Thursday, 29 December 2011

dreams of a life (d. carol morley)

This is a Christmas film. A woman has finished packing some presents. She sits down to watch the TV. She dies. The TV stays on. Three years later, her remains are discovered. The presents are still there.

Or maybe it’s an anti-Christmas film. The real miracle of the movie is that, in spite of its premise, (and this is a documentary, telling a true story), it somehow manages to be in some way not depressing. The weirdness of Dreams of a Life is that we learn that far from being unloved, a victim of our heartless society, Joyce Vincent, the woman in question, was held in deep affection by the people whose lives she had passed through. If this is a mystery movie, it’s one that leaves its puzzle unresolved. The causes of her death, both physical and psychological, remain speculative.

In a way, Dreams of a Life is the biography of the London I have lived in these past 25 years. The modern city is a peripatetic land, full of magic doors and ratholes. You never quite know which one you’re going to pass through next. Vincent, we are told, enjoyed the city. It brought her within touching distance of realising her dream of being a singer. It brought her relationships with people from a variety of races, cultures and different classes. It allowed to be invisible when she wanted, but also to participate in the things which constitute city life: the events, the bars, the streets. Someone describes Vincent as a chameleon. All true city-dwellers are chameleons, capable of switching from one ambience to another; their personalities as much a negative of the world they live in as a positive of themselves.

The director took the bold move of casting an actress to recreate scenes from Vincent’s life. The actress sings and walks and is given one line. At first I thought that this was a mistake, that the audience’s mental picture of the film’s subject would be distorted by the actress Zawe Ashton’s features, but in the end it worked. Another aspect of Vincent’s life is that she grew up in the pre-digital era. Ours will be the last generation whose memories are captured within minds, not on hard drives. There are few photos of Vincent: she remains a blank slate upon which we can draw our own picture. Ashton remains an approximation of the woman who vanished; her mystery all the stronger for the lack of documentary material to reflect the accounts of her given by friends and lovers.

It seems likely that we have all of us who have lived in this city over the past twenty years known our own version of Joyce Vincent. Perhaps for some she is what we became: someone who vanished from their lives, who mattered for a while and then moved on. This is where Morley’s sympathetic approach reveals another truth, less tragic, more mundane. The city is a place almost designed for transience. The people Morley tracked down to tell us about Joyce come across as good-hearted and caring. It’s not such a bad society we inhabit, even if it has cracks. And whilst this is but a partial story of its subject’s life, with the crueller aspects under-explored, the film still succeeds in being somehow celebratory. All the lonely people are perhaps not quite as lonely as they seem. The closing image need not be the one by which they are remembered. Morley seems to restore Joyce Vincent’s self-respect, counteracting the obvious, tragic figure of the newspaper headlines. As such, Dreams of a Life pulls off the odd trick of being both affirmation and condemnation of our culture at the same time. By choosing to tell the unheralded story of one of the city’s unknown warriors it succeeds in being one of the most telling documentaries about London I have ever seen .

Friday, 9 December 2011

las acacias (d. pablo giorgelli; w. giorgelli & salvador roselli)

Las Acacias is in an almost perfect work of art. Within the confines it sets out for itself it seems flawless. The only problem is the limitations it places on its ambition. 

The film is a road movie and anyone who’s ever been on a long bus journey, in South America or elsewhere, will quickly find themselves identifying with its languorous pace. Ruben, an Argentine truck driver, is taking Jacinta, a Paraguayan mother and her cute baby, Anahi from the border to Buenos Aires. Ruben is crotchety and lonely. He hasn’t seen his only son in many years. Gradually, as they make their way South, the mother and her charismatic baby melt his heart. Nothing remotely unpredictable happens. The movie resists any temptation to melodrama. On a couple of occasions there’s a hint that something bad might happen to Anahi, who gives one of the finest baby performances you’ll ever see. These moments throw out occasional flickers of dramatic tension, but the narrative quickly steers away from danger, gets back in the truck, and keeps on moving.

Everything is meticulously observed. Las Acacias is beautifully acted, understated and filmed with no little skill. Only in its very closing sequence does the thinness of the material really protrude, as the film aims for an unnecessarily upbeat ending. The movie has received considerable praise and featured on the lists of several of Sight and Sounds critics’ best films of the year.

However, it might perhaps be reasonable to ask whether being extremely skilful in the use of such a limited palette is really furthering the cause of Latin American filmmaking. For example: Jacinta is an economic migrant, presumably subject to some kind of stress which is making her take on this journey across the continent with her infant child. But the issues of Paraguayan society remain firmly ensconced in the back story. When she’s asked about Anahi’s father, she says the child doesn’t have one. Where do Ruben and Jacinta’s stories sit within the wider political framework of the continent? (And who, barring cinephiles is going to want to know?) In the end Las Acacias, in spite of its apparent down-to-earthness, almost has the feel of a Faberge Egg. Beautifully crafted but of marginal artistic or social relevance.  

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

haunted child (w. joe penhall, d. jeremy herrin)

Somewhere in this production is a really fine play trying to get out. I saw it in the preview week, with the actors still clearly finding their feet. No doubt they will get there. The key issue regarding its success relates to how this carefully calibrated tale is directed: exactly what is the correct pitch for what is essentially a two-hander about marriage and mental illness, with the title something of a red herring.

The play’s premise, established in the opening scene, is that Douglas has walked out on his family and his wife. Julie and their son, Thomas, have no idea where he is or when he’s coming back. In contrast to the set design’s rigorous (and predictable) naturalism, the play retains an almost absurdist opaqueness. We’re never told exactly how long Douglas has been missing. When he does re-appear, the details of his time away are revealed gradually, piece by piece. Is the marginal world he claims to have joined real? Or is it just an invention of his troubled (haunted) mind?

Penhall’s most famous play, Blue/Orange dealt astutely with mental illness. As Haunted Child unfolds, the degree of Douglas’s un-hingedness becomes ever clearer. The writing handles this beautifully; the layers are peeled away over the course of a couple of days. Douglas hovers on the brink of normality, the normality of marriage and fatherhood. In a Europe where despair seems to be nagging at the heels of whole swathes of society, having a good job and a nice home is no longer sufficient to ward off the demons, and Penhall’s portrayal of Douglas feels frighteningly prescient.

It’s the exploration of this tension within Douglas, between the lure of a kind of asocial madness and the comforts of societal norms, which should elevate the play beyond being merely an enjoyable, entertaining piece of storytelling. However, at times it feels as though the direction is working against the play’s subtler instincts. Whilst there’s a great deal of humour in the text, it felt as though there was a tendency to overplay the laughs, thereby dissipating the play’s tension and undercutting its power. Like his son, the audience needs to be genuinely spooked by the transformation in this strange, sad man. He’s Banquo’s ghost writ large, the spectre in our never-ending festival of consumer delights, the man who would renounce the world and all its ersatz, earthly pleasures.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

all the king’s horses [michèle bernstein]

Who were we? What were we doing? Stumbling round the city like flat-footed dancers. Drinking and driving. Ducking and diving. Were we ever young? Did we ever feel young? What does it mean to be young? Is there a curse? Is it contagious? What was the plan? What wasn’t the plan? Did the city belong to us or did we belong to the city? Was any of it real? Did it even happen?

Somewhere in another universe people knew that they were cursed with more than just knowingness; they were cursed with the wand of knowing that they would never have to lift a finger, that the things people fought for and cried about would barely touch them because it was all too easy. So even if they did find themselves crying or fighting it wasn’t really real, not in the naïve way of those who really cry or fight. For whom the moment is all-consuming, a be-all or end-all. They laughed and/ or cried with the desperation of people who wanted to know what it would really be like to laugh or cry, to be hurt, not to have to hurt, to be heartbroken, not the other way round. The more glamorous it all seemed the more they wanted to curl up in a corner and start again somewhere else, start again as children. Who would perhaps retain the shard of naivety you need to love, not just be loved: that most disposable, objective of pleasures which bears almost no connection with the subjective glee of the suffering of the lover, as Barthes might have said, just to let them know what they were missing out on. Of course they couldn’t be born again, they couldn’t be re-christened, so instead they strolled around the city in all their shiny but inevitable cynicism, (a cynicism they couldn’t help, which they hated), doing what they did, and one day, because there was no reason not to, one of them wrote a book about it.

It wasn’t a great book and it wasn’t a terrible book. It was, if anything, a curious book, which was greater than it aspired to be but not as great as it might have been had life not been the way it was. It was a kink in the slipstream of literature, one that laughed at itself, just like the writer found herself laughing at herself, and him, because if you didn’t laugh at yourself, and all your wasted talents, what else could you do? You couldn’t cry and you couldn’t fight so all that was left was to laugh. And the book said nothing really, because the idea that books can say things is one of the great myths of literature, which is almost a myth in itself. But it did do one thing. It captured a time and a moment and the way they lived, these strange, happy, unhappy people. Their names were Guy and Michèle and they lived in Paris; but they also lived in London and New York and sometimes they lived in a parallel universe, the one you inhabit, the one whose air you breathe, little knowing that they’re watching you, envying you, laughing at you, wondering what it’s like to live inside another kind of brain.

Friday, 2 December 2011

the deep blue sea (d terence davies; w. terence rattigan, adapted by davies)

In an interview with the director, Davies says that Hester, the tragic wife who leaves her husband for the dashing former RAF pilot, is a woman who’s discovered sex late in life and that this then shapes the whole way she sees the world. Which kinds of takes us to the nub of why, for all its worthiness, the film adaptation of Rattigan’s brooding post-war drama doesn’t really  convince. After one baroque camera movement in the opening five minutes, there’s no sex at all and precious little sexual tension. For all the fact that Hiddlestone and Weisz look the part, there’s something completely unconvincing in the theory that she’s going to throw her life away for him, and that when she does so he’s going to behave like such a twat.

This isn’t to knock their acting. It’s their performances and that of Russell Beale as the wronged husband that keep the film on some kind of an even keel. Rather, there’s something stately, or perhaps turgid, in the direction and the screenplay, which fails to complement a steamy drama of late-released passion, albeit passion with a stiff upper lip. Davies’ signature moments are the rather beautiful tracking shots of stoic Londoners singing in the underground during the Blitz, or in the post-war pubs. These add a sense of style to proceedings. But they also feel like they rob the rest of the film of any energy. During these scenes and the melodramatic, suicide-watch opening shot, the camera is given license to roam. But through the rest of the film it’s a case of static shots of talking heads as Rattigan’s words are faithfully reproduced. This is all well and good, but it doesn’t take us any deeper into the world than the play does. The advantage of cinema over theatre in story-telling terms is that it can reveal detail which theatre cannot. How the lovers co-exist, in bed and out. What the inside of Hester’s mind looks like, as she contemplates suicide. Davies’ version of the play doesn’t engage with any of this.

Instead we are offered a curiously sexless story full of melodramatic moments. A few years ago I saw a version of The Winslow Boy at Salisbury. I’d never seen the attraction of Rattigan, but the effortlessly staged production helped me to understand what all the fuss is about. He’s an author who really understands stagecraft, and under the crust of their English skins are real people responding to real situations. Based on this, it seems a pity that Davies’ film fails to de-fifty-fy or de-Anglicise these tragic characters. The other film it brings to mind is Brief Encounter. The world has moved on since that film was made, so that now it and its characters’ sensibilities have the feel of a museum piece; but this fails to take into account that the reason for its effectiveness is that in their day, Howard and Johnson were contemporary figures in a modern world. The truth of the situation their characters are living through shines through and the film has become a classic. Davies seems keen to suggest that the emotional truths of Hester’s despair are real, but his reverential approach to Rattigan’s text sucks the life out of her story and leaves the audience perhaps impressed, but ultimately unmoved.