Dark River (London Film Festival 2017)

I chose Clio Barnard's new film because I loved The Arbor (2010), her innovative documentary about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. I'm not crazy about British social-realist cinema but The Arbor was imaginative and formally inventive. I have also heard great things about The Selfish Giant (which I'm yet to see).

Dark River is set in the North Yorkshire countryside on a neglected tenant farm over which two siblings compete following their father's death. I grew up in Yorkshire (not in the countryside but close to it) and I've worked on farms, and I can confirm that the gut-clenching, taciturn unhappiness on display throughout most of Dark River is right on the miserable money.

The siblings in question are Alice (a superb Ruth Wilson) and Joe (Mark Stanley) whose relationship is thrown into turmoil by the death of their father. The father is played by Sean Bean, naturally. Sean Bean has become Yorkshire in many ways. Good grief, when I have flashbacks to my childhood in Huddersfield, Sean Bean now features in them.

The film opens with Alice in some kind of bucolic semi-paradise where she learns of her father's death. She has long since fled home (because, we eventually learn through several disturbing flashbacks, of her sexually abusive father) to work as a peripatetic sheep shearer. She decides to go home because, she says, her father promised the farm to her.

Now this promise may have been real; it may have been offered out of guilt; it may be imagined because of anger and the need for some kind of restitution: we're never quite told. The uncertainty leads to conflict with her brother Joe who still lives on the farm but who has allowed it to fall into disrepair and financial peril while he looked after their father and worked extra hours as a haulage driver. They both decide to claim rightful tenancy and a couple of bureaucrats and speculators get in their way, adding to the tension and leading to the inevitably violent denouement.

There is much millstone-gritting of teeth and inarticulate shouting matches in the wuthering wind and driving rain of a very cinematic Yorkshire: the dark lowering green beauty that you know is waiting to kill you, skin you, and eat you from a dented metal plate, with a spoon, if given the chance.

Introducing the film, the producers spoke of Ruth Wilson's extraordinary commitment to learning proper farming skills and actually shearing live sheep, which is a very demanding and skilled process. They weren't wrong and both Stanley and Wilson are utterly convincing in their roles; Wilson in many ways resembles Ellen Ripley if Ripley had gone into farming rather than intergalactic trade. I love good animal performances in film and there are some excellent sheep and dogs at work in this one. 

Throughout, the two leads are shadowed by their younger selves played in flashback (with little if any dialogue) by Esme Creed-Miles and Aiden McCullough. In many ways, their story is the central one and through it we glimpse the shot of redemption that the film offers in the final scene, indeed the final shot.

Dark River is loosely adapted from the Rose Tremain novel Trespass and the title introduces a grand watery metaphor that I thought seemed a little out of place, given the green, land-locked, mostly dry (except for the rain) setting. But on a second viewing I may not feel the same.

Despite the hint of redemption and purpose at the end of the film, and the dim glint of resolution, I was left wanting to tell Alice not to go home, not to revisit the traumas of the past but to stay travelling the world, shears in hand, visiting New Zealand and Norway, in brighter settings, with loving companions. But then I haven't lived through her character's experiences.

Maybe she'll get back out there in any case. 

Next up: 78/52

The Party (London Film Festival 2017)

[Edited 14/10/2017]

I was once taken suddenly ill at a friend's house and, while visiting the bathroom to 'pray' in time-honoured fashion, I hallucinated Bruno Ganz standing behind me, in his calming Wings of Desire garb, making sure I was okay. It was lovely to see him, in the flesh, on stage at the premiere of The Party (UK, 2017).

Sally Potter's new black and white black comedy was shot in two weeks and speeds past, like a Mo Farah Quorn ad, in 71 lean, determined, real-time minutes. As it zips by, the extraordinary cast members (Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Cillian Murphy and Timothy Spall) deliver crunchy lines of tension and spite as their characters' dilemmas and conflicts are glimpsed and, to a certain extent, explored.

The party in question is a celebration for Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has just been promoted to Minister for Health (a poisoned chalice? a political cul-de-sac?) While Janet preps vol-au-vents, fields congratulatory phone calls from allies, and half-heartedly urges her secret off-screen lover to stop calling, her friends arrive: a veritable allegorical parade of the elite bourgeoisie from the fields of politics, finance, and academia.

So we're set up for a Hare/Gray/Leigh/Pinteresque showdown as resentments and revelations seep out and coagulate. No disappointments and no surprises there. There are some good zingers and moments of awkward conflict as the new Minister for Heath's perfect life falls apart due to illness and betrayal.

The first shot of the film is basically Janet pointing, shakily, a loaded gun at the audience (bringing to mind The Great Train Robbery, Spellbound, and GoodFellas), so you know there is going to be a certain Chekhovian trajectory here. En route, the cast do a terrific job of bringing verve to a rather static set up and well-worn routines (the gun, the coke, the sweaty banker, etc.) Clarkson is particularly good and you won't get any sense out of me when it comes to Emily Mortimer, as she's my favourite actress – let's just say I was delighted with her turn and disappointed that she didn't make the premiere.

Some of the stories are left hanging and a few comical notes are played too often to diminishing returns, but the cinematography is remarkable and the diegetic music (via Timothy Spall's beloved vinyl collection, which is actually Sally Potter's beloved vinyl collection) almost becomes a character in its own right.

The last time I saw Spall on screen he was playing J.M.W. Turner, singing along movingly to Henry Purcell; at one point in The Party he is on the floor and possibly dying to the strains of Purcell. Not a bad image at the moment for those 'born to rule' but unable to do so through in-fighting, hubris, and pride.

When I am laid, am laid in earth, May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate. [Purcell, Dido’s Lament].

PS: the temporary Embankment Garden Cinema is extraordinary: 820 seats and (I overheard one of the ushers say) the second-largest screen in London right now.

Director, Sally Potter

Director, Sally Potter

Up next: Dark River.


The Dead Nation (London Film Festival 2017)

The Dead Nation (Romania, dir. Radu Jude) is an extraordinary documentary that maps out Romania's sure and steady slide into nationalism, anti-Semitism, fascism, and the Holocaust. The form and structure make it so extraordinary. It is basically 83 minutes of still photographs (from a photographic studio in a small rural Romanian town, taken between 1938 and 1946) set against readings from the contemporary diary of a local Jewish doctor, interspersed with news broadcasts and state propaganda.

Radu Jude introduced the film at the ICA, saying (to much laughter): 'If maybe you think after the first 15 minutes that the film is bad, perhaps you'd better leave because it doesn't get any better.'

The severity of the form is daring. To use moving pictures to display only still pictures is subversive but the interplay between image and words is immensely creative, maybe even dialectical in the way it makes the audience fuse different perceptions, different events, to try and understand or at least confront the barbarity that is described but never seen.

While 'innocent' photographs of family gatherings, rites de passage, holiday snaps, and youths posing in their newfound militias and organisations pass by we hear the words of Doctor Emil Dorian. His diary recounts the surefooted spread and growth of authoritarian laws; sentimental and aggressive chauvinism; fascist organisations; anti-Semitic fantasies; pogroms; massacres; newspaper stories about Nazi experiments with Zyklon-B; the burning and enucleation of Jewish women and children: the horror and despair are relentless, if purely (thank God) verbal and not visual.

And they expose just how much was known, how much was common knowledge, by the population of Romania and the wider world. 

In between these calm forensic passages from Doctor Dorian we hear the all-too-familiar broadcasts from right-wing outlets braying about the virtues of nation, folk, heartland, identity, purity, the parasitic Other, the need for strength and optimism! All the toxic effluent that is currently swamping public discourse in the UK and is gathering in poisonous pools across Europe and beyond.

The Dead Nation feels painfully relevant and is unflinching in its steady, sober warning of how a nation, how a political space, can swiftly deteriorate into barbarism while the majority population stand by, look on, continue, mark their special occasions, sleepwalk into Hell. 

There is a moment of relief and triumph when Romania finally switches allegiance to the Allied forces. But the moment is brief. The film ends with Stalin. Thinking back to the dysfunctional parents of Ana, Mon Amour it feels like a wonder that anyone survived these traumatic years intact. 

Up next: The Party.

London Film Festival 2016: SOUVENIR

I can't recall what triggered it, but I've been having an Isabelle Huppert season at home and in the cinema (she seems to be busier than ever). In quick succession I've recently watched Merci Pour Le ChocolatThings to ComeMa Mère La CérémonieRien Ne Va Plus (wow, that's three Chabrols; I love Chabrol also) and, at the London Film Festival the other night, Souvenir (Belgium-Luxembourg-France, 2016, dir. Bavo Defurne). 

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Sunspots: Bournemouth Arts by the Sea Festival, October 13th

From the north to the south and an intriguing new venue: Bournemouth's Natural Science Society. This beautiful Italianate Victorian building is crammed with cabinets full of shells, skulls, skeletons and all manner of natural wonders: the kind of things my Sun likes to take credit for: "I made the cats./I make the snow."

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