 Steps has the classic Hitchcockian theme of an average, innocent man caught up in extraordinary events, which are quite beyond his control. The sexually frustrating institution of marriage is another major motif present in the film. The strained and loveless relationship between the crofter and his wife, the placid relationship of the innkeeper and his wife, the (physical) bond between Hannay and Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) can be examined in terms of degrees of trust between the couples. In fact, the short ‘acquaintance’ between Hannay and Smith, and Hannay and the crofter’s wife, are also built completely upon trust. It is these couples, and the chemistry between them (or the lack thereof) that drive the entire film. – – – – – Bianca
Sunset Song – Terence Davies (2015)
After a long, impressive career, Terence Davies appears to be able to spin a yarn on-screen with such effortless poise and undeniable beauty. Even given the generally melancholy years that Sunset Song depicts, Davies’ motion picture carries all the artistry of a filmmaker who can produce the goods in his sleep. The 2015 film starts in the early 1900s, and our story travels right up until the first world war. Based on the Lewis Grassic Gibbon novel, Sunset Song is a moving experience, centered around the farmer’s daughter, Chris (Agyness Deyn), as she leaves school, trains to become a teacher, and eventually marries, and has a child.
Chris’ journey is, though, accompanied by much sorrow. Her father (Peter Mullan) was a violent, troubled man, and her mother (Daniela Nardini), who although kind-hearted, was unable to live with the hardships. At first rather sensitive, withdrawn, Chris becomes a strong, self-sufficient young woman. Her enduring character development is certainly not hindered by a stand-out performance from Agyness Deyn. Terence Davies directs with a true sense of humanity, both unflinching and with a flourish. Ably assisted by a wonderful score from Gast Waltzing, and some of the most romantic, sweeping cinematography, from Michael McDonough, in recent years. – – – – – Robin
Things to Come – William Cameron Menzies (1936)
Although released in 1936, Things to Come begins in the ‘future’, set in 1940 where a world war rages. This war drags out over many decades, until most of the people still alive (mostly those born after the war started) do not even know who started it or why. Nothing is being manufactured at all any more, and society has broken down into primitive localized communities. In 1966, a great plague wipes out most of what people are left but small numbers still survive. One day a strange aircraft lands at one of these communities, and its pilot tells of an organization which is rebuilding civilization and slowly moving across the world re-civilizing these groups of survivors.
Great reconstruction takes place over the next few decades, and society is once again great and strong. The world’s population is now living in underground cities, but still humanity clings on. H. G. Wells’s work was brought to the screen as a vision of what warfare will bring mankind in the century to follow. The film shows the destructive nature of war, and how is will catapult us back to a state of barbarism, and warlords. However, because man clings to science, man will rise above all this, and create a new, modern society free of warfare. Although quite dated by today’s standards, this is still worth seeking out, and honestly it’s interesting to see how space travel was perceived back then. – – – – – Bianca
Four Weddings and a Funeral – Mike Newell (1994)
When Mike Newell (director), Richard Curtis (writer), and Duncan Kenworthy (producer), got together to make Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994, not only did the romantic comedy genre get a make-over, but the British film industry catapulted with a major flourish. The film nabbed two Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, a Golden Globe win for the film’s lead Hugh Grant, and BAFTA wins for Best Film and Best Director. A remarkable cast, too, with the likes of well-known British talent in front of the camera – Simon Callow, Charlotte Coleman, Rowan Atkinson, David Bower, Anna Chancellor. As well as Grant, the hit comedy also propelled the careers of Kristin Scott Thomas, and John Hannah.
While attending various weddings with his close friends, Charles is all too aware his is never the groom. When he meets Carrie, an American, he has an instant crush. As they keep crossing paths (at four weddings and a funeral), Charles sees his opportunity slipping away, especially when it is Carrie’s wedding he attends. Four Weddings and a Funeral owes a lot to the sharp, laugh out loud screenplay, crammed with faux pas and social satire. My one gripe, somewhere during the writing process, Curtis might well have considered that Charles would end up with Fiona. They share the film’s most poignant scene, when she confesses her feelings for him, but they seem unrequited. It would have been a refreshing twist, but sadly, they opted for the far less appealing Carrie. – – – – – Robin
Maurice – James Ivory (1987)
Maurice is the third Forster novel that James Ivory adapted for the screen in collaboration with Ismail Merchant. Once again a period piece commenting on the oppression of class and societal conventions on the individual, Maurice shares a lot with the previous two adaptations, although it definitely feels the most sensitive and personal of the three – a quality that grants a certain timelessness to the film. The latter was proved with certainty by Maurice’s recent 2k restoration and re-release.
Set in pre-WWI England, Maurice (James Wilby) is a young Cambridge student who meets another student Clive Durham (Hugh Grant, who here looks like one of the Greek gods his character is so obsessed with). Although both men are in love, they can never be together, due to the prejudices of the time. Being beautiful and agonising all at once, Maurice remains one of the finest and most influential queer stories to date. Exploring Maurice’s life and in the long span of a few years, and doing so in details, Ivory gently places is in Maurice’s skin, his life becoming gradually our own. If you haven’t seen this film, it is definitely one to put on your list, and one to show your children one day, too. – – – – – Theodosia
Sexy Beast – Jonathan Glazer (2000)
The ferocious screenplay for Sexy Beast, by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, is a real treat. Choc-a-bloc with colorful language, snark insults, and snappy exchanges, Sexy Beast is as funny as it is vicious. Director Jonathan Glazer is having a riot here, putting a continental spin on the crook and his one-last-job mantra. Featuring a ridiculously good performance from Ben Kingsley, chewing up scenery like there is no tomorrow. Ray Winstone, Amanda Redman, and Ian McShane, also shine bright, in a kind of bank heist pre-amble.
Now retired in sunny Spain, from a life of crime, following nine years in prison, Gal (Winstone) is starting afresh with his wife Dee-Dee (Redman). That is, until relentlessly in-your-face Don Logan (Kingsley), shatters the peace to harass Gal into joining a team to break into a huge bank vault. “I’m going to have to turn this opportunity down.” Gal politely says, only for the increasingly aggressive Don to retort “No, you’re going to have to turn this opportunity yes!” The sociopathic behavior from Kingsley’s crook is infectiously alarming. As inevitable violence ensues, Gal heads off to London to do the job, with a kind of mess trailing behind him. – – – – – Robin