All the films I see these days are on planes. The last thing I could think of would be taking myself to the cinema. I simply wouldn’t be able to concentrate. I’d be thinking of cables I had to read and phone calls I had to make. Here’s a film I caught on my way to Perth in late August: Mabo, directed by Rachel Perkins.
It brings Mabo alive. It frames it. It puts it in its essential context.
One of the things that stands out is that Eddie Mabo was a long-term fighter for the rights of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. The film reminds us that he worked in western Queensland. That he was a trade union activist. That he lent his voice to protest. That he met historian Henry Reynolds around the time he was educating himself in a university library. He’s someone who would have been seen in the context of the times, the 1960s, as a troublemaker, a red-ragger, a dissident.
This aspect of his character became fused with the battle for land title. The movie has him say, “My people owned that land for 16 generations. You think one whitefella sticking a flag in the sand alters that?”
And that is the essence of it. There was land ownership going back generations. It was not extinguished by the fragile assertion of British sovereignty in the colonial era. That was the essence – as I understand it after seeing this film – of the Mabo case of 1992.
Also dealt with is the pre-Mabo legal history, in particular, Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s legal attempt to smother any land title assertion over the islands. The High Court overruled Bjelke-Petersen’s manoeuvre in 1982.
The film made me think of things I learnt about the black protest in America on a visit a few years ago to Alabama. I am thinking of the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus in 1955 – which sparked the mobilisation of Alabama blacks against segregation on buses – was not the action of a young woman flung accidentally into history. Rosa Parks had a history of involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. It was logical that she would not give in to the indignity forced on her when she was ordered off the bus at the threat – fulfilled – of being arrested. Similarly, Eddie Mabo didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. His actions were rooted in Aboriginal assertion and protest.
Rachel Perkins’ film has that Australian naive quality. One could play the different approaches, the different elaborations of this drama, but here it is as she has interpreted it and one’s instinct is that it has a very large element of truth.
Terra nullius was the wrong doctrine. The land had been owned, the people had existed before 1788.
A Royal Affair (2012)
A Royal Affair (2012) directed by Nikolaj Arcel is a movie about the Enlightenment in Denmark. It tells the story of Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander) who is recruited for marriage to Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Følsgaard), who is more than a trifle insane. A German doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) is recruited to supervise the disturbed Christian VII. The doctor is a child of the Enlightenment who reads Rousseau and champions smallpox inoculation. He asks, “Who is the most disturbed? The King? Or someone who believes the Earth was created in seven days?”
Two developments then unfold. Caroline Mathilde, wife of the King is drawn into an affair with Struensee. Second, Struensee begins to assume power at the court against the wishes of the crusty old nobility. The King brings him on to the Council and allows him to have his way in abolishing torture, creating hospitals for the poor, removing feudal privileges.
We are drawn then into the politics of the court. There is now aristocratic revolt against all this reform. Indeed, the aristocrats find it easy to demonise Struensee. He is, after all, a foreign adviser. These dark reactionary forces unleash crude pamphleteering slanders against him, revelations about his affair with the Queen. The aristocrats – and this is an iron rule of politics – are roused to fury when Struensee crosses the line by attacking the pensions of this class.
It’s one of those visually beautiful historical films, it’s obvious rivals in this respect being Farinelli (1994) or the mini-series John Adams (2008). The palaces, the gardens, the forests and fields, and the streets of Copenhagen are beautifully invoked. Riding in this garden landscape, the Queen on horseback comes across a peasant lying dead on a wooden horse after hours of torture. There are rich images, one after the other.
The film claims to be based on historic fact. After the Queen is cast out and Struensee exiled, we leap ahead in time to learn that she was able to write letters to Christian VII’s two children telling them her story, telling them of the aborted Enlightenment in the court. Inspired by this, her son, Frederick VI, who was to go on to reign 55 years, reinstated all of Struensee’s laws when he came to the throne.
I recommend it strongly.
King of Devil’s Island (2010)
Directed by Marius Holst, this film is based on the true events of a Norwegian boys school in 1915. In its depiction of cruel authoritarianism and in its starkness, it is a story that would have appealed to Ingmar Bergman. Its content is unsurprising: the physical and sexual abuse of boys held in a punitive institution on an island tells the story of a revolt by these young prisoners, and their revolt carries your sympathies all the way.
Watch it if you can bear to. Before Scandinavia became the vanguard of human rights and social democracy and other decencies, this was its brutal industrial heart and we should be reminded of it.
A Separation (2011)
A Separation (2011), written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, was exceptionally powerful in its subtlety: its setting is a marriage breakup in modern Iran, the wife (Leila Hatami) wanting to leave the country but the husband (Peyman Moaadi) wanting to stay to look after his aged and ill father in their city apartment. Watching this breakup, their school-aged daughter (Sarina Farhadi) suffers.
There occurs one of those excruciatingly painful, altogether understandable stumbles into the realm of the criminal law. A working-class woman engaged to look after the old father departs the apartment because of her own domestic crises and leaves the old man tied to his bed. There’s an altercation on the steps of the apartment between the husband and this family helper. He seems to have pushed her and ends up before a Sharia equivalent of one of our Magistrates’ Courts.
Entirely credible human suffering all around.
You’ll be drawn to it as I was, looking for some insights into urban Iran and an interest in a society where religion seems to battle modernity. But you will find a realistic human drama.
17 Moments of Spring (1973)
I was given this DVD set in my role as patron of the Sydney Russian Film Festival and I’m really grateful. By the way, I was watching it before I re-entered public life: it requires time and concentration. It was the most successful television drama ever in Russia. On nights it was screened, the power output surged. Up to 80 million people at a time tuned in.
That was in 1973, a long time ago – and it shows. The series is in black and white, it’s slow-moving, it was made on the cheap because the scenes set in Switzerland and even some of the scenes in Berlin are so obviously located in the 1970s and not spring 1945. Amusingly the actors look Russian, not German. And yet…you can see why it is known in Russia to this day and why Vyacheslav Tikhonov, the charismatic lead actor, was considered a hero.
It is a spy story and is based on the conceit that a Russian mole made it to the senior leadership ranks of Hitler’s SS. This fictional master spy is Max Otto von Stirlitz and he operates just under Walter Schellenberg, the head of SS foreign intelligence, and Heinrich Mueller, the chief of the Gestapo. These were real characters, Stirlitz is fictitious. Yet we see him rub shoulder with the whole criminal milieu. Once, he gets a meeting with Heinrich Himmler himself. He also establishes liaisons with Bormann, Hitler’s secretary and, in some respects, the most powerful figure in the last days of the Third Reich.
It is an intoxicating notion and casts Soviet intelligence in a heroic mould. This is reportedly why Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, instructed Soviet television to put this spy story on TV: it enhanced the image of Russian espionage. Image building for the KGB. Wonder if the young Putin…?
As the series starts, SS General Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the Director of the Reich Main Security Office, is commissioning a study of Stirlitz. The master spy is under suspicion. They are the last months of the war and Stirlitz is in real and present danger of being exposed. The thrill of the series is seeing whether he can get away with it one more time. He’s already thrown into a concentration camp the promising German physicist who had been on the point of devising the German atomic bomb in 1944, and he did it by persuading Walter Schellenberg that it was his idea. We relive this episode in a flashback. Now his job is to discover who in the German leadership – Goering, Goebbels, Bormann or Ribbentrop – is responsible for negotiations between the Americans and the SS that, the Russians have discovered, are taking place in Bern, Switzerland. Answering this question and disrupting these negotiations – they could, of course, lead to a separate German peace with the West – becomes Stirlitz’s last grand assignment.
He has always communicated with Moscow through a radio transmitter operated by a Russian spy couple who run a gramophone repair business in the Berlin suburbs. Their house is wrecked in a bombing raid and the man is killed, leaving his pregnant wife to give birth to their child in a Berlin maternity hospital. During the birth, she yells out in Russian, her native language. This is noticed by the nurses and soon she is visited – this is a very plausible and chilling scene – by a Gestapo man posing as her insurance agent coming to discuss her wrecked house.
Stirlitz learns this and must contrive to prise the woman out of the Gestapo’s hands before she is tortured and gives him up. He does this by using the divisions in the ranks of the senior Nazis, the personality wars and the institutional feuds that pitch one bureaucratic baron against the other.
“The party has millions, stashed away,” confides Heinrich Mueller, the amiable, self-deprecating Gestapo boss (who you can learn more about on Wikipedia). He tells Stirlitz that power in Germany resides with he who can access these funds. That person is Himmler. All of this of course is a teasing out of the outrageous assumption by Himmler that he was the super policeman the Allies would need to maintain order in a defeated Germany.
Suspicion around Stirlitz deepens. How will he survive the revelation that his fingerprints have been found on the case containing the captured radio transmitter taken from the wife of the deceased Russian radio operator? And how will he survive his fingerprints also being found on a hotline telephone link from SS office headquarters to Martin Bormann’s office? He used it to make contact with Bormann when his colleagues were in their bomb shelter.
The series must have been put together on a tight budget. As our Nazi spies plod through Bern, the viewer notices there had been no effort to change the facades and make it appear as it would have appeared in 1945. A plastic tabletop and the post office signs all brand this as the 1970s, not the last days of the Second World War There is no verisimilitude and you can barely believe that these actors are playing German characters.
Yet it works as television drama and provides some insights into Russian thinking 20 years before the communist dictatorships fell.
This drama will probably have you Googling these Nazi names – Mueller, Schellenberg, Kaltenbrunner. Note that Mueller vanished into thin air at the end of World War II. The head of the Gestapo, the police commissioner of the Reich – we simply don’t know what happened to him.
If you like espionage and if you’re drawn to the atmosphere of the last months of Nazi Berlin, you’ve got to find 17 Moments of Spring.
(Note that I watched this series before my current job took over my life. So don’t level the carping criticism that I am indulging myself. These review pages are going to be sparse for a while.)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
I approached Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the 2011 movie directed by Tomas Alfredson, with reservations. How would it compare with the 1979 BBC TV series starring Alec Guinness and featuring some of the most solid English actors of its time? Moreover, John le Carré’s 1974 novel is probably the best spy novel ever written, its only competitor being Smiley’s People which le Carré wrote in 1979. I remember sitting up in bed in a German pension somewhere in south Germany in 1975, devouring Tinker, Tailor and not being able to stop pressing on to gobble down another chapter. How many books are page-turners? How would a movie-version do anything but disappoint?
One test was going to be how it would capture the atmosphere of the mid-70s when Soviet power and influence seemed to be increasing, France and Italy had big Leninist parties, and nobody contemplated the imminent demise of the USSR. This is the grimy, industrial era, the Europe that Helena and I had encountered on our first visit that very year. Pollution in the air and a greyness over everything. And just beyond its jurisdiction, the sulphurous world of the Soviet bloc which you might just be able to investigate with a weekend package tour out of neutral Austria into Budapest or Prague.
Did the movie get it right? Yes, beautifully. This is the London of a generation ago, where everyone chain-smokes and the clutter of the industrial era is still there and the food is wretched. As le Carré wrote:
There are Victorian terraces in the region of Paddington Station that are painted as white as luxury liners on the outside, and inside are dark as tombs…There was a smell of curry and cheap fat frying, and disinfectant. There was a smell of too many people with not much money jammed into too little air.
I said when I recommended le Carré two great novels in My Reading Life, that at his best, he is positively Dickensian.
There is a long-term Soviet mole in the senior echelons of the British Secret Service. The core of the drama are the events that threaten him with exposure, that threaten to reveal his name to Control (the head of the service). George Smiley, one of “London’s meek who do not inherit the earth” and on whose thick-rimmed glasses the London rain accumulates, finds himself in charge of the investigation. Alec Guinness in the TV series was clearly closer to le Carré’s conception of Smiley: short, pudgy, with his black overcoat sleeves too long for his arms. Gary Oldman is none of these but believable nonetheless.
If I wanted to quibble further, I could say that the climactic scene in the London safehouse, where tantalizingly, the mole will reveal himself, was more suspenseful in the TV version. So was Bill Haydon’s death by karate chop as opposed to rifle fire. Old Connie – the Russian specialist who helps George feel out his suspicions – was also much better captured on TV. I got the impression, however, that the movie might have researched and portrayed the interior of the Circus with more faithfulness. The scenes in Istanbul were gripping, and the movie invented a Budapest showdown that was not in the TV series or – to the best of my recollection – in the book.
If I had to choose, I would go for the Alec Guinness BBC TV version. But we don’t have to choose. My appetite for these two great le Carré’s is not sated. Yes, I look forward to a movie version of Smiley’s People in which – in a pointer to the end of the Cold War – Karla, the head of Russian intelligence, walks the Glienicke Bridge into the hands of his veteran opponent, George Smiley.
The victors were hardly goodies. But the defeated were very definitely the villains.
Too Big to Fail (2011)
This movie is a gripping account of public policy. That makes it very unusual. No, not a film about politics in the narrow sense but about the shaping of government decisions on when to step in and take over a crumbling financial institution…and when not to.
Although on reflection, it is not quite about that. The decision not to take over Lehmann Brothers as it tottered toward bankruptcy in September 2008 was one that made sense. Indeed, it won Henry Paulson, Treasury Secretary to George Bush, considerable praise. But it was immediately contradicted by the decision to, yes, intervene to shore up AIG. It was too big to fail. Its activities were spread too far across the economy.
All the arguments are played out in boardrooms, government offices, or – frequently – in breakfast meetings between Paulson and the head of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke. This makes it, I suppose, a movie of talking heads. But talking heads don’t detract from drama if what the heads are talking about is dramatic. The financial crisis of September 2008 was indeed dramatic and its implications are still with us.
James Woods plays Lehmann executive chairman Richard Fuld and William Hurt plays Henry Paulson, who is shown on the brink of physical and nervous collapse as it dawns on him that the financial system – indeed, the capitalist system – is hanging on the decisions he and his team will make. Perhaps Paul Giamatti, who brilliantly gave us John Adams in the documentary drama of the same name (that I loved) seems somehow smaller than life, and Edward Asner as Warren Buffett falls short of the real thing.
By the way, I enjoyed the big profile on Buffett in the January 23, 2012 issue of Time magazine. This man, worth $45 billion, brutally delineates the flaws of contemporary capitalism. Buffet advocates the opposite of Darwinian capitalism and the trickle-down theory, rejecting the idea that the market is the only determinant of the distribution of the economy’s assets. “We need a tax system that essentially takes very good care of the people who just aren’t as well adapted to the market system but are nevertheless doing useful things in society.” In addition to higher taxes for the rich, Buffett also supports a European-style consumption tax, a higher tax on speculative-trading gains and fewer loopholes for corporations: “People who make withdrawals from societies’ resources…should have to pay for it.” To show that he is serious about committing to this vision of shared sacrifice, he has pledged to give 99 per cent of his fortune away.
I could have seen and heard more of him in this movie.
Cynthia Nixon, a face familiar from Sex and the City, plays Michele Davis, who was in charge of media relations for the Treasury Department. The film would be a useful subject for analysis in any school of management debate about (1) government decision making in the context of the financial crisis and (2) the media management that accompanies it.
I saw the movie on the first leg of a 24-hour flight, London – Sydney, and relished it so much I re-ran most of it on the second leg. I look forward to seeing it a third time.
The Iron Lady (2011)
There are available two very sound documentary dramas on the career of Margaret Thatcher. I review them under DVDs. They are in the box set entitled The Rise and Fall of Margaret Thatcher: The Collection. One covers her pursuit of pre-selection for a Conservative seat in the House of Commons up. She faced almost monolithic gender prejudice. The account is lightened by touches of humour. It cheekily explores the young Thatcher’s relationship with Ted Heath, even implying that she came close to trying to seduce him to advance her career. The second one deals with the Conservative Party deposing Thatcher as their leader in 1991, with flashbacks to some of the climactic moments in her pursuit of the Tory leadership and in her prime ministership.
If you want some insights into Thatcher – her career, her relationships, her motivation – these are superior to The Iron Lady directed by Phyllida Lloyd, with screenplay by Abi Morgan.
Of course, no one other than Meryl Streep should receive an Academy Award for the next five years. Streep’s performance as the Prime Minister is so extraordinary it deserves a unique honour of five years of Oscars, signed, sealed and delivered.
Anyone who has seen the film would agree.
Now there is some political insight in the movie. For example, there’s the expressionistic treatment of the PM in arrogant, irritable decline, abusing her colleagues and humiliating them. You can see in a flash how cabinet tolerance of the leader had worn out. And there is the treatment of her relationship with Airey Neave who was a mentor and more than a mentor. It could be said that Neave discovered, even invented Thatcher. We witness his death by car bombing.
The movie is about old age enfolding a public figure and about bereavement.
Here comes a wild analogy but I’ll venture to make it nonetheless. There is an opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold called The Dead City written in 1920. It is about a man stricken with the loss of his wife and about his futile attempts to make contact with her spirit. It is exactly what The Iron Lady shows Thatcher attempting in her strivings after the ghost of Denis. And if Korngold’s opera is not a challenging enough analogy, here’s another. Thomas Bernhard’s novel Old Masters is about a Viennese musicologist, Reger, who concludes on the death of his wife that the great minds and the old masters who he knows so well – the whole world of culture and art and ideas – offers no consolation against the all-consuming fact that your loved one is dead and lost:
I no longer find in this world and among these people anything that I appreciate, he said, everything in this world is dull-witted and everything in this mankind is just as dull-witted. This world and our mankind have no reached a degree of dull-wittedness which a person like myself can no longer afford.
Suddenly you realize what emptiness is when you stand there amidst thousands and thousands of books and writings which have left you totally alone, which suddenly mean nothing to you except that terrible emptiness, Reger said. When you have lost your closest human being everything seems empty to you, look wherever you like, everything is empty, and you look and look and you see that everything is really empty and, what is more, for ever, Reger said. (Bernhard’s emphasis)
The portrayal of Margaret Thatcher conducting dialogues with her dead husband, brushing his pinstripe suits and living with his presence, makes me think of the Korngold opera and the Bernhard novel. It is an insight into the desolation that comes with the loss of one’s life partner. That, to me, is what The Iron Lady is about. That, and some sense – some attempt to understand – the fading and flickering existence of a person living with Alzheimer’s.
As for her politics, as documentary dramas, go to those DVDs. On her politics, they’re preferable to the movie.
The Ides of March (2011)
Movies about politics are difficult. Screenwriters fail at verisimilitude because they rarely understand the process. Again and again I’ve seen plots topple because the people writing had no grip on the subject, even if they get some atmosphere and characterisation correct, and sometimes produce crackling satire. Thus it is with the much-lauded The Ides of March, directed by George Clooney and starring Ryan Gosling, George Clooney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
There is much good about the film. The cast, for example. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as the crumpled campaign manager. You can almost smell his sweaty, tobacco-fumed presence and Ryan Gosling as his young deputy is just right too. George Clooney, who plays a Pennsylvania governor running for the Democratic primary in Ohio is too good to be believed. Get a glimpse of the Art Deco-style posters his campaign is using. Unstoppable, better than Obama or Kennedy. Too perfect in gubernatorial charm to be resisted – or believed.
A lot of the movie is good but one of the ploys falls spectacularly short. In brief, the campaign director for the rival candidate calls Ryan Gosling to a meeting to invite him to join the rival campaign. It turns out he’s playing subtle psychological warfare. He knows Ryan Gosling’s character well enough to know that he’ll admit to his boss (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) that he met the opposition and he knows that Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character will make a fuss and force his resignation. That way, the other side is thrown into confusion and loses talent. But the plot rests on the assumption that if this news about the secret meeting ever broke, it would be a front page story that swung the campaign in its last days. Of course, this insider staff-level manoeuvring would never push the other campaign’s stories off the front page. It would always rank as a one-day wonder and an exciting a story for insiders and the beltway talk shows only.
It’s like the occasional flaws in The West Wing (like positioning Leo McGarry, an alcohol and Valium addict, as a candidate for the vice-presidency) that bust the impressive, well-researched credibility of the whole show.
Nevertheless, it’s a slick movie which I can imagine myself watching again on a long flight (if there are no better offerings) to appreciate the taut performances, the half-dozen unseeable twists in the plot and the atmospherics of a Democratic primary contest; and to appreciate what an unstoppably fine candidate Clooney would have made. With his bold, secularist answer in a debate about religion, however, he is simply too good to believe.
Who Was Anonymous? A movie speculates on Shakespeare
It’s always been a fantasy of mine to do a bit of time-travel and experience how Shakespeare’s plays were received when they were first performed in The Globe, The Rose or the court of Elizabeth I or James I.
This was one of two things I loved about the movie Anonymous. It produced excerpts of performances and showed very credible reactions from “the groundlings” or the galleries or from the monarch and courtiers. When Richard Burbage delivered a patriotic speech of Henry V, the mob were so moved they reached out and clasped the actor’s calves. Thus it may well have been. Or, just as moving, when Hamlet delivers a soliloquy, tears appear in the eyes of his audience, something that can never happen now so over-familiar and remote is the world of the Danish prince. The movie captures the surprise and freshness that may have been there in Shakespeare’s drama.
The second unalloyed delight in the play is the performance of Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth I, that is, Elizabeth I as an aged queen. She is infirm and her mind wanders. She falls for the devices and stratagems of Robert and William Cecil. She loves the plays (to the puritan distress of these advisers)and trembles at losing the throne to Essex. She cavorts with her young ladies of the court. It is a powerful performance.
The way the script runs loose with Shakespeare’s history must be deliberate, the errors are so blatant. Even I, no scholar, could tell that the order in which the plays appeared had been jumbled. And I had never heard the theory that Richard III was designed to arouse popular antagonism to another hunchback, William Cecil, the Queen’s unpopular Privy Councillor. Indeed, I had accepted the conventional wisdom that Richard II was the play that echoed the Essex revolt. Didn’t the old Queen say after seeing it, “I am Richard II”? And Kit Marlowe died in 1593 which meant that he didn’t live to see the mature plays of Shakespeare as he is portrayed doing in the movie.
I heard Derek Jacobi on this subject, when he and other actors had lunch with me while in Sydney to perform The Hollow Crown. . He said he believed the plays of Shakespeare were written by the Earl of Oxford. He said the Earl had the classical university education needed to have produced such a tsunami of poetry. By contrast William Shakespeare had only received a grammar school education and arrived in London from a market town. “Little Latin and less Greek,” was his education. As a result, Jacobi and other sceptics can’t believe he wrote these dramas.
Yet this speculation falters, as most conspiracy theories do, simply because there is no evidence of conspiracy. It is speculation only.
I would have added “and no motive for a cover-up ever produced either.” Now I am less sure. The movie speculates about a motive for the real author keeping silent. But, again, there has never been evidence.
What any viewer will enjoy is an overwhelming physical impression of Shakespeare’s world – streets and river traffic, the riverside mansions and the commercial bridges, the pub conversations, The Tower. But, above all, the world around the theatre and how the plays may have looked and sounded. Burbage, the favorite actor of the time, played by Lloyd Hutchinson, delivers speeches with monotonal understatement mixed with perfect clarity and fine modulation. A model for actors doing Shakespeare in Australia. Seriously – you don’t have to sound like Gielgud, I concede that, but you don’t have to sound like a Federal cabinet minister either.
The Eye of the Storm
Curmudgeonly Patrick White has had a win, a win that would bring a smile to his stern countenance. The Fred Schepisi film adaptation of his 1973 novel The Eye of the Storm is a sheer delight. From beginning to end I can’t think of a film I’ve enjoyed more.
If film is a flow of visual images meant to rivet out attention this works a treat.
The novel captured a great deal of Sydney and its society in the 1970s. I could always chuckle at recollections of various of its Patrick White touches, like the corpse of a dog at the beach at Rose Bay glimpsed from the jetty restaurant; the gasping response of society ladies to the visit of the Princess de Lascabanes (“You have done us a great honour”); the pomposity of Sir Basil Hunter – how true even his name rings –an Australian actor who carved out a reputation on the London stage.
There are incidental White touches: the dead parrot stranded in the tropical branches after the hurricane has passed over the island, for example. Or the way a close up of fizzing eggs on a frying pan follows a sumptuous red satin surface in the matriarch’s bedroom. Or there’s Sir Basil’s perfect display of cuff becoming sullied as he withdraws it over a bowl of sauce.
David Marr said in his biography of White that at his boarding school in England he experienced the “true awfulness of human beings.” That element, continuously captured in Schepisi’s movie had me laughing throughout. I didn’t want it to end. I will buy the DVD as soon as it comes out. I don’t recall doing that with any other movie.
Highlights for me were Judy Davis’ devastating portrayal of embarrassment as she clumsily played with seduction of the farmer now working the family’s rural property. It could be Judy Davis’ finest performance . Just outstandingly good. Another highlight: Robyn Nevin as Lal, registering the hurtful revelations about her husband doled out by the ailing matriarch. I should also mention Schepisi’s oldest daughter Alexandra portraying Flora Manhood, one of the nurses. She has a fling with old Sir Basil: class is thematic in this novel.
The period design never failed. We were back in the Australia of the 70s. I loved Paul Grabowsky’s score. All came together for me in the very last scene with Judy Davis in a Paris brasserie, complete with half a dozen oysters, a glass of red wine, a cigarette, a copy of La Chartreuse de Parme and a pet poodle just ready to be draped over forearm. Her self-satisfied smile – she and her brother had just won their inheritance – underlined by Grabowsky’s jaunty score, brought the story to its climax.
I had the same sense of the joy of life, elevating us above the full awfulness of human beings, that I had in the last memorable scene of Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation.
Pure joy, a movie that enhances life.
Some years ago, Helena and I enrolled in Anthony S. Pitch’s tour of sites associated with the Lincoln assassination in Washington. One site is a 19th century building, now Chinese restaurant, in Washington’s Chinatown. It was the boarding house run by Mary Surratt that became famous as “the nest of traitors.” That is, it was the meeting place for the four people hanged on July 7 1865 after a trial found them guilty of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 14 1865.
Director Robert Redford shaped the movie The Conspirator around the thesis that Mary Surratt, the boarding house owner, may not have been guilty. He turns the movie into a case against Guantanamo Bay-style justice, giving it a modern resonance. This part of the thesis is a relatively easy case. The accused were flung before a military commission headed by a Judge Advocate and not presented to a civilian court. America was at war, the argument ran, the killing of the president was a military assault.
Moreover, the military commission is presented as taking orders from Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s formidable Secretary of War. Played by Kevin Kline he reminded me of Donald Rumsfeld. The hero of the movie is Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) a young, decorated Union war hero, just beginning his career as an attorney. He reluctantly represents Mary Surratt. He becomes indignant as he sees that Edwin Stanton’s plans are not about justice but about revenge for the Lincoln assassination.
The movie reminds us of the easily overlooked fact that the Lincoln assassination was one part of a three part attack. Another conspirator George Atzerodt was intent on killing Vice President Andrew Johnson in the Kirkwood House Hotel on the same evening. Another conspirator, Lewis Powell, charged into the home of Secretary of State William Henry Seward who was in bed recovering from a carriage accident, and proceeded to stab him. Lincoln’s shooting in Ford’s Theatre dominates our imaginations but Washington witnessed hundreds of arrests and thundering military activity throughout the evening of April 14 because the North believed the assassination was part of a major Southern assault to extend the war.
The judges of the military commission were split five-four over Mary Surratt’s execution and there was a written appeal to the President by two of them to commute her sentence to life imprisonment “in consideration” of her sex and age. But Edwin Stanton appeared to win the day by persuading President Andrew Johnson to reject any clemency.
There is no decisive evidence one way or the other about Mary Surratt. The movie presents the view that the witnesses against her were manipulated by the authorities. The case that she was part of the planning of the assassination or even knew of it was certainly not proven. On the other hand, it is hard to have sympathy for a woman who hosted gatherings of people who fanatically supported the pro-slavery cause and toyed with kidnapping President Lincoln. It is hard to believe she did not know what the men coming and going through her rooms were working on. This is the major problem with the film. Mary Surratt is a distinctly unsympathetic character.
The movie, moreover, just escapes being trapped by cliché. We are presented with the inexperienced but noble-hearted young defence lawyer fighting the system on behalf of a bewildered client. The client is in the process of being rendered a martyr. Moreover – to leave no cliché undeveloped – we have to witness the lawyer Aiken and the accused Surratt overcoming instinctive dislike and mistrust to develop a tender regard. It would be refreshing to see a courtroom drama that resists cliché.
I groaned when I saw that the overexposed British actor Tom Wilkinson had been recruited to play Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland who’d been chosen as defence lawyer but passed it on to Aiken.
Overall the script just narrowly escapes becoming bad enough to drag the movie down. But the subdued colour photography and the Savannah locale – effectively creating the atmosphere of 1860s Washington– worked decisively.
Compulsory viewing, of course, for anyone with a flicker of interest in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the American narrative.
I want to see a compelling movie about the Lebanese Civil War, the torment that rent this unique country in the 15 years between 1975 and 1990. It started after the PLO started using the south of Lebanon as a base from which to attack Israel, setting off long-festering animosity between sectarian militias. It only ended after a total amnesty and the disbandment of the Christian, Shi’a, Sunni, Druze and Communist militias.
I’ve known Lebanese in Australia who’ve suffered. I remember going to a Lebanese national day celebration in 1989 as NSW opposition leader and hearing the news it had been cancelled because of the assassination that day of the Lebanese President Rene Mouawad. On an official visit top Lebanon in 1997 I met the religious leaders. Lebanese-Australian friends of mine have described the suffering of their families.
I expected to have this war illuminated when we went to see this move and for a time I thought it was going to work.
Lubna Azabal plays Nawal Marwan, a woman at the centre of the story. She has died in Canada and she bequeaths letters and instructions to her children. They unravel the mystery by returning to Lebanon. Flashbacks, revealing Marwan as a young woman, are told vividly.
We see civil war erupting in the south when a Christian militia warlord rounds on Palestinian refugees and produces, in turn, a savage backlash from Muslim militia. Seeing the murder and suffering the Christian militia unleash, the woman switches her allegiance from the moderate Christians to Muslim. By acting decisively on their behalf she finds herself a prisoner in a notorious prison where she is tortured and raped.
The plot rests on two coincidences. They are outrageous and wreck the film. One, is that the professional torturer who rapes Marwan in prison turns out to be her illegitimate son from a relationship with a Palestinian boy who had been gunned down by her brothers. The baby had been removed but a kindly midwife scratched three spots on his heel so that one day Marwan might recognize him. So – huge coincidence – her torturer is her lost son. Second, that in a swimming pool in Canada – yes, in Canada – she encounters the man and recognizing the tattoos on his foot sees first, that he is her lost son and, then, glimpsing his face, that he was her rapist.
The cinematography is arresting, the acting persuasive. But the two inflated coincidences that are the humps in the story left me incredulous. So we wait for the great film about the Lebanese Civil War. Waste not your time on this one.
The King’s Speech
Helena and I must have been the last people in Sydneyto see the movie, going up to Avalon in Sydney’s Northern Beaches because we wanted to see it on the big screen. We were in the company of writer and veteran film reviewer Bob Ellis who was seeing it the third time. He wept on those two previous occasions; and would weep copiously again.
“Its like all stories about examinations, school examinations,” he explained.
“It is about passing a test, the struggle to get it right.”
In the final sequence, as George VI addresses the nation on the day it went to war, the emotion builds in a way I cannot recall in a film since Shindler’s List. There is the personal drama involving an ill-suited prince who takes the throne in unique circumstances (when else was there an abdication?). The movie introduces us to the wretched circumstances of his family’s treatment of him that seems to have entrenched his stuttering. It leaves us to speculate on the role of his bullying father, the old king George V, played by Michael Gambon.
Colin Firth’s prince is a modest man trapped in a golden cage, a reluctant king if ever there was one, an accidental monarch. This engages our sympathies. By the last scene we are desperate to see him surmount the disability.
Then there is the historic context of his personal crisis: Britain at war. In 1939 no one knew where that war would take them. There were reasons for believing Britain would fall. And what would this? A German occupation of the islands? The bombing of people’s homes and cities? Not since the Spanish armada had the country been so exposed.
In frame after frame we see these British faces, the worn out faces that survived fierce poverty, World War I and the Great Depression, sitting in pubs or wearing military uniforms listening to their King speak to them at a terrible hour.
Bob Ellis wept. I felt my chest heaving and my eyes filling.
Taking up some of my remarks on QandA last night, discussing the royal wedding and an Australian republic, this film is rich dynastic propaganda, a celebration of Windsor history that strengthens the family’s grip on the British imagination and hence on the throne. Is there any other work of the imagination – on screen, stage or paper – that has worked for “the firm” like this? It legitimises the Queen’s successors, entrenching by implication the prince now emerging as a fully-fledged actor in this narrative.
I acknowledge Christopher Hitchens’ critique (http://www.slate.com/id/2282194/) about the twisting of the historical record. I agree that Churchill is not portrayed in the film as the vehement and reckless supporter of Edward VIII that he in fact was. It still may be arguable, however, that it is not altogether wrong that in the company of George VI Churchill might have presented himself as a supporter of the man who had now assumed the throne. Second, Hitchens is no doubt right that George VI was part of an establishment that strongly supported Munich and, in large measure, probably wanted the war to end with the fall of France in June 1940. That this moment was not portrayed certainly subverts the film’s pretense to being a full and accurate portrayal.
There is no account of the meeting of King George VI, Churchill and Lord Halifax to determine which of the two politicians present would replace Neville Chamberlain. The King favoured Halifax, but Churchill had the support of the Labour Party in the House of Commons and he knew it, and he sat silent until Halifax ruled himself out.
What this means is the film is not painstakingly accurate in portraying the bigger picture. But in portraying a smaller picture – a friendship between a King and his voice coach – it delivers something that is true and may bring tears to your eyes as well.
It had to be pointed out to me that Australian actor Guy Pearce (from Priscilla Queen of the Desert and LA Confidential) played the featherbrained playboy Edward VIII . On top of this you get Michael Gambon , Derek Jacobi and Helena Bonham Carter . Enough has been written about Colin Firth, but it’s wonderful that Geoffrey Rush, who I first saw many years ago in Gogol’s Diary of a Madman at the Belvoir Street theatre, is in such command of the big screen in a movie with so many good parts.
Very Ordinary People: Mike Leigh’s Another Year
The English director Mike Leigh is enough of a name to get me to see a film even without having seen a review. In this spirit I went off to Another Year.
First off, it’s a film about ordinary people. Very ordinary. Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen play Tom and Gerri a happy-go-lucky middle-aged couple deeply content with one another and their lot in life. The same can’t be said for their friends. Mary (Lesley Manville), a colleague of Gerri’s, is a needy, neurotic divorcee who feels the passing of time with increasing desperation. Ken (Peter Wright), an old school mate of Tom’s, is a overweight bachelor with a dead-end job and no prospects. A more profoundly unhappy pair would be impossible to find.
Over the course of four seasons (four chapters in the film) Tom and Cerri lovingly tend their garden allotment. During the week he works as a geologist, she as a counsellor in a council-run clinic. It’s a very convincing performance except for one catch: why would two such pleasant, positive Guardian readers tolerate around them deadbeats like Mary and Ken.
We see Mary slosh wine when she comes to visit until she becomes a painfully boring drunk who can’t talk about anything except her own emotions. We see Ken stuffing himself with potato crisps and pouring beers down his throat on a train coming to visit, later sloshing wine while he feeds himself at their table. These two are trapped in wells of loneliness and I have one response: take an interest in the life around you, summon up a bit of strength.
These comments will only make sense if you yourself have seen the film but I want to say to them hey, you live in London buy yourself a subscription to the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company, see the world’s best on the stage. Take an interest in what’s on at Covent Garden. Follow politics, talk about it.
I find it very hard to understand people who get together for all pointless socialising and can’t talk about the latest policy position or opinion poll! (Put that down to my own interests in life). Profound unhappiness won’t overtake people who get pleasure from reading a book, who can step into an alternative universe of history or literature. In the case of these people – living in London – I want to say, for God’s sake start going to literary events in the capital. And join a gym and stop smoking. Doctor Johnson said, “A man who is tired of London is tired of life”.
My irritated response to the unhappiness on display here is, take an interest in life. Go to the Gauguin exhibition, or the Royal Academy. If you’re only interested in your own plight and not in refurbishing your personality and challenging your intellect and learning new things you may well feel trapped by personal set-backs and misfortunes.
Deft filmmaking, altogether absorbing despite its subject matter. And the story is one about ordinary people: this made it worth seeing. But its subject – the human capacity for unhappiness – makes it a film you’ll never pick up five or 10 years from now in a video store to see again. And you’ll leave the cinema this time being glad to be out in the sunshine or night air.
I must see his Vera Drake (2004).
The Grifters (1990)
A grifter is “one who engages in petty or small-scale swindling.” It derives from an alteration of the word graft.
It’s also the title of a clever, atmospheric 1990 film by Stephen Frears.
I’m undertaking to give it cult status. So here goes.
The movie presents us with three vivid grifter characters played by John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening.
It launches with gritty Los Angelean atmospherics, edged along with a mocking soundtrack – the music is one of the film’s underlying strengths – and introduces us to Roy Dillon played by John Cusack. He lives off card tricks, loaded dice and short changing bartenders. The last is apparently a grifter classic: flash a folded $20 bill between fingers as you order the whisky, flick a $10 bill into its place while the barman fills the order; then collect change from the $20 – that is, if he doesn’t see what you’ve done and knock you off the barstool with a baseball bat to the abdomen – as happens to Roy one time in three.
It nearly kills him.
“Get off the grift, Roy”
“You haven’t got the stomach for it.”
It turns out Roy’s mother Lilly, played by Anjelica Huston, is also a grifter running a racket in inflating the odds with big last minute bets at race tracks as part of a nationwide scam. Her vulnerable charm captures our sympathy, especially after she’s tortured by a sadistic boss.
Myra Langtry (Annette Being) is the girlfriend of Roy and the destabilising presence required by the plot. In any play or movie or novel about conmen – go back to Ben Johnson’s The Alchemist or Volpone – what’s required is that the grifters try to rob one another and they’re all brought down.
“Grifters get an irreversible desire to be wise…to take another guy who happens to be your partner, to be watching you.”
It looks like happening here until with a few fast twists in the plot, one of them – I won’t spoil the surprise – rides off on the interstate with a boot full of cash.
There are not as many plot twists as the ingenious Red Rock West (1992, director John Dahl) starring Nicholas Cage, Dennis Hopper and Lara Flynn-Boyle. Nor is the movie as multifaceted as Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 Pulp Fiction, or a radical satire like Sam Mendes’ 1999 American Beauty. The ironic score and the sometimes preposterous hardboiled dialogue – “Grifting is like anything else Roy. You don’t stand still” – are a big part of its charm.
I saw it on Foxtel on the weekend – the third time – and, yeah, it warrants at least minor cult status.
That is, I would rank it with these:
- The Apostle
- Red Rock West
- American Beauty
- Pulp Fiction
The Grifters is based on a novel by Jim Thompson – once described as the “Dimestore Dostoevsky” – and I Googled him as I watched. He himself was an American archetype. His first job was working as a bell boy at the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth, Texas, in the 1920s during Prohibition. He supplied hotel guests with bootleg liquor, marijuana and heroin, supplementing his $15 monthly wage by $300 a week. Suffering a nervous breakdown at age 19 he worked as an oil field labourer, and after a drilling operation with his father failed he began attending the University of Nebraska. He dropped out, became the head of the New Deal’s Oklahoma Federal Writers Project and joined the Communist Party in 1935 only to leave it three years later. All this while he was still in his 20s.
He ended up in the early 1950s churning out pulp fiction, sometimes five novels a year. The Grifter and The Killer Inside Me are rated classics.
Dying in 1977, he missed the thrill of seeing the con artists he created spin their screwball magic on the screen.
Make sure you don’t.
Stone (2010, dircted by John Curran)
It’s an unrelentingly intelligent screenplay, all the more because it is open-ended. No neat moral tacked-on, no easy come-uppance for the three erring characters. We are not told what happens to them.
Jack Mabry played by Robert De Niro, is an emotionally-crumpled parole officer in regional America, weeks from retirement from his stultifying public sector job interviewing prisoners with a view to making recommendations on parole. The prisoners we see him with all look the part. He is clearly sick of them and their little games and their remorseless re-offending. Stone, played by Edward Norton, is as manipulative as any of his cell-mates – even to the point of easing forward the idea of his parole officer having sex with his wife, Lucetta played by Mila Jovovich.
This sets the movie up as a case study in petty public sector graft: parole officer has sex with prisoner’s wife and makes problematic recommendation for his early release. Stone, incidentally, is doing time for arson of his grandparents’ house. He is portrayed as a real sinister crim, right down to his prison pallor and lethal hair cut and we feel jailhouse claustrophobia really sending him round the bend. He wants out – and offering up his seductive and sexually lively wife (she visits him panty-less so in the visitors’ room some furtive intimacy can take place – hey, there’s a case for conjugal visits made here!) is entirely feasible.
One little problem could be why such a girl stuck with Stone so long, that is, for nine years and did not find herself another relationship. A loser who fired a house is not a glamorous type. But the acting of these three, and as well that of Frances Conroy who plays Mabry’s lobotomized wife, is the movie’s second great strength – after the sheer intelligence of the writing – and resolves any nagging questions about the likelihood of these motivations.
In any case, isn’t this the kind of situation you read of in the tabloids all the time? Prison System Sucks! Prison Officer And Prisoner Both Get Release.
Brilliantly there is a background soundtrack of religious radio talk-back and the effect is documentary-like. It made me think of that best-ever movie on American religion, The Apostle with Robert Duvall (1997). As I regard that as one of the most insightful movies on American ethos and mores that, my readers, can be taken as high praise.
Russian Resurrection Film Festival 2010
“The Soviet Union will pass”, said General De Gaulle. “But Russia is eternal.” To those of us who count 19thcentury Russian literature as a high point of western civilisation; De Gaulle’s statement is unarguable
This year the Russian Film Festival beat the others (the German, Israeli, the French). Some of the Russian movies were so good they are statements in themselves about the transition Russia has undergone since Communism wobbled in the 80’s and fell flat on its face under Gorbachev.
Tsar (2009). This story takes place during the bloody reign of Ivan the Terrible – one of the most controversial periods in Russian history. The Tsar has the country in a grip of terror. He believes God wants him to prepare his country for the end of the world and he establishes absolute power. Anyone who defies his authority defies God and is despatched with brutally. The Tsar, teetering on the brink of insanity, summons his childhood friend, Filipp Kolychev, and makes him head of the church. Kolychev is shocked by the Tsar’s vicious treatment of his people. He confronts his friend and suffers the consequences.
By the Rivers of Babylon (2009) is located in World War II but daringly gives us the perspective of an Orthodox priest who continues to minister to a congregation under the German occupation. By Stalin’s standards he was a traitor. But Father Alexander is shown taking big risks to try to help Russian prisoners of war and the film highlights the erratic cruelty of the German occupiers. When the Germans are forced to retreat Father Alexander is imprisoned. He survives and the last scene we see him walking through the monastery.
Any Russian film about World War II deservers to be treated reverentially, in my view, this one for its slightly heretical perspective deserves inclusion on your list.
Which brings us to Russia in March 1953 at the death of Stalin. Peter On His Way To Heaven (2009) takes us to a Russian backwater where Peter, a ridiculous traffic cop, is something of the village idiot directing almost non-existent traffic with Stakhanovite ardour. Nearby is a prison camp for the regime’s enemies and we see smiles light up the prisoners faces when told of Stalin’s death (just as described in Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago). It’s a gentle comedy which ropes in doctors who have affairs in broom cupboards and delivers insight into the gimcrack, dilapidated society that Lenin and Stalin created.
The very best film is The Miracle (2009) which is set in the Khrushchev thaw that followed Stalin’s murderous rule. It is a hilarious satire and would seem to owe a lot to Gogol’s The Government Inspector or Gogol’s short stories. At a drunken party in a small steel making city, Grechansk, a group of workers look astonished. Tatiana a young woman had picked up an icon of Saint Nicholas and started to dance with it. She has become frozen to the spot even though she still breathes. A religious miracle in the heartland of atheistic socialism! She remains frozen three months. In Moscow a journalist Nikolai Artemyev persuades his editor to be allowed to go and investigate . And the local priest is threatened with the closure of his church if he tells his congregation this is a miracle.
Savour the fabulous shots of 50’s Soviet interiors, the antique vehicles and typewriters. You almost smell the cooking cabbage in the corridors of the flats where residents stroll to use the communal toilet with their own toilet seat around their necks like a horse harness and the ubiquitous cigarette hanging from their mouth. General Secretary Khrushchev is in the skies and when his rattling plane is forced to make an emergency landing in the steel town. He decides after a night in the bed bug infested local hotel to inspect the steel works and then goes to see the miracle. On the way local steel workers pester him with questions about the lack of food for their families. “I know I know. It’s those bums in the ministry,” he says. “I’ll sack them all. I’ll turn the five-year plan into a seven-year plan…” This is the best ever Communist nostalgia. I’ve seen the film twice and would like to see it again, the recreation of the 50’s is so vivid.
One War (2009), one of the saddest films you’ll ever see, recreates an actual incident at the end of WWII when Major Maxim Prokhorov of the NKPD is sent to a small island in northern Russia where women and children are kept in captivity. The women had had children by German soldiers. The major’s job is to expedite their removal to the gulag and their likely death.
How I Ended This Summer (2010) is a film about two men stuck in a meteorological observation post up in the Soviet arctic and of the catastrophic development in their relationship. The filmmaker achieves an extraordinary outcome with only two actors.
Parental Guidance. This is a story of contemporary Russia around two boys and two girls making an utter mess of their relationships. My impression was how decidedly superior to anything you’d get from an American movie.
My congratulations to the team who continue to put together the Russian Resurrection Film Festival. I was happy to help at its inauguration in 2003. It is today a window on Russian culture, one of the world’s indispensible cultures.
Me and Orson Welles
I really enjoyed Me and Orson Welles largely for the nostalgia of New York in the late 1930s – can’t wait to get the CD for its music – and its insights into Welles as a tyrannical genius of a director. I’ve been enjoying the Russian Resurrection Film Festival. Some communist nostalgia here, we happily soaked up the atmospherics of Peter on His Way to Heaven (2009) a comedy set in March 1953 just before the death of Stalin.
The Waiting City
I am delighted to be able to recommend a movie.
The Waiting City, which is being released this week, is, in my view, the best Australian film of recent years.
This film is truly world class. Go and see it.
It is about an Australian couple going to Calcutta to adopt a child and what happens to them.
The screenplay presents a well told and moving drama revolving around completely believable characters. The cinematography is beautiful. The Australian stars Radha Mitchell and Joel Edgerton head an outstanding cast and crew well chosen and well handled by scriptwriter/director Claire McCarthy.
This is the first Australian film to be made entirely in India.
The Waiting City has won an award at the Toronto International Film Festival. I think it is headed for many more.
Both the writer/director Claire McCarthy and the producer Jamie Hilton have serious film careers ahead of them.
This film is too good to miss.