Yellow cinema (Part 2)

 

© Rizzoli Film / Seda Spettacoli / Cineriz

 

Continuing my list of favourite giallo movies – a giallo being an Italian “horror-thriller hybrid”, mostly made in the 1970s, “wherein a group of people, usually affluent and beautiful, get despatched by a mysterious killer (identity revealed only in the closing moments) stabbing, slashing and hacking his or her way through them for some unlikely reason.  The results are often Italian films at their most glamorous, stylish, violent, ridiculous and politically incorrect.”

 

All the Colours of the Dark (1972)

Like the stereotypical London bus, you spend all day waiting for a London-set giallo and then two arrive at once.  Hot on the heels of Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) came All the Colours of the Dark, directed by Sergio Martino who, though not as acclaimed as Fulci, Mario Bava or Dario Argento, is to my mind the fourth master of the genre.

 

Colours features several performers who were regulars in Martino’s movies, including George Hilton, Ivan Rassimov and the droopy-eyed, lushly-haired and slightly feline-featured Algerian-Maltese-Sicilian actress Edwige Fenech, considered by many to be the Queen of Gialli.  Its story is about a woman (Fenech) who, traumatised after a miscarriage, becomes involved with a London-based and apparently murderous Satanic sect.  Thus, it veers towards supernatural territory.  It finally transpires, however, that the killings in the film are part of a non-supernatural conspiracy to relieve her of a family inheritance.  As with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Colours is too long and ultimately loses momentum, but Martino orchestrates some impressive scenes along the way.  Surprisingly for a genre fond of beautifying its characters and settings, a Satanic orgy that Fenech finds herself participating in at one point is determinedly unglamorous.  In fact, the gormless-looking, frankly pug-ugly Satanists around her seem to have wandered in from the set of a leery 1970s British sitcom like ITV’s On the Buses (1969-73).

 

© Lea Film / National Cinematografica / C.C. Astro / Interfilm

 

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)

Emilio Miraglia’s The Red Queen Kills Seven Times is a cheap and cheerful retread of Mario Bava’s seminal Blood and Black Lace (1964), with another series of murders taking place in a fashion house.  This time, though, the setting is Bavaria, not Rome.  While the plot references the legend of an evil Red Queen who’s said to come back from the dead every 100 years to commit seven murders, the real killer proves to be a human one.  What particularly endears this film to me is the histrionic cackle, supposedly emanating from the Red Queen herself, that we hear on the soundtrack following each murder.  Playing the film’s heroine is German actress Barbara Bouchet, who that same year would appear in the next film on this list.

 

© Phoenix Cinematografica / Cineriz / Cannon Films

 

Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)

Don’t Torture a Duckling is Lucio Fulci’s other great giallo movie.  Indeed, it’s one of the best things he ever did. It has none of the excess and goofiness of his later horror films and it benefits from its distinctly un-giallo-like setting.  For a change, it doesn’t take place in an affluent urban world inhabited by high-fliers. Duckling is set instead in a rural and backward south Italian village, its separation from modernity symbolised by the nearby highway where traffic rumbles past oblivious to its existence. While Fulci uses the setting to take pot-shots at the institutions of conservative, traditional, Catholic Italy, his cameras make the most of the sumptuous local countryside.

 

That said, 21st-century viewers will be bothered by some early scenes, seemingly played for laughs, which show Bouchet teasing the village’s young boys by brazenly exposing herself to them.  I doubt if Fulci would have entertained the idea of having hero Tomas Milian expose himself to the village’s young girls, but surely Bouchet’s behaviour is just as bad.  It’s a clumsy foreshadowing of the film’s themes, which are the threat an immoral world poses to childhood innocence, and a serial killer’s determination to preserve the innocence of the children around him by any means necessary.

 

© Medusa Distribuzione

 

Torso (1973)

Sergio Martino made several gialli in the early 1970s, but I think All the Colours of the Dark and Torso are his strongest.  Torso is certainly his most troubling.  Even culture-warring, anti-feminist, male-chauvinistic reactionaries will find its plot, wherein a succession of nubile young ladies are ogled by various, creepy men before being murdered by a masked killer, pretty distasteful.

 

Nonetheless, I admire Torso for its audacious shifts in plot and mood.  It begins in traditional giallo fashion with a serial killer stalking the picturesque, historical city of Perugia.  However, when a group of female students decide to avoid becoming the killer’s next victims by leaving Perugia, travelling into some remote countryside and holing up in a mountaintop villa, and the killer, predictably, follows them and lurks stalkily in the undergrowth and darkness outside the villa, it becomes a prototype for the American slasher / body-count horror movies of the 1980s, epitomised by Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).  And the final 20 minutes see an abrupt change of tone again.  The film’s ‘final girl’ – Suzy Kendall from Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) – wakes up after a long sleep in a bedroom, her leg disabled by an injury and her senses dulled by anaesthetic, and realises she’s sharing the villa with the killer… who isn’t aware of her presence there… yet.  It makes for a splendidly Hitchcockian finale.

 

© Compagnia CInematografica Champion / Interfilm

 

Deep Red (1975)

And now for my favourite giallo ever, Dario Argento’s Deep Red.  This has David Hemmings as a musician who witnesses a murder.  The victim is a psychic who recently claimed to have picked up murderous thoughts from a mysterious somebody in her vicinity – and that somebody evidently decided to silence her before she acquired any clues to his or her identity.  As with the hero of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Hemmings is troubled by the notion that he saw something at the crime scene that is a clue to the culprit’s identity, but can’t figure out exactly what.  And while Hemmings struggles with this, the murders continue and the killer starts to home in on him…

 

Deep Red contains some of the best set-pieces in the history of giallo cinema and some hardly-vital-for-the-plot but disturbingly barmy details, such as a cackling clockwork doll that totters into view just before the killer strikes.  There’s also a baroque, pulsating score by the German prog-rock band Goblin that, in my opinion, just manages to pip the work of Ennio Morricone to earn the title of Greatest Giallo Music Ever.

 

© Rizzoli Film / Seda Spettacoli / Cineriz

 

And Deep Red boasts a wonderful performance by Daria Nicolodi as kooky journalist Gianna Brezzi. For me, Brezzi is up there alongside Jean-Pierre Marielle’s Arrosio in Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) as one of the most memorable characters featured in a giallo.  Nicolodi – who, alas, passed away in 2020 – was married to Argento while he enjoyed his filmmaking heyday during the second half of the 1970s and she made a big contribution to the scripts of his supernatural classics Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980).  I suspect it wasn’t a coincidence that Argento’s movies rapidly went downhill in quality after the mid-1980s, which was when their marriage ended.

 

I love Deep Red, then, but…  It’s evidently not to everyone’s tastes. When I showed it to my partner last year, she professed to finding it ‘dull’ and dismissed Goblin’s soundtrack as being ‘like something from a 1970s disco.’  So that was me told.

 

The House with Laughing Windows (1976)

Like Don’t Torture a Duckling, this film benefits from being set far away from the usual giallo environment of lavish lifestyles, expensive apartments and cosmopolitan cities. Unlike Duckling, it’s set not in the rural south of Italy but in its rural north, in the damp, squelchy lagoon area of Valli di Comacchio in the province of Ferrara.  Pupi Avati’s The House with Laughing Windows has a restorer (Lino Capolicchio) arriving in a village to work on a crumbling fresco in a church and learning that the artist responsible for the work was a madman who got inspiration for his images of martyred saints from torturing and killing people.  When a new wave of murders sweeps the village, it seems that someone is carrying on with the artist’s gruesome traditions. The gloomy, marshy setting helps the film’s atmosphere immeasurably, and its ending is as pessimistic and disturbing as that of Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971) five years earlier.

 

© A.M.A. Film / Euro International Films

 

Honourable mentions?  Cat O’ Nine Tails (1971), the middle entry in Dario Argento’s ‘animal’ trilogy, doesn’t have the gusto of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Four Flies on Grey Velvet, the films that bookend it, but it’s still worth catching up with. Meanwhile, Argento’s 1980s gialli Tenebrae (1982) and Opera (1987) have their moments but aren’t as involving as his 1970s work – due, I suspect, to their lack of engaging characters.

 

Also of interest are Sergio Martino’s other two gialli, The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh (1971) with Martino regulars Edwige Fenech, George Hilton and Ivan Rassimov, and the fabulously titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) with Fenech and Rassimov, plus Luigi Pistilli from Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood (1971) and Anita Strindberg from Lucio Fulci’s A Lizard in a Woman’s SkinYour Vice is memorable for having some of the ghastliest characters to ever appear in a giallo, and for its plot basically being an outrageous reworking of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story The Black Cat.  But it’s spoiled by Martino’s inexplicable insertion of a dirt-motorbike race that seems to go on forever.

 

Elsewhere, Fenech and Hilton turn up in the decent, meat-and-two-veg giallo The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972), directed by Giuliano Carnimeo. I have a soft spot too for Umberto Lenzi’s agreeably shonky Spasmo, with music by Ennio Morricone and a cast that includes Suzy Kendall, Ivan Rassimov and Robert Hoffman, star of the fondly remembered French-German children’s series The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1964).  And I can’t possibly finish a piece about giallo movies without mentioning Giulio Questi’s mad 1968 epic Death Laid an Egg, which boldly places its beautiful giallo characters in the glamorous, stylish world of… intensive poultry farming.

Yellow cinema (Part 1)

 

© International Apollo Films / Les Films Corona / Atlantida Films

 

Not so long ago, I caught up with Edgar Wright’s 2021 movie Last Night in Soho.  I generally liked it, though I thought its first half was more successful than its second.  During the first half the film is very much a fantasy, with a lonely young woman (Thomasin McKenzie), who’s fixated on 1960s British fashion and culture, arriving in unglamorous, modern-day London and falling victim to weird, time-travelling regressions.  These send her back six decades and put her soul in the body of an early-1960s starlet (Angela Joy-Taylor) who’s trying to make her name in Soho, the London district that embodied the era’s combination of carefree glamour and shady decadence.  Halfway through, however, the movie shifts gears.  The 1960s scenes become sourer and darker and the fantasy gives way to horror.  This transition didn’t quite work for me and I ended up feeling the movie was neither fish nor fowl.

 

One thing I thought was cool about Last Night in Soho’s second, macabre half, however, was how Wright invests it with the aesthetics of Italian giallo cinema.  There’s bright, lurid lighting and colours, and swirling camerawork, and lots of splashy, slashy blood and grue.  Wright has obviously studied the works of old giallo maestros like Mario Bava, Sergio Martino, Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento.  And it’s giallo movies that I’d like to spend this entry talking about.

 

What is, or was – because, informed by a certain time, place and set of attitudes, the genre is surely obsolete in 21st century cinema – a giallo movie?

 

Previously on this blog, while I was paying tribute to the late Ennio Morricone, whose music embellished the soundtrack of many a giallo in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I described it as a “staple of traditional Italian cinema” that was a “horror-thriller hybrid wherein a group of people, usually affluent and beautiful, get despatched by a mysterious killer (identity revealed only in the closing moments) stabbing, slashing and hacking his or her way through them for some unlikely reason.  The results are often Italian films at their most glamorous, stylish, violent, ridiculous and politically incorrect.”  Incidentally, the word giallo is Italian for ‘yellow’ and, according to Wikipedia, the cinematic term “derives from a series of cheap paperback mystery and crime thrillers with yellow covers that were popular in Italy.”

 

There follows a list of my favourite gialli.  I should point out that I’m a purist about what constitutes and doesn’t constitute a giallo.  In my mind, the ’killer’ element is important.  It’s got to be a human doing the killing, not a monster or supernatural agency.  So, though I’ve seen other people’s lists of gialli include films like Elio Petri’s A Quiet Place in the Country (1968), Mario Bava’s Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970) and Lisa and the Devil (1974), Emilio Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980), I’m steering clear of them because their plots contain ghosts, witches, devils and other supernatural elements.  I’m also avoiding Francisco Barilli’s Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974), which isn’t so much supernatural as Kafkaesque-ly strange.  For me, a proper giallo doesn’t contain the impossible.  Just, usually, the highly improbable.

 

Anyway, there’s only one movie to start with…

 

© Emmeni Cinematografica / Les Productions Georges de Beaurgard

 

Blood and Black Lace (1964)

Director Mario Bava was to Italian horror cinema what John Ford was to westerns or Alfred Hitchcock was to suspense movies.  The form would have been utterly different without him.  His splendid 1960s trilogy Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1964) and Kill, Baby, Kill (1966) indelibly shaped Italy’s tradition of gothic horror shockers.  Black Sabbath and Kill, Baby, Kill were also shot in colour and showcased Bava’s eye for baroque lighting, gorgeous colour palettes and elaborate set design, which proved the frights didn’t have to come at you from a monochrome world of darkness and shadows.  They could come at you from a brightly and lushly phantasmagorical world too.

 

Meanwhile, Blood and Black Lace is an early landmark in giallo films.  Its tale of a series of murders in a Rome fashion house – invariably of young, beautiful models, which meant gialli were open to the charge of misogyny from the very start – created the template for the form.  Moreover, thanks to Bava’s inimitable visual style, it’s a stunning film to watch.  For my money, it’s up there with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) as one of those movies that’s simply a feast for the eyes.

 

© Seda Spettacoli / Titanus / Constantin

 

The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Blood and Black Lace made the giallo mould, but The Bird with the Crystal Plumage directed by then-new kid on the block Dario Argento – this was his directorial debut – showed that this type of movie could win both popular success and critical acclaim.  It also inspired a glut of gialli in Italy during the early 1970s.  The story begins with a young American (Tony Musante) witnessing a near-deadly attack on a woman in a Rome art gallery – he gets trapped between two glass doors and is unable to run to her aid.  While more violence occurs, seemingly as a result of the attack, he agonises over what he thought he saw.  He can’t put his finger on it, but there was something not quite right about it…  This ‘missing-piece-of-the-jigsaw’ trope became a common one in giallo films.  Providing Bird’s music is the peerless Ennio Morricone, while in the role of Musante’s girlfriend is English actress Suzy Kendall, who would notch up more giallo credits.  She even appeared as ‘special guest screamer’ in 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio, Peter Strickland’s ‘sort of’ tribute to 1970s Italian horror movies.

 

© Nuova Linea Cinematografica

 

A Bay of Blood (1971)

A Bay of Blood feels like Mario Bava’s grumpy riposte to Argento, who the previous year had made giallo films almost respectable with The Bird with the Crystal PlumageA Bay of Blood is the polar opposite, a nasty, mean-spirited and ultra-violent effort, surely the most violent thing in Bava’s CV.  It’s about a community of conniving scumbags who murder one another in their desperation to secure an inheritance, which is the expensive property around the titular bay.  Even at the film’s end, when only the last two, husband-and-wife scumbags (Luigi Pistilli and Claudia Auger) remain alive, Bava hits upon a novel way of killing them off too.  What makes A Bay of Blood fascinating is an extended section that’s barely connected with the rest of the film.  Here, a quartet of teenagers break into the mansion at the centre of the murders and are themselves, gratuitously and bloodily, murdered.  This part is less like a giallo and more like a prototype showreel for the ‘slasher’ movies, such as the Friday the 13th ones, that dominated American horror cinema in the 1980s.

 

© Doria G. Film / Dunhill Cinematografica / Jadran Film

 

Short Night of Glass Dolls (1971)

An atypical giallo, Aldo Lado’s Short Night of Glass Dolls benefits from its Prague setting and a plot that features a murderous conspiracy rather than another contrived-killer-on-the-loose scenario.  Downbeat endings aren’t unusual in gialli, but the grim fate that befalls the journalist hero (French actor Jean Sorel) is genuinely affecting and disturbing.  Also in the movie is Ringo Starr’s future missus Barbara Bach, who that same year would appear in a second giallo, Paolo Cavara’s The Black Belly of the TarantulaShort Night boasts music from Ennio Morricone too.  As does…

 

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)

The final instalment in what would become known as Dario Argento’s ‘animal’ trilogy, which began with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and continued with Cat O’ Nine Tails (made earlier in 1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet is about a Rome-based rock drummer and his wife, played by Michael Brandon and Mimsy Farmer, another Anglophone actress who became something of a giallo star.  They get involved in a series of murders after the drummer seemingly, unwittingly kills a man who’s been stalking him.

 

© Seda Spettacoli / Universal Productions France

 

One of Four Flies’ pleasures is the wonderful performance by French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle as Gianni Arrioso, a camp, incompetent and tragic private investigator hired by Brandon to figure out what’s going on.  When the inevitable happens and Arrioso gets bumped off by the killer too, the dying PI consoles himself with the thought that at least, for once, he guessed the culprit’s identity correctly: “I was right,” he sighs, “I did it this time.”  In another supporting role, as one of Brandon’s mates, is the great Bud Spencer, taking a break from the spaghetti westerns and comedies he was making at the time with his acting partner Terence Hill.

 

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

Much loved by horror-movie buffs for his schlocky, gory, no-rational-thought-required opuses like Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981), director Lucio Fulci was, once, a maker of surprisingly stylish gialliA Lizard in a Woman’s Skin is also that fascinating beast, a giallo set in London, meaning that life in early 1970s Britain – hardly the most glamorous time or place – is depicted intriguingly, if improbably, through a more fashion-conscious, Mediterranean lens.  Joining the London scenery here is the impeccable, no-nonsense Welsh actor Stanley Baker, playing a police detective investigating the killings that invariably happen.  Meanwhile, there’s more Morricone goodness on the soundtrack.

 

Alas, Lizard suffers from being half-an-hour too long and runs out of steam towards its end.  Nothing in it quite compares with its opening sequences, in which the repressed wife (Florinda Bolkan) of a high-flying lawyer (Jean Sorel again) dreams about fleeing through a packed train, whose passengers then morph into enthusiastic participants in a gigantic hippy orgy being held in the house of her real-life neighbour (Anita Strindberg, another giallo regular).  The saucy dreams climax – ouch! – with a murder, and when a real murder is committed in the real house, we’re left wondering what’s actually dream and reality in Bolkan’s head.

 

Though the film slackens in its later stages, Fulci still manages some memorable moments, such as a set-piece chase through Alexandra Palace in north London, where Bolkan ends up in the building’s roof-space and is swarmed by a disturbed colony of bats; or an unhinged scene set in a high-security sanitorium where she blunders into a laboratory-room full of partly-dissected dogs.  The dogs in the lab scene weren’t real, but the special effects, courtesy of effects-man Carlo Rambaldi (who would later create ET), seemed so realistic by the standards of the time that Fulci got threatened with a prison sentence for animal cruelty.

 

© International Apollo Films / Les Films Corona / Atlantida Films

 

More of my favourite gialli will appear in a future blog-entry!

Who is the Macbeth-est of them all?

 

© A24 / IAC Films / Apple TV+

 

I recently watched The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), directed by Joel Cohen (without, for the first time ever, his brother Ethan co-directing) and starring Denzel Washington as William Shakespeare’s king-stabbing, crown-grabbing Scotsman.  Meanwhile, in the role of Macbeth’s spouse, the ruthless Lady Macbeth, is Cohen’s real-life spouse Frances McDormand.  It’s difficult to sum up my reaction to the film. I suppose you could say: liked it… stopped liking it… started liking it again.

 

The opening sequence, the aftermath of the battle between Scotland and the combined armies of Ireland and Norway, takes place on a beach.  Thanks to Bruno Delbonnel’s monochrome cinematography, it’s palely, clammily and impressively atmospheric.  Mind you, within a couple of minutes of hearing the performers’ accents – Ralph Ineson speaking broad Yorkshire, Harry Melling speaking broad RP and Brendan Gleason speaking broad Irish – you realise this isn’t going to be a particularly Scottish take on the Scottish play.

 

Enter Washington’s Macbeth, speaking broad American, and Bertie Carvel’s Banquo. They encounter the Weird Sisters (Kathryn Hunter) and hear their fateful prophecies.  Soon after, the prophecies start coming true as Macbeth is made Thane of Cawdor thanks to his valour during the battle.  And the plot – literally a plot, with Washington and McDormand conspiring to kill Gleason’s King Duncan and seize the Scottish throne – is underway.

 

So, for me, the film gets off to a strong start.  I went off it, however, when the action relocates to Macbeth’s castle, where Duncan spends the night as a guest, and we get the build-up, execution and aftermath of his murder.  Ironically, this was because of something many critics have praised the film for, its stylised sets and lighting, which give the castle’s interior the look of a perspective-bending M.C. Escher illustration, shot in the manner of a German expressionist silent movie or a 1940s American film noir.

 

My problem was that the shafts of stark white light (necessary to produce the black shadows elsewhere) and the sense of silence, stillness and solidity evoked by the sets make a nonsense of Shakespeare’s theme that, by murdering Duncan and violating the human social order, Macbeth sparks a chain reaction with violent effects in the natural world too: “Where we lay / Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say / Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of death / And prophesying, with accents terrible / Of dire combustion and confused events… / …Some say the earth / Was feverous and did shake.” Well, you don’t get any impression of falling-down chimneys, lamentings, dire combustion, confused events and feverous earthquakes in an environment as still and sombre as this.  In fact, there’s little suggestion that night-time occurred at all – the castle windows seem to blaze permanently with light.

 

I actually didn’t respond well to the overall, stylised, sometimes artificial look of the film, though I suspect that’s just me.  I spent some of my formative years in Scotland, so to me the places mentioned in the play – Glamis, Cawdor, Fife – aren’t just names but real geographical locations.  I prefer Macbeth movies with proper Scottish landscapes, with primordial mountains, moors, glens and lochs that to my mind create an appropriate backdrop for the dark and bloody goings-on.

 

© A24 / IAC Films / Apple TV+

 

However, The Tragedy of Macbeth regained my interest later on.  The sequence where Macbeth has his second meeting with the Weird Sisters is staged with wonderful inventiveness and thereafter the movie gets its second wind.  The slaughter of Macduff’s family is impressively done too, conveying the cruelty of the deed without descending into a bloodbath.  (As the first murderer assaults one of the young Macduff-lings, he utters the memorable Shakespearean cry, “What, you egg!”, although the punning follow-up line, “Young fry of treachery!” is excised here.  Also removed is the doomed youngster’s exclamation, “He has kill’d me, mother!”  At school, while my classmates and I studied Macbeth for the Scottish O-Grade, we found this really funny for some reason.)

 

One thing many critics have remarked upon is the age of the two leads. Washington and McDormand are both in their late middle-age, no longer able to have children.  This makes their murder of Duncan and the seizing of the throne more egotistical – they aren’t doing it for their line, which doesn’t and won’t exist, but purely for themselves.  Their childlessness, of course, contrasts with the fecundity of the two thorns in their sides.  Banquo has a son, Fleance, and Macduff has a whole brood of kids.  It also underlines Macbeth’s wariness of Banquo, for whom the Weird Sisters prophesise: “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.”

 

Elsewhere, my impression of The Tragedy of Macbeth was that some things worked well and other things less well.  Kathryn Hunter is splendid as the Weird Sisters.  There’s only one of them who’s flesh and blood, though that twisted, contorted body of hers seems to be inhabited by the spirits of all three.  The figures of the other two only materialise in the physical world as reflections – Macbeth’s and Banquo’s first sighting of them, at the edge of a pool, is memorably creepy. Perhaps Hunter’s performance gets slightly too Andy Serkis at times, but it’s still very effective.

 

On the other hand, the promotion of the character of Ross (Alex Hassell) from being one of the original play’s interchangeable Scottish thanes to, here, being a Machiavellian, possibly even supernatural, manipulator who’s playing both sides – he delivers the warning to Lady Macduff about Macbeth’s evil intentions, but also turns up as the mysterious third murderer who does for Banquo, and there’s even a suggestion that he has a hand in Lady Macbeth’s suicide – is intriguing but doesn’t really come off.  With the Weird Sisters, the play already has Machiavellian manipulators.  It doesn’t need any more.

 

© StudioCanal / Film4

 

It’s interesting to compare this Macbeth with the cinematic adaptations that have come before.  I preferred it to the Justin Kurzel-directed version, released in 2015, which despite a great cast – Michael Fassbender as Macbeth, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as Macduff – seems rather subdued, thanks to the amount of low-volume muttering and mumbling going on that takes the fire out of Shakespeare’s lines.  It also chops out parts of the play that, while admittedly hammy, I’ve always enjoyed, for example, the post-regicide comedy relief with the porter, and most of the “Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” hijinks with the Weird Sisters.  At least in The Tragedy of Macbeth these are reinstated.  Stephen Root gives a funny turn as the porter and Joel Cohen seems to relish the macabre incantations of the Weird Sisters: “Finger of birth-strangled babe / Ditch-deliver’d by a drab / Liver of blaspheming Jew / Gall of goat and slips of yew…”  Well, he did start his movie career as an assistant editor on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981).

 

Still, the 2015 Macbeth looks lovely and it satisfies my craving for proper Scottish landscapes in a Macbeth movie.  Many of its outdoor scenes were shot on the Isle of Skye, although admittedly parts of it were also filmed in England, at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.  Also visually striking is the sequence where Macbeth squares up to Macduff.  Their swordfight takes place against an infernal, almost hallucinogenic orange-red backdrop while Birnam Wood burns off-screen.  For yes, the scriptwriters cooked up – and ‘cook’ is the operative word – a novel way of bringing Birnam Wood to the castle on Dunsinane Hill.

 

For me, though, the best movie Macbeth is Roman Polanski’s version of it back in 1971, which had Jon Finch and Francesca Annis in the lead roles.  This made a big impression on me.  I was 15 when I saw it, so no doubt one reason why I took to it was because the film’s qualities – its simultaneous bleakness, bloodiness, bawdiness, gothic-ness, gorgeousness, rebelliousness and artiness – mirrored the mix of emotions and hormones seething at the time in my teenaged self.  And no doubt I felt a connection with the film too because Finch and Annis were both so young when they made it.  In fact, their youthfulness suggests they have little power to control their destinies.  They’re swept along with events, propelled by dark forces that are both political and supernatural.

 

© Playboy Productions / Columbia Pictures

 

Polanski’s Macbeth was disliked by many critics, upset by its violence and disturbed by the fact that Polanski’s recent past had been pretty violent too.  In August 1969, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were butchered at his home in Beverly Hills by followers of the hippie-cult lunatic Charles Manson.  Pauline Kael, the film critic for the New Yorker, even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to replicate the carnage that Manson had authored in his own life.  Famously, the film’s screenwriter, Kenneth Tynan, challenged Polanski about the amount of blood shown in this scene – to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”

 

Incidentally, the exteriors in Polanski’s Macbeth look rugged enough to be Scottish, but the film was actually shot elsewhere, in Wales (including Snowdonia) and north-eastern England.  And, yes, Northumberland’s Bamburgh Castle makes an appearance in this version too.

 

One other cinematic Macbeth I’ve seen is the 1948 production directed by, and starring, Orson Welles.  I watched this on TV a long time ago and wasn’t impressed by its apparent staginess and melodramatics – by then I was in thrall to the Polanski version.  However, lately, I’ve watched a few parts of it on Youtube and revised my opinion of it somewhat.  Yes, it’s cheap.  Welles made it for Republic Pictures, a studio that normally specialised in low-budget westerns, had to shoot it on some of Republic’s leftover western sets, and had only a 23-day shooting schedule.  But scenes like Act 3 Scene 4, where Banquo’s ghost shows up at the feast with ‘no speculation’ in its eyes and shaking its ‘gory locks’ at his killer, are surprisingly well-staged.  Though I suppose you’d expect that from Welles.

 

There are problems, however.  Though he was only 33 at the time, Welles was already getting portly and resembled Falstaff more than Macbeth.  It doesn’t help that he appears in an eccentric costume that, he grumbled later, made him look like the Statue of Liberty.

 

And then there are the accents – dear God.  Welles’s American cast dial the fake twee Scottish-ness up to 11 and roll their ‘r’s for minutes at a time.  Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth is shrill and hard to listen to and even Welles himself, during his more excitable moments, sounds like Scotty in the original series of Star Trek (1966-69).  Meanwhile, the Weird Sisters’ accents are so piercing they remind me of those advertisements that Scottish children’s entertainer and showbiz personality Molly Weir used to make for Flash, the household cleaning agent, back in the 1970s: “Flash cleans baths without scr-r-r-r-ratching!”

 

And on that topic…  While one of the play’s strengths is that it can be adapted to countless different settings and styles, I would one day like to see a truly Scottish film version of Macbeth, with authentic Scottish actors and accents as well as those brooding Scottish landscapes I’ve talked about.  You can’t claim, as you might have been able to in the past, that there aren’t enough bankable Scottish actors to draw audiences to it.  Not with the likes of Peter Capaldi, Robert Carlyle, Robbie Coltrane, Martin Compston, James Cosmo, Brian Cox, Kate Dickie, Lindsay Duncan, Karen Gillan, Shirley Henderson, Jack Lowden, James McAvoy, Kelly Macdonald, Ewan McGregor, Kevin McKidd, Bill Paterson, Dougray Scott, Ken Stott, David Tennant, etc., on the go nowadays.

 

Hell, I’d even pay money to see Gerald Butler as Macbeth.  Cawdor Has Fallen, anyone?

 

© Mercury Productions / Republic Pictures

Branagh’s Belfast

 

© Northern Ireland Screen / Focus Features / Universal Pictures

 

Kenneth Branagh has seemed the embodiment of classical, theatrical Englishness for a long time – at least since his 1989 film adaptation of Henry V, in which he raged “Cry ‘God for Harry, England and Saint George!’”  Meanwhile, over the years, I’ve enjoyed shocking people by pointing out to them that Branagh isn’t actually English.  He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1960.  He and his family left there for England in 1969, shortly after the outbreak of the Troubles.  He ended up in Berkshire, where he dropped his Belfast accent and ‘acquired received pronunciation to avoid bullying.’  Thus began the plummy-voiced Branagh we know today.

 

In fact, Branagh’s early life wasn’t dissimilar to mine, for I was born and brought up in Northern Ireland until the age of 11, when my family moved to the town of Peebles, in the Borders region of Scotland.  I was a couple of years older than Branagh was at the time of moving and couldn’t shed my accent so easily – not that I needed to, because although my new classmates in Peebles sometimes took the piss out of the way I spoke, I was never bullied.  Come to think of it, acquiring ‘received pronunciation to avoid bullying’ probably wouldn’t have been a good policy at Peebles High School.  Folk would have picked on you more for sounding like a posh tosser.

 

Before Branagh made a name for himself as the star, director and adaptor of Henry V, I’d known of his Northern Irish connections because I’d seen him appear in a quartet of TV plays written by the Northern Irish dramatist Graham Reid.  These were Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982), A Matter of Choice for Billy (1983), A Coming to Terms for Billy (1984) and Lorna (1987), and were about the tribulations of a working-class Protestant family in Belfast, the Martins.  The Martins’ problems aren’t caused by the Troubles but by their own flawed, damaged and abrasive personalities.  The widowed father Norman (James Ellis) is an unrepentant hard man, incapable of showing his gentler feelings, while his eldest child and only son Billy (Branagh) is embittered about how Norman treated his late mother.  It’s left to the eldest daughter, the mild-mannered Lorna (Brid Brennan), to act as a surrogate mother to the family’s younger children.  During the plays, unexpected things happen – Norman mellows under the influence of a woman he forms a relationship with while working in England, Lorna develops some unexpected steel and Billy, dismayingly, begins to show some of the worst traits of his dad.  In the four plays Branagh had no problem readopting his old Belfast accent, so I was surprised when a few years later I went to the cinema and heard him speaking fluent Shakespeare in Henry V.

 

Branagh has revisited his Belfast roots with his latest movie Belfast, which was released in the USA last year and has just been released in Britain.  Inspired by Branagh’s experiences during the late 1960s, it tells the story of another working-class Protestant family, one less dysfunctional than the Martins in the Billy plays: a couple simply entitled ‘Ma’ (Catriona Balfe) and ‘Pa’ (Jamie Dornan), and their older son Will (Lewis McAskie) and younger son Buddy (Jude Hill).  Pa spends his working life in England and is considering moving his family over to live with him, something that doesn’t appeal to Ma and the boys.  “I know nothing else but Belfast,” she protests.  For one thing, they have strong family ties in the city, most notably Pa’s parents, the droll Pop (Ciaran Hines) and stern but kindly Granny (Judi Dench).  Then the Troubles erupt and Protestant paramilitaries led by local thug Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) chase the Catholic families out of their neighbourhood.  As the paramilitaries’ grip on the area tightens, Pa falls foul of Clanton and it becomes clear that, like it or not, his family will have to leave too.

 

© Northern Ireland Screen / Focus Features / Universal Pictures

 

This basic plot could have made Belfast a grim film, but it’s a funny, good-natured one because these events are seen through the eyes of little Buddy.  They have to compete for attention with all the things that matter to a normal nine-year-old boy – things ranging from pursuing your first love to getting initiated into the local kids’ gang, from making trips to the cinema to bonding with your granddad.

 

Belfast left me with mixed emotions.  On one hand, I found it annoyingly overstated in places.  On the other, I generally found it rather moving.  I’ll explain my conflicting reactions in detail, starting with the negative ones.

 

I have to admit that until now Henry V is the only film by Branagh that I’ve enjoyed.  I wasn’t impressed by his later adaptations of Shakespeare, like Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), and I hated his version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994).  They seemed shrill and over-the-top in both their acting and their visuals.  Originally, I thought this was because Branagh didn’t have confidence in the original texts by Shakespeare and Shelley to capture the attention of modern film audiences.  He felt obliged to make them as bombastic as possible, pumping them up with the cinematic equivalent of steroids – operatic performances, hammy humour, fast-moving camerawork and so on.  Nowadays, though, I just think the problem is that Branagh, basically, is a theatrical man.  When you’re on a stage, performing for a live audience, everything has to be big – the voice projection, the gestures, the general drama – in order to be seen and heard. But what’s effective from a distant stage often seems unsubtle when it’s projected in fine detail onto a large movie screen.  And that’s the impression I sometimes got with Belfast.

 

In its plot machinations, visuals and soundtrack, there are some broad brushstrokes indeed.  You get heavy-handed pieces of comedy, such as when Buddy cheats at his homework in order to get placed at the desk beside the girl he fancies at school – their teacher positions the pupils from the front to the back of the classroom according to how good or bad their marks are, and Buddy’s sweetheart, the brightest kid in class, is right at the front.  (From a teaching point of view, wouldn’t it be sensible to have the less able kids at the front, so you can keep a close eye on them, and the smart ones at the back?)

 

Meanwhile, Branagh shoots the film in black and white but inserts colour at certain moments.  These are when Buddy’s family go to the cinema.  Although the auditorium is filmed in monochrome, what’s happening on the screen – action from Hammer’s One Million Years BC (1966) and the movie version of Roald Dahl’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) – appears in its original, glorious technicolour.  As a metaphor for how the cinema transports Buddy out of his black-and-white everyday existence and into the colourful dreamworld of the movies, this is pretty clunking.

 

© Northern Ireland Screen / Focus Features / Universal Pictures

 

By far the worst offender, though, is a scene where Pa confronts Billy Clanton on a street.  Clanton is holding his family at gunpoint and there’s a squad of British Army soldiers looking on, pointing weapons at everybody.  I know we’re meant to be viewing this through Buddy’s eyes.  But still, it seems crass and cheesy that at this deadly-serious moment Tex Ritter starts singing Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling from the classic 1952 western High Noon – which Buddy has recently watched on TV – on the soundtrack.  Billy Clanton, incidentally, was the name of one of the villainous Clanton Gang who took on the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday during the gunfight at the OK Corral, another touch that’s a bit too obvious.

 

All that aside, however, I have to say I enjoyed Belfast.  It’s nice to see a film about Northern Ireland that isn’t primarily about terrorism, extreme religion or extreme politics, and that focuses on believable, relatable people who are just trying to get on with their lives.  It also contains a lot of humour, something that’s usually in short supply in movies about Northern Ireland, even though I remember knowing many funny, witty characters when I lived there.  (Ciaran Hines’ genial, good-hearted Pop, who manages to be on Buddy’s wavelength without ever patronising him, initially seemed too good to be true – but again, I realised, I’d known several old guys like him during my childhood.)

 

Branagh conveys the idea that, as a kid in Northern Ireland, the popular culture of the time enthused you just as it enthused kids in more ‘normal’ societies, and influenced you as much as (if not more than) the riots and bombings that were happening not far from your doorstep. Thus, we see Buddy dressing up like a cast-member of Thunderbirds (1965-66), watching Star Trek (1966-69), playing with Subbuteo and James Bond toy cars, and reading the Marvel comic The Mighty Thor, which allows Branagh to sneakily reference the 2011 movie Thor, which he directed.  (I don’t know how easy it was to access Marvel comics in Belfast in 1969, especially as Marvel’s British subsidiary Marvel UK didn’t begin operating until 1972.  Still, I remember finding an American edition of The Avengers in Enniskillen in the early 1970s, so I guess it was possible.)

 

If there’s one thing I find unconvincing about the characters, it’s that the tribal symbols that existed in Northern Ireland’s Protestant and Catholic communities, even in 1969 before the Troubles hardened people’s senses of identity, are absent.  There’s little said or shown about being British or Irish, about Union Jacks or tricolours, about the Orange Order or Gaelic Athletics Association.  Actually, at a few points Buddy’s relatives describe themselves as ‘Irish’ (“The Irish were born for leaving – otherwise, the rest of the world would have no pubs…”  “All the Irish need to survive is a phone, a Guinness and the sheet music to Danny Boy…”), although I expect most Belfast Protestants would call themselves ‘British’.  Compare this with a scene in Graham Reid’s A Coming to Terms for Billy when Norman Martin’s two youngest daughters discuss, unenthusiastically, the prospect of their dad taking them to England.  When one points out how disliked the Irish are in England, the other retorts, “We’re not Irish.  We’re Protestants!”

 

Still, Belfast definitely shows that Branagh’s heart is in the right place even if, occasionally, his plotting and filmmaking instincts aren’t.  The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous and his use of classic Van Morrison songs on the soundtrack – Warm Love, Jackie Wilson Said, Bright Side of the Road, Days Like This, Carrickfergus and, inevitably at the end, The Healing has Begun – is a reminder that however much Van the Man has degenerated these days into a curmudgeonly, whinging old fart who’d pick a fight with his own shadow, he did, once upon a time, record some wonderful music.

 

And, ultimately, Branagh shows that despite the terrible things that have gone on there, Northern Ireland is a place that exerts a powerful hold on your affections.  This is illustrated in the scene where Ma and Pa break the news to Buddy that they’re all going to leave Belfast and move to England.  Poor Buddy promptly bursts into tears.

 

I remember when my mother took me aside in 1976 and told me that we were going to move to Scotland.  I reacted in exactly the same way.

 

© Northern Ireland Screen / Focus Features / Universal Pictures

Making room in 2022 for Harry Harrison

 

© Penguin

 

As 2022 dawned, I noticed people on social media drawing attention to the fact that this new year is the year in which the famous 1973 sci-fi movie Soylent Green is set.  Starring Charlton Heston, Soylent Green depicts 2022 as a hellish time when overpopulation has exhausted the world’s resources and left many people dependent on a cheap, mass-produced foodstuff called Soylent Green, which is supposed to be made from plankton.  But, as Heston’s policeman hero finds out at the film’s finale, Soylent Green is actually made from – surprise! – people.  Yes, with human civilisation on its knees, capitalism has incorporated cannibalism.

 

With Soylent Green topical again, I thought I’d write a few words about the book on which the movie is based, Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966).  It’s less showy but more credible than the movie, a classic of dystopian cinema though it is.  And dare I say it, I think the book is better.

 

The edition of Make Room! Make Room! I read was one published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2009.  This feels ironic considering that for most of his career Harry Harrison (who died in 2012) was regarded as a solid, meat-and-two-veg-type science fiction writer.  Not the sort of person you’d expect to find favour among mainstream literary critics or have work published by a company synonymous with highbrow literature like Penguin.

 

Harrison’s first creative job was actually as an artist, not as a writer.  Following stints in the Air Corps and military police during World War II, which left him disdainful of military culture – in the introduction to one book he wrote that the armed forces’ “mixture of sadism, unquestioned authority, brutality, racism, intolerance, vulgarity, to name but a few, was the antithesis of everything that I believed in” – he spent much of the late 1940s and 1950s drawing and editing comic-books.  It wasn’t until a bout of illness left him, temporarily, unable to draw that he tried his hand at writing.  In the decades that followed, he established himself as one of science fiction’s most popular authors, thanks largely to swashbuckling and tongue-in-cheek space operas like the Stainless Steel Rat books.  I read some of these in my youth and have always thought their comedic and satirical elements helped pave the way for Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy franchise.

 

© Sphere

 

However, space operas and humour were two things unlikely to curry favour with literary critics, which meant that Harrison, though popular, was underrated as a writer.  This was a pity.  For one thing, for a long time, science fiction was a genre whose practitioners included many right-wing dingbats – see Robert Heinlein (whose gung-ho 1959 novel Starship Troopers Harrison took the piss out of with 1965’s Bill the Galactic Hero), Poul Anderson, Jerry Pournelle and Orson Scott Card.  Actually, there’s plenty of them still on the go, such as arsehole extraordinaire Theodore Beale.  Among that lot, Harrison’s authorial voice seemed refreshingly liberal and anti-militaristic and it would’ve been good to see him get more attention.

 

Anyway, I trust Harrison enjoyed a wry chuckle about Penguin’s decision to label Make Room! Make Room! a ‘modern classic’ three years before his death.

 

Like the film, Make Room! Make Room! is set in New York, but not in 2022.  The book’s set in 1999, 33 years into the future from when Harrison wrote it.  It describes a New York that’s bursting at its concrete seams with 35 million inhabitants.  Gasoline is all but gone and supplies of food and water are running dangerously low.  While Harrison is warning us of the danger of letting the human population grow unchecked, with the resultant depletion of resources, it’s interesting that the story in the opening chapters unfolds against the backdrop of a sweltering heatwave: “After the damp hallway the heat of Twenty-fifth Street hit him in a musty wave, a stifling miasma compounded of decay, dirt and unwashed humanity…  Days of heat had softened the tar so that it gave underfoot, then clutched at the soles of his shoes.”  This gives the modern-day reader an uncomfortable feeling that what’s really blighting the city is the relentlessly-climbing temperatures of manmade climate change.

 

The novel’s hero is a tough but dutiful cop called Andy Rusch who’s investigating the murder of a gangster called Michael O’Brien.  Cruelly, O’Brien has been living it up in a swanky gated-community apartment with near-unobtainable luxuries such as liquor and red meat, while Rusch is stuck in a partitioned room cohabited by an old man called Sol.  (Sol spends much of his time pedalling on a wheel-less bicycle that’s wired to an electrical generator, which keeps his ancient TV and fridge running).  Although the city authorities believe that O’Brien was rubbed out by a rival syndicate keen to muscle their way into the city, the murderer is really a hapless young petty criminal called Billy Chung who accidentally killed O’Brien during a bungled robbery.

 

The book has a double narrative, focusing both on Rusch pursuing the killer and on Chung fleeing and trying to evade capture.  But the plot has a darker momentum too – downwards.  We see Rusch’s life gradually disintegrate as the polluted, over-populated, under-resourced city around him goes from bad to worse and, despite his best efforts, he fails to hold onto the two people who matter most to him: the feisty but vulnerable Sol and the gorgeous and good-hearted Shirl, moll of the late Michael O’Brien, whom Rusch falls in love with during the course of his investigations.

 

It’s a smart move by Harrison to wrap the apocalyptic content of Make Room! Make Room! in the trimmings of a crime / detective story.  Rather than thrust the horrors of this hellhole New York into our faces, he lets us concentrate, mainly, on the story of Rusch tracking down Chung; while slipping in disturbing details about what’s going on in the background.  There are casual mentions of ‘tugtrucks’ – which we realise are wagons pulled along by teams of sweating, straining human beings, there being no more fuel left for conventional, engine-powered trucks.  Shirl pays a visit to a heavily fortified, heavily guarded hideout that’s not selling drugs, as we initially expect, but selling beefsteaks.  And there are references to Rusch stepping over sleeping or huddling bodies in hallways and stairwells, indicating that hell isn’t quite Jean-Paul Satre’s definition of it as ‘other people’.  No, hell is lots of other people.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Returning to Soylent Green, the movie adaptation of Make Room! Make Room!, I should say I remember reading about the film in a book called Future Tense: the Cinema of Science Fiction (1979) written by the movie critic John Brosnan.  As part of his coverage of the film, Brosnan interviewed Harrison and the author had mixed feelings about how his story had been transferred from the page to the screen.

 

He certainly admired the job that the director Richard Fleischer (another underrated talent) had made of Soylent Green, but he begrudged some of the changes wrought by the filmmakers.  For instance, Sol – who in Soylent Green is played by Edward G. Robinson – dies in the book from injuries he sustains after he takes part in a demonstration, in support of family planning, that turns into a riot.  In the movie, Sol decides he’s had enough of the increasingly-shitty world and goes to a ‘euthanasia clinic’ to end it all.  Harrison wasn’t impressed by this because, unbeknownst to the filmmakers, euthanasia clinics and suicide machines are something of a cliché in science fiction.  (At the time that I read Make Room! Make Room!, I also read Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, first published in 1895, and it had something in it called a ‘government lethal chamber’.)  However, he conceded that the depiction of Sol’s death in the film was powerful.  While the old man expires, calming images of fields, forests, flowers, wildlife, unpolluted oceans and other things that he probably hasn’t seen since his youth are projected around him.

 

And Harrison didn’t like Soylent Green’s ending, which ironically has become its best-remembered moment – wherein Charlton Heston makes the discovery that everyone’s favourite snack in 2022 is secretly made out of recycled human corpses and, wounded, he’s carried away yelling, “Soylent Green is people!”  Harrison had researched Make Room! Make Room! meticulously to make its apocalypse seem as realistic as possible, so he knew that the idea of humanity relying on industrialised cannibalism to survive wasn’t feasible.  Human beings don’t fatten up very quickly and they require a lot of feeding and looking after, so as a form of livestock to meet the world’s dietary needs, they’re economically a bad idea.  And as this study has shown, they’re not even that rich in calories.

 

By way of contrast, Make Room! Make Room! ends with Rusch on duty in Times Square on the eve of the Millennium – and while the beleaguered city enters the 21st century, he’s given a bitter reminder that no matter how bad things get for the great mass of humanity, there’ll always be a wealthy minority who carry on living in luxury.

 

I assume Harrison set Make Room! Make Room! in 1999 because he couldn’t resist having its final scene occur at the dawn of the new Millennium, a moment loaded with significance.  However, that doesn’t make the book any less terrifying in 2022.  After all, the human population is quite likely to hit the eight-billion mark before the end of this year.  As well as putting intolerable strains on the world’s supplies of soil, water, vegetation and animal life, this burgeoning number of people means greater production of greenhouse gases and worsening manmade climate change.  And it means more human encroachment on the natural world, with the danger that lethal viruses may mutate and switch from living in animal hosts to living in human ones.  The past two years have seen us struggling to deal with just one instance of that happening.

 

Today more than ever, Make Room! Make Room! is an example of ‘science fiction’ threatening to become ‘science fact’ – in the worst possible way.

 

From philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot.com

Don’t Look Up is worth looking up

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

Before I start, a warning – many spoilers ahead!

 

Appropriately for a year that was fairly grim, the final movie I watched in 2021 was the recently released, apocalyptic sci-fi satire Don’t Look Up, which tells the story of how two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet hurtling on a course that in six months’ time will bring it smashing into the earth and wiping out all life here.  But their warnings about what’s coming are muffled by a trivia-obsessed media, chiefly represented by fatuous talk show hosts Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, which refuses to take them seriously.  They’re also thwarted by duplicitous politicians, most notably Meryl Streep as the American president, who are reluctant to take decisive action and blow the damned comet out of the sky because, it transpires, it’s loaded with priceless minerals.

 

Don’t Look Up is interesting in that while it enjoys a healthy 7.3 / 10 approval rating from users of the online film database IMDb, and an even healthier ’82% liked this film’ rating among Google users, the reviews by film critics have been less enthusiastic – approval ratings of 54% and 50% on the critical aggregates Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic respectively.  Among those unimpressed critics were the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who called it ‘laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed’, and Rolling Stone’s David Fear, who described it as ‘a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire’.  Meanwhile, in the Independent, Louis Chilton went the whole hog and penned an article entitled WHAT GOES UP, MUST COME DOWN: WHY IT’S OKAY TO HATE ‘DON’T LOOK UP’.  In this, he opined, “the execution is too broad and condescending… And for a comedy, perhaps its greatest offence is that there are almost no laughs.”

 

So Don’t Look Up has received contrasting levels of appreciation from ordinary viewers and from the critics.  Interestingly, one faction that’s whole-heartedly praised the film has been environmental journalists and scientists.  Climate scientist Peter Kalmus wrote in the Guardian that as someone “doing everything I can to wake people up and avoid planetary destruction, it’s also the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen.”  Meanwhile, in the Guardian too, environmental journalist George Monbiot declared, “The movie is, in my view, a powerful demolition of the grotesque failures of public life.  And the sector whose failures are most brutally exposed is the media…  it seemed all too real.  I felt as if I were watching my adult life flash past me.  As the scientists in the film, trying to draw attention to the approach of a planet-killing comet, bashed their heads against the Great Wall of Denial erected by the media and sought to reach politicians with 10-second attention spans, all the anger and frustration and desperation I’ve felt over the years boiled over.”

 

Well, I have to say I come down on the side of Joe Public (and the environmentalists) and not on the side of the critics who, as part of the mainstream media, were perhaps not best pleased by how the film portrayed that media.  I liked Don’t Look Up and, despite what Louis Chilton claimed in the Independent, enjoyed several hearty laughs during its running time.  There are a few problems, which I’ll talk about in a minute, but generally I’m happy to give the movie the thumbs up.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

Much of what works in the movie is due to its impeccable cast.  DiCaprio and Lawrence make a good double-act as the astronomers.  DiCaprio is a timid character, at times a bundle of nerves, cerebral but inarticulate when he comes under pressure.  Lawrence is the opposite, ready to forcibly speak her mind when she sees others obfuscating.  As events unfurl, it’s the bumbling DiCaprio who unwittingly becomes a media star, probably because he matches public perceptions of what scientists should be like – cuddly, eccentric Albert Einstein types.  Meanwhile, the abrasive Lawrence is banished from the limelight.  DiCaprio plays along with this and ingratiates himself with the media and political establishments, believing he can exert a positive influence over the people in power who are dealing with the comet.  He can’t, as it turns out, and while he compromises his principles his private life up-ends and he becomes estranged from his wife and children.

 

Perry and Blanchett are simultaneously amusing and chilling as the shallow talk-show hosts, though Blanchett is allowed a sliver of character development later when we learn she has three master’s degrees, meaning that her lack of acumen onscreen is merely an audience-pleasing act.  The sequence where DiCaprio and Lawrence go on their show, The Daily Rip, to break the bad news about the comet to the world, and find the hosts more interested in interviewing a pop-poppet (played by Ariane Grande, no less) about her split with her pop-poppet boyfriend, is a masterclass in cringe comedy worthy of Ricky Gervais or Armando Iannucci.

 

Meryl Streep, meanwhile, is majestically horrible as the president.  It would have been easy to portray her as a female Trump, but she’s smarter and smoother than the blustering, orange-skinned, cunning-without-being-smart property tycoon.  “I say we sit tight and assess,” is her initial reaction to DiCaprio and Lawrence’s warnings, which she justifies with the observation, “You cannot go around saying to people that there’s 100% chance that they’re going to die.  You know?  It’s just nuts!”  When she’s faced with a potentially explosive scandal and needs something to divert the media’s attention, however, she changes her tune.  She suddenly plays up the comet and amid much patriotic hoopla marshals the US’s nuclear firepower in an effort to annihilate it before it reaches the earth.  Her tune changes again when a major donor to her party persuades her to cancel the plan to destroy the comet, because it’s a goldmine of precious metals, and proposes a different way of handling it.

 

The donor is a Silicon Valley billionaire played by Mark Rylance, who believes his company has the capability to send a fleet of rocket-powered robots to the comet and seed it with explosives.  These will break it into small, non-cataclysmic fragments that can be retrieved and put to lucrative use when they fall to earth.  Stiff, eternally smiling, generally weird, Rylance comes across as a creepy mixture of Elon Musk, Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson.  Incidentally, the character’s fondness for having children onstage with him when he’s unveiling his company’s latest high-tech gadgets reminded me faintly of Jackson’s disastrous performance of The Earth Song at the 1996 Brit Awards in London, when he had a crowd of child actors in tow.  Rylance leaves you wondering if the character is a genius or just some arrested-development man-child who’s been extraordinarily lucky.  Due to his wealth, of course, the establishment believe he is a genius and happily go along with his comet-breaking scheme.  You can guess how it ends.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

 

The best performance, though, comes from Jonah Hill as the White House Chief of Staff, who also happens to be President Streep’s son.  If writer-director-producer Adam McKay doesn’t satirise Donald Trump directly with Streep, he certainly skewers the Trump White House with Hill’s character, a smug, obnoxious, entitled arse with all the characteristics of the promoted-beyond-their-abilities Trump kids (and Jared Kushner).  Hill makes a meal of the role. “You’re breathing weird.  It’s making me uncomfortable,” he whines at DiCaprio when the latter gets worked up describing the mile-high tsunamis that’ll crash across the planet when the comet hits.  And when DiCaprio tells him the chance of this happening is ’99.78 percent’, he reacts, “Oh, great!  So it’s not 100 percent.”  McKay also uses the character to take a swipe at Trumpism’s biggest coup, that of convincing masses of ordinary, often hard-up people to support a wealthy, right-wing elite by demonising another part of America, the part that’s liberal, urban and educated.  We hear Hill declare at a rally: “There’s three types of American people.  There are you, the working class.  Us, the cool rich.  And then them!”

 

On the minus side, I’d say Don’t Look Up is about half-an-hour too long.  Its unnecessary length means the satire gets a bit samey and the jokes get stretched a bit thin towards the end.  Also, late on, there are jarring tonal shifts.  We have solemn moments where DiCaprio tries to make peace with his loved ones and enjoy some final, life-affirming time with them, even while the gigantic tsunamis surge out from the comet’s strike-point.  This put me in mind of another movie about a collision of celestial bodies, Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), even though for the most part it’s a million miles removed from Don’t Look Up in mood.  However, intercut with the DiCaprio scenes are ones where the satire continues, with Streep, Rylance and a super-rich select few escaping from the earth, in suspended animation, on board a specially-prepared spaceship, which’ll take them to another earth-type planet 23,000 years from now.  While I enjoyed both sub-plots, having them unwind side-by-side made me feel I was watching two different films.

 

Also, for a movie that’s about the disparagement of science, Don’t Look Up could have been more scientifically accurate in places.  The initial operation to completely destroy the comet involves sending an astronaut (Ron Perlman) up into space on a suicide mission.  He’s in a recommissioned space shuttle and shepherding a flock of rockets carrying nuclear bombs, all on a collision course with the comet.  But the real space shuttle could never get beyond a low-earth orbit because it couldn’t carry enough propellant to go further.  How is Perlman going to reach the comet, which is still a few months away at this point?  Couldn’t they just launch the rockets, without the shuttle, and guide them from the ground?  The ‘sleeper’ spaceship that appears at the end and transports a lucky few to a planet in a faraway solar system sets up a good final gag, but it troubled me too.  If the elite, which includes Rylance’s character, have the technology at their disposal to create a spaceship like that – officially, manned interstellar space travel and suspended animation are beyond human know-how at the moment – couldn’t Rylance have put that fabulous technology to more immediate use and made a better job of his comet-breaking operation?

 

Although people have interpreted Don’t Look Up’s comet as a metaphor for climate change and society’s hopeless attempts, or non-attempts, to address it, I think the film is making broader comments about the scientific community, the media, politicians and their responses to crises generally.  It’s not as if the politicians spend the whole film denying the existence of the comet, as some real-life ones still deny that climate change is happening.  Fairly early on, it’s established that, yes, the comet is heading our way (although we see instances of ‘comet-deniers’ among the general public later on).  It’s more about how self-interest and opportunism get in the way of necessary and meaningful action.

 

When Streep gives Rylance’s daft plan to harvest the comet the go-ahead, I found myself thinking of a real-life, down-to-earth and non-American parallel.  During the Covid-19 pandemic in Britain, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government frequently handed out lucrative contracts for making personal protective equipment (PPE), establishing tracing programmes, setting up testing centres and so on to private companies that lacked medical experience, but were sympathetic to or connected with the Conservative party.  Often, the results were disastrous.  But hey, if you have access to power and can make a fast buck during a catastrophe, why not?

 

So actually, you don’t have to look up.  Just look around you instead.  It’s happening everywhere, this moment.

 

© Netflix / Hyperobject Industries

Daniel Craig’s Swann song

 

© Eon Productions

 

At last!  Two years after its first scheduled release in November 2019 (abandoned when Danny Boyle, originally lined up to be director, departed from the project), and a year-and-a-half after its next scheduled release in April 2020 (abandoned because of the Covid-19 pandemic), and a couple of months after it went on release in the UK, the 25th James Bond movie No Time to Die has made it to Sri Lanka and I’ve been able to watch it on a big screen.

 

It was odd to finally see the movie in its 163-minute entirety.  I’d become accustomed to seeing it as a two-and-a-half-minute trailer during my infrequent trips to the cinema during the past two years.  Up it popped before Tenet (2020) last summer, up it popped again before Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) in May this year…  And when the No Time to Die trailer popped up yet again before I started watching Dune (2021) in a cinema a few weeks ago, I thought, ‘My God, am I ever going to see this thing as a film?’

 

Anyway, here are my thoughts on No Time to Die, which marks Daniel Craig’s final appearance as James Bond.  I’ll start by listing what I didn’t like about it, then what I did like about it, and then I’ll give my overall verdict.  I will, as much as I can, try to avoid spoilers.  But be warned that some spoilers will inevitably appear.

 

DIDN’T LIKE…

Rami Malek’s character

I’m not dissing Malek’s performance as the film’s big villain Lyutsifer Safin.  It’s just that he doesn’t get enough time to establish Safin as a character or a threat.  Yes, he’s effective in No Time to Die’s opening sequence, which with its arty snowbound setting, violence and jump-scares resembles something from an especially stylish 1970s giallo movie.  But after that we hardly see him again until the film’s final reel.  Also, while a twisted and unsettling connection clearly exists between him and Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann character, the love of Bond’s life, we frustratingly never learn much about it.  Contrast that with 1999’s The World is Not Enough, which was a generally clunky Bond entry.  But at least it was more disturbing in how it depicted the warped relationship between Bond’s nominal love interest Elektra King (Sophie Marceau) and psychotic bad guy Renard (Robert Carlisle).

 

© Eon Productions

 

Rami Malek’s character’s age

Also, Rami Malek looks too young to be the same character who menaced Madeleine Swann when she was a child, as seen in that opening sequence, and who menaces her again as an adult.  My partner watched the film with me and speculated that, because he’s disfigured, his damaged facial skin might have slowed the development of wrinkles…  But no, I’m not buying it.

 

While we’re on the subject of age, I was perturbed that when Bond goes to mourn at the tomb of Vespa Lynd (Eva Green), his late and much-lamented love interest in Casino Royale (2006), a plaque on the tomb-door informs us that she was 23 years old when she died.  What?  In Casino Royale she was working as an agent with the British Treasury’s Financial Action Task Force.  I know her character was young and something of a whizz-kid, but surely she wasn’t that whizz-kiddish to have landed such a job and such responsibilities at the age of 23?

 

Blofeld’s bionic eye

Despite having been banged up in Belmarsh Prison since the events of 2015’s Spectre, it transpires that Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) has been secretly running his Spectre organisation from his cell with the use of a sneaky high-tech bionic eye (replacing the eye he lost in the helicopter crash at Spectre’s finale).  We even get a daft scene where, during a Spectre party, Blofeld manages to orchestrate and comment on events via a bionic-eye-receiver that a minion is carrying around on a tray.  Where did this bionic eye come from?  How did Spectre smuggle it into him at Belmarsh?  Was it Blofeld’s birthday, and a visitor managed to get it to him hidden inside a birthday cake?  And why didn’t the prison’s security systems – which seem pretty thorough, considering that Blofeld only gets to meet visitors inside a mobile metal cage, which is shuttled along tramlines to the meeting area – let this past them?  No, it’s a total failure of plot-logic.

 

How You Only Live Twice’s ‘Garden of Death’ gets shoehorned in

Ian Fleming’s 1964 novel You Only Live Twice is one of my favourite Bond books, largely because of its bizarre plot.  This has Blofeld retiring to Japan, acquiring a castle and taking up gardening.  Blofeld being Blofeld, though, the garden he cultivates around his castle is a Garden of Death.  It’s infested with poisonous vegetation and wildlife and dotted with boiling, sulphurous mud-pools.  Perversely, the garden’s lethal features begin to draw visitors – Japanese people who want to commit suicide head there to die.  I’d always hoped one day the Garden of Death would feature in a Bond film and it does, finally, in No Time to Die.  But it appears only for a couple of minutes while Safin gives the kidnapped Madeleine a tour of his headquarters and, as a setting, its potential is wasted.

 

The action finale

No Time to Die’s ending has proved controversial.  I have no problem with the events that occur in the last 20 minutes or so.  But I’m annoyed that the finale is rather fragmented and isn’t the big sustained rush of excitement I’d wanted for the end of Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond.  There’s a bit of action, then things stop for a while, then there’s another bit of action, then things stop again, then a bit more action, then another pause…  It isn’t so much Craig going out with a bang as with a stuttering series of pops.

 

Lashana Lynch’s excellent Nomi character features here but isn’t given enough to do.  Come to think of it, instead of just her and Bond being sent to infiltrate Safin’s lair, wouldn’t it have been better if they’d led an army of commandoes to attack the place?  That way, the action might have been more sustained, widespread and exciting.

 

© Eon Productions

 

LIKED…

Madeleine Swann’s arc

Lea Seydoux isn’t my favourite Bond-lady of the Daniel Craig era.  (Four days of the week, I worship at the temple of Eva Green.  The other three days, I worship at the temple of Naomie Harris, aka Miss Moneypenny.)  But at least her character Madeleine Swann gets to develop beyond the supposedly happy ending of Spectre and explore darker territory in No Time to Die.  This is a relief, as I’d heard rumours that the movie would be a re-tread of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and I’d feared that her character’s only function would be to get bumped off early on, leaving Bond to spend the rest of the film on a simplistic revenge mission.

 

Ana de Armas and Lashana Lynch

Meanwhile, the other main actresses in No Time to Die are great.  De Armas (who co-starred with Craig in Rian Johnson’s splendid 2019 whodunnit Knives Out) is a delight as Paloma, the supposedly inexperienced CIA agent who’s assigned to help Bond with some espionage-related business in Cuba.  I shudder to think how a Roger Moore-era Bond movie would have portrayed her.  She’d have been a bumbling incompetent whose klutziness was a source of slapstick gags and mocking, sexist humour.  But here, when the shit hits the fan, Paloma proves to be more than capable.  Indeed, if the character has a fault, it’s that she’s not in the film long enough.

 

© Eon Productions

 

As I’ve said, Lynch’s Nomi character – whom, Bond discovers, has been made the new 007 in his absence – could have been given more to do too.  But she still makes an impact and if producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson want to stay in this version of the Bond-verse a little longer and give Nomi her own spinoff movies, I’d happily pay money to go and see them.

 

The regulars

One of the pleasures of Craig’s stint as Bond has been seeing the gradual reintroduction of the franchise’s regular characters, rebooted and played by new but dependable actors – Jeffrey Wright debuting as Felix Leiter in Casino Royale, Rory Kinnear as Bill Tanner in Quantum of Solace (2008), Ralph Fiennes as the replacement for Judi Dench as M in Skyfall (2012), and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny and Ben Wishaw as Q also in Skyfall.  All are excellent again in No Time to Die.

 

I suspect the next Bond will be another reboot and we won’t be seeing these actors in these roles again – Wishaw has already remarked that this is probably his last outing as Q – which is a shame.  I haven’t enjoyed a Bond ensemble like this since Bernard Lee played M, Lois Maxwell played Moneypenny and Desmond Llewellyn played Q back in the days of Connery, Lazenby and Moore.

 

© Eon Productions

 

The fan service

As Casino Royale made clear, Craig’s Bond is a new Bond.  He’s not the same bloke as the one who encountered with Mr Kidd and Mr Wint in Diamonds are Forever (1971), or battled against Jaws in a space station in Moonraker (1980), or rampaged through downtown Moscow in a tank in Goldeneye (1995).  Still, it’s nice that No Time to Die contains references to the pre-Craig Bonds, though not so intrusively that they threaten the continuity established since 2006.  It’s cool, for example, that Bond drives the Aston Martin DB5 that Sean Connery drove in Goldfinger (1964), complete with similar gadgets, and we also see him climb into an Aston Martin V8 Advantage that Timothy Dalton drove in The Living Daylights (1987) – it’s even got the same number plate (B549 WUU)!  In MI6 headquarters, we see not only a framed portrait of Judi Dench’s M, but also one of Robert Brown, who played M during the late Roger Moore years and the Timothy Dalton ones.  Meanwhile, the title sequence echoes that of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service by featuring a trident-holding Britannia figure, Union Jacks, clocks and hourglasses.

 

That said, I could have done with a little less of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s music on the No Time to Die soundtrack.  John Barry’s OHMSS theme accompanies one scene set in London and Louis Armstrong’s We Have All the Time in the World plays over the end credits.  This is wonderful, timeless music, of course, but it shows up the inferiority of No Time to Die’s theme song, sung by Billie Eilish – which, while it’s way better than Sam Smith’s dire The Writing’s on the Wall from Spectre, is still no classic.

 

Bond’s arc

Daniel Craig’s Bond movies have been a daring experiment.  Since Casino Royale, we’ve seen him carry out his first mission and make his first kill, fall in love, suffer tragedy, discover some uncomfortable truths about his upbringing and fall in love again.  In No Time to Die, he falls out of and back into love and has to make some difficult, final decisions.  Things haven’t always gone smoothly – Spectre, in particularly, had to do some clumsy retconning to the story – but generally it’s been a success.  Daniel Craig’s performance in the lead role has helped hugely, of course.  So, hats off to Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson for being bold and keeping their nerve.

 

Mind you, I was relieved to see the words JAMES BOND WILL RETURN at the very end.

 

VERDICT?

Well, I liked it more than Quantum of Solace and Spectre.  But due to the issues I’ve described above, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Casino Royale or Skyfall.  Which is a pity, because I’ve liked Daniel Craig’s Bond and wanted him to go out on the highest note possible.  As it stands, I think No Time to Die is pretty good, but it’s not going to alter the rankings in my top half-dozen, or possibly even my top ten, Bond movies.

 

© Eon Productions

Great British crime movies of the 1970s

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

I’ve been busy lately and unable to post much on this blog.  Here’s a reposting of something that first appeared here in 2019.

 

During the 1970s, when I was a kid and when I absorbed cultural influences like a sponge, crime movies made in the United Kingdom were rarer than hen’s teeth.  That’s hardly surprising.  During that decade, the British film industry practically died on its arse.

 

And yet, as a kid, I got the impression that 1970s Britain was so crime-ridden it was dystopian.  It was a place where every bank and security van was in constant danger of being attacked by beefy men with sawn-off shotguns and stockings pulled over their heads.  Where every street was the potential scene of a violent punch-up and every road was the potential scene of a destructive car chase.  Where the police force scarcely seemed any better than the villains, its ranks composed of hard-boozing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed thugs wearing kipper ties.  Really, at times, I must’ve been too afraid to leave my house.

 

This is because 1970s British television was awash with crime and cop shows, often violent and populated by low-life characters on both sides of the law: for example, Special Branch (1969-74), Villains (1972), New Scotland Yard (1972-74), The Sweeney (1975-78), Gangsters (1975-78), The XYY Man (1976-77), Target (1977-78), Out (1978), Hazell (1978-79) and Strangers (1978-82).  Impressionable kids like me would act out things we’d seen on TV the night before, so that at breaktimes school playgrounds reverberated with shouts of “You’re nicked, sunshine!” and “You grassed me off, you slag!” and “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner!”  My parents were happy to let me watch such programmes.  As long as I wasn’t watching that horror rubbish, which had been scientifically proven to be bad for you.

 

I suppose that many British directors, writers and actors who would have plied their trade on the big screen, if Britain’s film industry hadn’t been moribund, found themselves plying it on the small screen instead.  This helped inject some uncompromising cinematic rawness into the domestic TV crime genre.  But the cinematic counterpart of that genre seemed non-existent.

 

Well, almost non-existent.  A few crime movies did get made in 1970s Britain and these exert a fascination for me today.  Only two of them ever achieved a degree of fame and the rest are virtually forgotten, but I find all of them cherish-able.  Here are my favourites.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Get Carter (1970)

Everyone knows this 1970s British crime film, although I don’t recall it getting much attention until the 1990s, when thanks to Britpop, Damien Hirst, etc., the ‘cool Britannia’ scene took off and Get Carter’s star Michael Caine suddenly became a retro-style icon.  Ironically, Caine’s nattily dressed Jack Carter and Roy Budd’s edgy jazz score aside, there isn’t much in the Mike Hodges-directed Get Carter that feels stylish.  The drab, monochrome terraced streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – if the film’s premise is that Michael Caine has returned to his hometown to sort out trouble, whatever happened to Caine’s Geordie accent? – the shabby pubs, the seedy racecourses, the shit clothes and haircuts, the Neanderthal attitudes…  It’s depressing, actually.  It’s a provincial Britain where the Swinging Sixties have truly burned themselves out – if the Swinging Sixties ever reached provincial Britain in the first place.

 

Caine gets all the acting accolades for Get Carter but the film wouldn’t be what it is without its excellent supporting cast: Alun Armstrong, Britt Ekland, George Sewell, Tony Beckley and playwright and occasional actor John Osborne.  Best of all, there’s Ian Hendry as the film’s weasly villain, Eric Paice.  “Do you know,” Carter tells Paice at one point, “I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”  Hendry was originally meant to play the virile Carter, but by 1970 his fondness for the booze had taken its toll and he was demoted to the secondary role of Paice, which supposedly caused tension and resentment during filming.  Thus, Caine may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.

 

Villain (1971)

Villain has Richard Burton, no less, in the role of a gay, mother-fixated and paranoidly violent gang-boss who, against the counsel of wiser heads, gets himself involved in a raid on a factory’s wages van that ultimately causes his downfall.  Meanwhile, trying to stay in one piece is Ian McShane, playing a smooth but unimportant pimp who has the unenviable job of being both the object of Burton’s affections and the victim of his sadistic rages.

 

Villain also has a wonderful supporting cast – T.P. McKenna and Joss Ackland as fellow gang-bosses, Del Henney, John Hallam and (alas, the recently-departed) Tony Selby as henchmen, and Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland as the coppers doggedly trying to bring Burton to justice.  (Interestingly, McKenna, Henney and Welland all turned up in the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s troubling Straw Dogs, made the following year.)  The film suffers from having too many sub-plots, though the one where McShane helps Burton escape the law by getting a sleazy Member of Parliament who’s used his pimping services to testify for him is memorably believable and nauseating.  Played by Donald Sinden, you never hear which political party the MP belongs to, but you can guess.

 

Sitting Target (1972)

Ian McShane had to suffer some dysfunctional relationships in early 1970s British crime movies.  No sooner had he finished being Richard Burton’s lover / punchbag in Villain than he had to cope with being best friend to a psychotic Oliver Reed in Sitting Target, directed by the underrated Douglas Hickox.  With McShane in tow, Reed escapes from prison early in the film, determined to catch up with his wife Jill St John and give her what’s coming to her.  Reed doesn’t want revenge on St John, as you might expect, for her terrible performance as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  No, it’s because he’s discovered she’s betrayed him for another man.  The film’s big twist, when we find out who that other man is, isn’t altogether a surprise.

 

Sitting Target has many pleasures, including Edward Woodward playing a policeman assigned to protect St John against the marauding Ollie.  But nothing quite matches the thrilling early sequence where our two anti-heroes, plus a third convict played by the always-entertaining character actor Freddie Jones, bust out of prison in desperate, skin-of-the-teeth fashion.

 

The Offence (1972)

Okay, Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (which I’ve previously devoted a whole blog-entry to) isn’t really a crime movie.  It’s a psychological study of a macho but troubled police officer (Sean Connery) going over the edge when a hunt for a child-killer, and the provocations of the suspect the police have pulled in for questioning (Ian Bannon), push too many buttons on his damaged psyche.  But the film has that grim 1970s aesthetic that more conventional British crime movies of the period are so fond of – drab housing estates, anonymous tower blocks, serpentine pedestrian bridges.  Its supporting cast also includes strapping character actor John Hallam who, although he’s probably best remembered as Brian Blessed’s Hawkman sidekick in 1980’s Flash Gordon, was a fixture in crime movies at this time.  So, I’m putting The Offence on my list.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Hennessy (1975)

I’m also conflicted about adding Don Sharpe’s Hennessy to this list because it’s about terrorism rather than crime.  Indeed, its story of a former IRA explosive expert (Rod Steiger) who decides to destroy the British government and the Queen by blowing up the state opening of parliament after his wife and child are killed by the British Army, makes it the first movie to tackle the issue of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  However, as the final film on the list is choc-a-bloc with IRA men, and as Richard Johnson gives a lovely performance as the weary, dishevelled, cynical copper – is there any other type in British crime movies? – trying to thwart Steiger’s plan, I thought I’d give it a mention.

 

The film is admittedly patchy but it has a top-notch cast that also includes Lee Remick, Trevor Howard, Eric Porter, John Hallam (again), Patrick Stewart (bald as a coot even then) and a super-young Patsy Kensit playing Steiger’s ill-fated daughter.  The climactic scenes set in the House of Commons, involving the Queen, landed the filmmakers in hot water because they used real footage that Buckingham Palace had approved without knowing it was going to end up in a film.  Also, the film’s subject, an incredibly touchy one at the time, meant that Hennessy scarcely saw the light of day in British cinemas.

 

Brannigan (1975)

Brannigan – also directed by Douglas Hickox – is the joker in this pack.  It features John Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters, and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  This involves such memorable sequences as Wayne doing an Evel Knievel-style car stunt where he hops across Tower Bridge while it parts to let  a ship pass below.  And Wayne triggering a cowboy-style brawl in a pub near Leadenhall Market.  And Wayne roughing up a minor villain played by the cinema’s greatest Yorkshireman, Brian Glover.  (“Now would you like to try for England’s free dental care or answer my question?”)  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.

 

© United Artists

 

The Squeeze (1977)

Barely had John Wayne swaggered through the London underworld than another Hollywood star did too in Michael Apted’s The Squeeze – Stacy Keach, although playing an English private eye with an industrial-strength drink problem. During occasional moments of sobriety, Keach investigates the kidnapping of his ex-wife (Carol White).  She’s remarried a posh security officer (Edward Fox) tasked with overseeing the delivery of large sums of money.  Keach finds himself tangling with a kidnap gang planning to force Fox to help them mount an armed robbery.

 

The Squeeze suffers from being overlong, with too much time spent wallowing in Keach’s alcoholism. But its good points outweigh this.  I like its depiction of late 1970s multicultural London and its sympathetic portrayal of Keach’s Jamaican neighbours.  Also, Stephen Boyd (who died soon after the film’s completion, aged just 45) and David Hemmings give good turns as the villains.  Allowed to use his native Northern Irish accent for a change, Boyd disturbingly plays a well-heeled crime-lord who dotes over his own family whilst having zero empathy for the family he’s threatening to destroy with his kidnapping scheme.  Meanwhile, Hemmings is good as a pragmatic career criminal who doesn’t share his boss’s sunny optimism about things.

 

And connoisseurs of 1970s British popular culture will be fascinated to see anarchic comedian Freddie Starr play Keach’s best mate, a reformed criminal trying to make a living as a taxi driver. Indeed, such is Starr’s loyalty to Keach that he saves his neck three times at the end of the film, including by running the villains off the road in his taxi.  Starr, who died in 2019, was from all accounts an unreconstructed arsehole in real life.  Therefore, remember him this way.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Sweeney II (1978)

The greatest of all 1970s British cop shows, The Sweeney got two movie spin-offs, Sweeney! In 1977 and Sweeney II.  I don’t think Sweeney!, which involved Flying Squad heroes Jack Regan (John Thaw) and George Carter (Dennis Waterman) in an espionage plot, is much cop, but Sweeney II captures the spirit of the TV series.  It has Regan and Carter on the trail of a gang who spend most of their time living it up in Malta as wealthy British ex-pats, but who return to Britain from time to time to stage vicious, take-no-prisoners bank robberies.  As well as marrying bloody, sawn-off-shotgun-powered violence with some off-the-wall humour, Sweeney II manages to be topical too.  London’s real Metropolitan Police force was investigated for corruption in the late 1970s.  The film reflects this with the character of Regan’s commanding officer, played by the excellent Denholm Elliot, who’s facing a long stretch in prison on account of being “so bent it’s been impossible to hang his pictures straight on the office wall for the past twelve months.”

 

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Although it was released at the start of the 1980s, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday was made in 1979 and so I’m classifying it as a 1970s film.  It definitely feels the end of a particular era with its tale of an old school London gangster (Bob Hoskins) convinced he’s about to make a mint in the brave new world of Thatcherite London where everything is up for sale to the corporations and developers.  That’s until one day when he suddenly finds himself tangling with a ruthless foe, the IRA, who make him look hopelessly out of his depth.

 

The final scene sees Hoskins become a prisoner in his own, hijacked car and get driven to his doom – an IRA man played by a youthful Pierce Brosnan snakes up from behind the front passenger seat to hold him at gunpoint.  Although Hoskins doesn’t speak, the succession of emotions that flit across his face as it dawns on him that he had it all, but now he’s blown it all, make this the most powerful moment in British crime-movie history.

 

© Black Lion Films / Handmade Films / Paramount British Pictures

Spice-world: the movie

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Like everywhere else, one sector in Sri Lanka heavily hit by Covid-19 was the country’s cinemas.  In Colombo, establishments like the Liberty, Savoy and Regal had stood closed-up, empty and silent for so long that I’d begun to doubt if they’d ever open their doors again.  However, with the Sri Lankan Covid-19 death toll down (for now), the authorities have permitted cinemas to reopen, albeit working at a reduced capacity.  During the first half of November, their auditoriums could only be 25% full.  For the month’s second half, the maximum capacity has been increased to 50%.  To do our bit to help Sri Lanka’s beleaguered cinema industry, myself and a mate went a few days ago to the Scope multiplex at Colombo City Centre shopping mall.  There, we watched Dune, this year’s big-budget, Denis Villeneuve-directed adaptation of the famous 1965 science-fiction novel by Frank Herbert.  Or at least, Villeneuve’s adaptation of the first half of it, as Dune is one fat book.

 

And we had no regrets about seeing Dune in a cinema.  It’s a visually majestic creation that needs to be seen on a big screen to be properly appreciated.  In fact, you’ll be committing a minor crime against celluloid if you watch it in reduced form on a TV or laptop screen.  And if you dare to watch it on a phone-screen…  Well, you don’t deserve to live.

 

I have to say, though, that I read Herbert’s novel as a teenager and it was no favourite of mine.  In part, my being unimpressed by it was probably down to bloody-mindedness.  A lot of earnest, nerdy people gushed about how great it was, which probably predisposed me to not liking it.  This was similar to my less-than-enthusiastic reaction to J.R.R. Tolkien’s much-worshipped Lord of the Rings – although unlike Rings, I did read Dune to the end.  (With Rings, I gave up four-fifths of the way through.)  Also, it didn’t help that I read Dune a couple of years after Star Wars (1977) came out.  Many of the book’s plot elements – a scheming galactic empire, a desert planet, an elite sect with psychic powers – had recently featured in George Lucas’s sci-fi / fantasy blockbuster, so they seemed less fresh than they had in 1965.

 

© New English Library

 

Though I found Lord of the Rings overrated on the page, I did enjoy the movies that Peter Jackson made of it in 2001, 2002 and 2003.  Well, apart from the last half-hour of the final one, The Return of the King, which consisted of nothing but various characters getting married.  A second-rate reading experience can, with an excellent cast, a great director and all the epic locations and special effects that Hollywood money can buy, be turned into a first-rate viewing experience.

 

And so it is with Dune.

 

Its cast is wonderful – Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Timothée Shalamet, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin, Jason Mamoa, Charlotte Rampling, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Javier Bardem – and director Villeneuve has already helmed two of the past decade’s greatest sci-fi movies, Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017).  And its 165-million-dollar budget has been put to good use.  The filming locations in the UAE and Jordan really do transport you to the film’s main setting, the endlessly sandy and murderously hot desert-planet Arrakis; while the special effects, conjuring up fleets of spacecraft that stand like gigantic, angular cathedrals when they’re parked on planets’ surfaces, but look as tiny and inconsequential as pollen-grains when they’re bobbing in the black void of space, are stunning.  Hence, the absolute necessity to see Dune on a large screen.

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Denis Villeneuve, of course, isn’t the first filmmaker to bring Dune to the screen, for an earlier cinematic version of it had appeared in 1984, directed by that genius of visionary weirdness, David Lynch.  The 1984 Dune was a box-office flop and received much abuse from critics – I remember the New Musical Express retitling it Dung – but I didn’t think it was that bad.  Lynch added some delightfully bizarre touches to the story and he arguably had an even better cast of actors than Villeneuve: Kyle MacLachlan, Jurgen Prochnow, Francesca Annis, Kenneth McMillan, Paul Smith, Patrick Stewart, Richard Jordan, Freddie Jones, Sian Phillips, Virginia Madsen, Jack Nance, José Ferrer, Everitt McGill, Brad Dourif, Max von Sydow and the great (and now, sadly, late) Dean Stockwell.  Sting was in it too.

 

Alas, Lynch’s producer was old-school movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis, who wanted Dune to be a regulation two-hour movie.  Cramming all the events of Herbert’s doorstop-sized book into that caused massive problems for the script.  Early on, Lynch had wisely envisioned Dune as two movies, and then proposed it as a three-hour film, but this cut no ice with old Dino.

 

I remember going to see Lynch’s Dune at a cinema in Aberdeen with my girlfriend of the time.  Having read the book I was familiar with the plot, which goes like this…  (Beware – spoilers are coming.)  In the distant 102nd century, the galaxy is ruled by an empire that incorporates a number of powerful families, or Houses.  One of these, the House Atreides, headed by the well-meaning Duke Leto (Isaacs in the new Dune, Prochnow in the old one), his ‘concubine’ Lady Jessica (Ferguson now, Annis then) and their son, the young Paul (Chalamet now, MacLachlan then), is entrusted with running the desert-planet Arrakis.  Arrakis is vital for the Empire because a mysterious ‘spice’- in reality a consciousness-expanding drug – is mined there and its properties enable spaceship-navigators to find their way through interstellar space.  The planet’s indigenous inhabitants, the reclusive and Bedouin-like Fremen, are suspicious of the Atreides because previously the Empire had put them under control of another House, the Harkonnen, who treated them genocidally.

 

Before Leto can win hearts and minds on Arrakis, the Harkonnen launch an attack to retake the planet, with the Emperor’s blessing – the whole manoeuvre has been a plot to get rid of the potentially troublesome Atreides.  The Atreides are wiped out, save for Paul and his mother Jessica, who flee into the planet’s deserts.  They now have the formidable task of rallying the distrustful Fremen and persuading them to retake Arrakis from the homicidal Harkonnen – which, in the book’s later stages, they do.

 

Villenueve’s film ends with Paul and Jessica fleeing the Harkonnen – a second Dune movie, which will tell the remaining story, has now been greenlighted.  Poor old Lynch, though, had to squash everything into just over two hours.  I remembering being in an Aberdonian pub after seeing his Dune with my ex-girlfriend, who hadn’t read the book.  I spent about an hour trying to explain the film’s plot to her, which she’d been flummoxed by.

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Villeneuve’s Dune only covers half of the book and is still 19 minutes longer than Lynch’s version, so obviously the story gets more space to breath.  This also enables Villeneuve to do a lot of the important sci-fi business of ‘world-building’.  It’s gratifying too that Dune’s secondary characters, the various soldiers, courtiers and allies of the House Atreides, like Gurney Halleck (Brolin now, Stewart then), Duncan Idaho (Mamoa now, Jordan then), Thufir Hawat (McKinley Henderson now, Jones then) and Dr Liet-Kynes (Duncan-Brewster now, von Sydow then) get much more time to establish themselves and win the audience’s sympathy.  In the compressed 1984 Dune, their roles were brief and their deaths, if they occurred, were blink-and-you’ll-miss-them events.

 

Certain critics have sniped at this new version of Dune for being humourless.  Now while I admit to counting a total of three jokes during the film’s entire 157-minute running time – it’s telling that two of those jokes turn up in the trailer – I have to say I found it refreshing to experience a science fiction film willing to treat its subject matter seriously and not populate it with, say, bumbling comedy droids or wisecracking bipedal rodents.  In effect, those critics are showing their snobbery.  They’re protesting: “But this is just science fiction!  It’s not, it can’t be serious!  You’ve got to have bumbling comedy droids in it!  And wisecracking aliens!”  So, stuff ’em.

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

 

One thing David Lynch’s Dune was memorable for was its depiction of the Harkonnen.  Played by Kenneth McMillan, Paul Smith, Brad Dourif and Sting, they were a grotesque, evilly-perverted bunch – no more so than McMillan’s Baron Harkonnen, who was a levitating, leering sack of pus.  Probably wisely, Villeneuve doesn’t try to out-Lynch Lynch here and makes his Harkonnen a more sombre lot, communicating their malevolence through stillness rather than histrionics.  Stellan Skarsgard is especially effective as a brooding, Brando-esque Baron.

 

I read somewhere that Frank Herbert intended the good guys, the Atreides, to be descended from the Greeks on faraway, long-ago earth, although some visual and verbal references to bullfighting in both his book and Villeneuve’s film suggest they’re Spaniards.  However, when the Duke, his family and courtiers arrive on Arrakis, the film shows them being led out of their spaceship by a bagpiper… which implies they’re actually Scottish.  Well, their home planet’s name is Caladan, which sounds like ‘Caledonia’.  One of them is called Duncan and another is called Gurney – Scots gurn a lot.  And by half-time they’ve already been slaughtered.  So yup, I think they’re Scottish.

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

 

One thing I believe makes this version of Dune so good is that, in telling only the book’s first half, it’s a story of tragedy.  And tragedy, as any student of Shakespeare will confirm, is one of the most powerful forms of narrative.  I suspect Villeneuve will find it harder to make the next instalment of Dune, dealing with how Paul marshals his forces and finally restores order on Arrakis, as gripping.  For me, at least, downbeat endings last longer in the imagination than happy ones.

 

Anyway, for now, after Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Dune completes a science-fictional hat-trick for Villeneuve.  Perhaps it’s not quite as impressive a run as Stanley Kubrick achieved with the sci-fi or sci-fi-related Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1972), but it’s still pretty amazing.  Let’s hope he can knock Dune 2 out of the park and make this triumphant threesome a foursome.

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

Just a flesh wound

 

© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24

 

It’s fair to say that the regal, if probably hypothetical, legend of King Arthur has suffered more than a few flesh wounds from filmmakers over the years.

 

At least in the case of the Monty Python team, the filmmakers were deliberately taking the piss.  Their 1974 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail inflicted on poor Arthur such indignities as the Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’, the bloodthirsty Rabbit of Caerbannog, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, Dennis of the Autonomous Collective (“Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”) and the outrageously rude French guard (“You don’t frighten us, English pig-dogs! Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person!”).

 

More worryingly, other filmmakers have tried to be serious, though with cringeworthy results.  I’m thinking of 1967’s Camelot, which has Richard Harris’s Arthur bursting into song and warbling, “You mean a king who fought a dragon / Whacked him in two and fixed his wagon / Goes to be wed in terror and distress? / Yes!”  Or 2004’s King Arthur, which has a grimly wooden Clive Owen in the title role and which, according to the Times’ reviewer Wendy Ide, ‘attaches itself to the Arthurian legend like some parasitic worm’.  Or 2017’s King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, which was directed by Guy Ritchie in the manner you’d expect from Guy Ritchie, complete with a cameo appearance by that well-known icon of the Dark Ages, David Beckham.

 

Actually, I’ve immersed myself a lot in the King Arthur legend recently, not through films but through books, which I’ve found much more rewarding.  Not long ago, I managed to finish off T. H. White’s Once and Future King series, comprised of The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), The Ill-Made Knight (1940), The Candle in the Wind (1958) and The Book of Merlyn (1977).  Yes, I know, the first book was the basis for the underwhelming 1963 Walt Disney cartoon, but the series becomes impressively philosophical, political and tragic as it goes on.  I’ve also lately read Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant, set a short period after the death of Arthur.  Come to think of it, The Buried Giant could almost qualify as a postscript to White’s series, although there are a few differences in continuity.  (For example, Merlin is said to be dead by the time of Ishiguro’s novel, whereas in the timeline established by White he’d be alive.  His ability in the Once and Future King books to live through time in the opposite direction from human beings, from the future to the past, would ensure that.)

 

© Faber & Faber

 

A figure from Arthurian legend who plays a major role in The Buried Giant, as an elderly man, is Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain.  Gawain, of course, occupies his own niche in the Arthurian mythos because he’s the main character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the late 14th century poem written in a North West Midlands dialect of Middle English.  The poem has Sir Gawain respond to the mysterious Green Knight who arrives at Arthur’s court one Christmas Eve with an unusual challenge: who is prepared to strike him a blow with the axe he is carrying, on the condition that one year from now the Green Knight gets an opportunity to return the blow on his home turf, a place called the Green Chapel?  Gawain takes up the challenge and uses the axe to whack off the Green Knight’s head.  That, however, doesn’t resolve the matter, because the Green Knight refuses to die.  He picks up his head and rides off, leaving Gawain honour-bound to keep the appointment at the Green Chapel next Christmas.  Obviously, there, he’ll receive an equivalent blow that he’s less likely to be impervious to.

 

The poem was filmed twice in the 20th century by the director Stephen Weeks, first in 1973 as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with singer Murray Head as Gawain and Nigel Greene as the Green Knight, and again in 1984 as Sword of the Valiant. Both versions made little impact and the clearly well-intentioned Weeks was hampered by low budgets.  With the second version, he was no doubt hampered too by the fact he made the film for the notoriously schlocky Cannon Group, whose co-owners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus overrode his choice of Mark Hamill to play Gawain and instead foisted on him Miles O’Keefe, who’d previous played the Lord of the Jungle in 1981’s dire Tarzan the Ape Man.  A better casting choice was Sean Connery as the Green Knight.

 

Now, however, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has received the big budget treatment.  Well, at 15 million dollars, not that big, but certainly a lot more than Stephen Weeks had to play with.  David Lowery has written and directed a new version with Dev Patel, of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, stepping into Gawain’s armour.  I have to say the resulting film, with the shortened title The Green Knight, isn’t perfect, but nonetheless it does justice to the poem at last.  It also qualifies as that rare beast – a quality King Arthur movie.

 

The Green Knight doesn’t present a fanciful or idealised picture of Arthur’s court, if that court had ever actually existed.  While it doesn’t wallow in medieval dirt, muck and shit like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Dennis!  There’s some lovely filth down here!”), it does show life in and around Arthur’s citadel as wintry, draughty, farmyard-y and unglamorous.  Accordingly, Arthur and Guinevere (Sean Harris and Kate Dickie) are portrayed as an ageing, rather threadbare couple, who don’t even get the accolade of being referred to by their legendary names.  They’re just ‘the king’ and ‘the queen’.

 

On the other hand, the film is keen to show how unspectacular characters, settings and events get exaggerated and mythologised and turned into legends.  It makes much of story-telling and myth-making.  For example, no sooner has Gawain had his first encounter with the Green Knight than the tale is being retold as a puppet show for the neighbourhood’s children.  On a battlefield strewn with newly-dead corpses, a scavenger (Barry Keoghan) is already recounting stories of derring-do about the battle that are clearly over-the-top bullshit.  And Arthur himself pleads with his court, “Friends, brothers and sisters, who can regale me and my queen with some myth or tale?”  When he asks Gawain, “Tell me a tale of yourself so that I might know thee,” and Gawain replies, “I have none to tell,” Guinevere interjects with: “Yet. You have none to tell yet.”

 

© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24

 

It reminds me of another movie with a focus on myth-making, but a very different setting, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Ford’s meditation about the end of America’s Wild West. As Carleton Young’s newspaper-editor character says in that film, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”

 

I thought the first hour-and-a-bit of The Green Knight was splendid.  The Green Knight himself is presented wonderfully as a proper green man, all gnarled wood and straggly tree-root beard, and his appearance is complemented by his voice, which is that of gravelly Yorkshireman Ralph Ineson.  Actually, it’s nice to see Ineson and Kate Dickie together in a film again after they played the doomed Puritan parents in Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015).

 

Once Gawain sets off in search of the Green Chapel, to keep his unwanted appointment, he has several phantasmagorical adventures that involve phantoms, giants and supernaturally intelligent animals and that are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo.  However, it’s the episode with Barry Keoghan and his grubby little band of thieves that’s perhaps most haunting, thanks to an amazing sequence with a rotating camera-shot and time-lapse special effects that makes you wonder if anything else you see in the film is going to be true.

 

But The Green Knight does, in my opinion, have a structural problem.  This is because in the original poem the adventures Gawain has during the first half of his journey are not described in any detail, and what we see on screen presumably comes from Lowery’s imagination.  However, later events in the film are based on the poem and form an important part of the plot.  These involve Gawain coming to a castle near the Green Chapel and enjoying the hospitality of its lord (Joel Edgerton) and lady (Alicia Vikander) during the last few days before his appointment.  His experiences there become strange and prove to be a series of tests.  That’s fine, but after the fantastical episodes that Gawain’s been through earlier on, these castle-bound scenes feel something of a let-down and act as a brake on the film’s momentum.

 

The climax bravely departs from the denouement of the poem (which had Arthur’s sister, and Gawain’s aunt, Morgan Le Fay popping up as a sort of medieval deus ex machina).  Instead, it does something that had me thinking of the climax of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  This neatly echoes the earlier themes of storytelling and myth-making.

 

The Green Knight certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes.  For example, a certain well-known science-fiction author, clearly more a Guy Richie / King Arthur: Legend of the Sword man, denounced it on twitter recently as “the worst film I’ve watched this year…  What a waste of good actors.  I want my two hours back.”  However, if you’re in the right frame of mind, not expecting anything like the usual cinematic Arthurian fare, and willing to tolerate some ruminative, slow-moving stuff in the second half, you may find it magical.

 

© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24