Monthly Archives: September 2008

Control (UK/NL/JP/AU 2007)

Ian and Debbie – too young to get married?

Ian and Debbie married young.

Time to think about Control again, now I’m showing it to students. If you haven’t seen it, this is the film based on the book Touching From a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis (1995). For some background here is an interview with Deborah Curtis by Wigan’s finest, Laura Barton. The film vied with This Is England as the best British film of 2007 in my view. (It won four awards at the British Independent Film Awards and several other awards at major festivals.) It tells the remarkable story of Ian Curtis from the time when he met Debbie in 1973 up to his death by suicide in 1980, at the point when Joy Division, for whom he was lyricist and vocalist, were about to tour the US.

I saw the film last November and was knocked out by the performances and the stagings organised by director Anton Corbijn and his team. My first reaction on watching the DVD was to realise how little there is in the film about the band and their music in the terms of the traditional music biopic – and how much more there is of the melodrama about Ian, Debbie and Annik (the Belgian woman he met on tour).

So, this is the first task, perhaps – to get a handle on the film’s genre. Although it’s tempting to opt for the biopic, I think this is the secondary repertoire, even though it probably provides the most interest for some audiences. I wonder what the gender splits will be in dealing with the film? For the film to work purely as a biopic it ought to start earlier in Ian’s life and to include rather more of his family background and formative experiences. To work as a music biopic, it could miss some of the early family stuff, but it would need to focus on the musical development of Curtis and the other three members of Joy Division. Instead, the narrative works on two levels. First it is a melodrama – with a focus on the relationships between Ian and Debbie, Ian and Annik and between Ian and his own demons. Then there are elements of the musical – the kind of musical focusing mainly on public performances. These don’t work in biopic terms since there is no sense of musical progression. In a typical music biopic (certainly the main Hollywood biopics about popular music stars) there is usually a scene where the performer rebels against a manager or a record producer because they won’t allow the development of a new style of music etc. There is relatively little of this in Control. Nor is there much attempt to show the growing popularity of the band – where most biopics would make sure we knew dates and places, there is no real sense of a career being constructed according to some kind of plan. What there is, is the musical narrative (as in Ken Russell’s films about composers) about the tortured artist.

In a long and thought-provoking article in film international no. 31, John Orr suggests that the aesthetic of the film is actually split between the “exterior (the life) [which] is high contrast often with a vertical look: the interior part (the music) has a more impressionistic feel and a more horizontal look, using the full width of the screen”. To some extent, Orr is referring to the musical v the melodrama, although it is a bit more complicated than that. On the melodrama question, Orr makes a number of interesting observations. He cites Corbijn as the son of a Lutheran pastor and summons up Bergman as another “Protestant son of the cloth” before moving on to suggest parallels with a famous British melodrama – Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), the story of a ballet dancer who literally dies for her art. But then he suggests that perhaps the best comparison might be with a film itself influenced by the Red Shoes, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980). However, what most interests me are Orr’s comments about the connections that have been made between Control and the 1960s British New Wave films, some of them shot not too far away from Macclesfield (Ian Curtis’s home throughout his life) in Stockport (A Kind of Loving, 1962) and Salford (A Taste of Honey, 1961). My own feeling when I first watched Control was that it looked very different from the representations of Northern England in the 1960s films. Now I’m not so sure, but still a little sceptical.

It was quite brave of Corbijn to shoot in black and white CinemaScope – with a novice cinematographer (the German photographer Martin Ruhe) and a first time leading man – but as Corbijn points out, it is these three elements in the film that have garnered most praise. Corbijn chose black and white because that is how he thinks of Joy Division. When he came to England in 1979, he thought the North looked grey, he took black and white photos for the NME (New Musical Express) and the media images of the Manchester music scene were generally monochrome. He didn’t choose the aesthetic to make a connection to what has sometimes been called ‘Northern Realism’, a blanket term to describe both the New Wave films, Coronation Street and Northern television series and some more recent films such as Brassed Off (1996) and The Full Monty (1997). Corbijn admits he has no film background and no real knowledge of British Cinema of the 1960s. Instead, he brings a European photographer’s eye to bear on Northern English life.

Here, I think, John Orr is really onto something, which I felt when watching the film the first time, but couldn’t quite articulate. Orr suggests that Corbijn’s approach draws on something similar to “the ‘outsider modernism’ that marked the 1960s when foreigners Losey, Polanski, Lester, Preminger, Truffaut, Antonioni and Kubrik had all made their mark on the filming of London landscapes and their fascinating topographies”. (Orr p 14)

This ‘outsider status’ allows Corbijn to create a different kind of realism which Orr relates to Lynne Ramsay in Ratcatcher, Ken Loach in Kes and also Terence Davis and Bill Douglas. Not sure about Loach, but I definitely agree on Ramsay (another photographer) and I can see the references to Davies and Douglas (the DVD of whose work has finally been released and I must review). In these films, the characters are observed from a distance and often in tableaux and perfectly composed still shots. They speak only rarely and in the Davies films music is used to articulate emotion. Orr moves on to then reference Bresson and the attention to the details of the lead character’s everyday life, his ‘stillness’ and the way in which he becomes “the involuntary centre of attention, the core of the enigma of the image”. (p 19) 

I think Orr’s analysis is very helpful in explaining how I feel watching the film. I don’t think he had the benefit of the DVD when he wrote the piece, because what he claims are Macclesfield exteriors and Manchester interiors were in several cases filmed around Nottingham (as the involvement of the East Midlands Screen Agency suggests). But otherwise, I think he explains the effect of Corbijn’s approach. I felt the images were clean, sharp, still, distanced and ‘European’. Much of the 1960s New Wave is full of talk and sociological and cultural background. However, those 1960s films were often made by Southern middle class directors working on novels by working class Norther writers, so there are moments of ‘outsider’ observation as well. Perhaps I’ll use a clip from the only CinemaScope B+W print I can think of from the New Wave for comparison (Billy Liar 1963) – which though a comedy-fantasy, does share the thematic of the young man for whom writing might be a way out of his home environment.

There is a lot more to discuss about the film, but now I’m eager to hear what students have to say after the screenings.

Links

The official website: http://www.controlthemovie.com/

Guardian film blogs

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2007/sep/17/controltakesusclosertoan

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2007/may/27/controlisgreatbutwhereare

Joy Division fansite http://www.joydiv.org/these.htm

Matt Greenalgh info in The Stage

BBC Joy Division documentary

Hollywood and Bollywood

A couple of interesting news items this week about the increased interest in Bollywood by Hollywood and vice versa.

First, Delhi High Court ruled that the Indian film Hari Puttar from Mirchi Movies was not a threat to Warner Bros. control over the Harry Potter franchise. In reality it seems that Hari Puttar is actually more like an unofficial remake of Home Alone.

Elsewhere, it looks as if Steven Spielberg and co. have somehow managed to escape from the clutches of Paramount which took over DreamWorks in 2006. The white knight turns out to be Indian media conglomerate Reliance Adlabs which will back the new DreamWorks to make six pictures per year. These will probably be distributed by another Hollywood major – Screen International is backing Universal.

Finally, in an Asian Film Market Special, Screen International reports the Indian box office has risen to $1.6 billion. There is also the suggestion that the growth of the middle class market in India (as in China) may keep ahead of the economic downturn in the West.

It seems likely that more Hollywood-Bollywood deals will be announced over the next couple of years.

Juno – the ‘indy’ that defeated Hollywood

Juno (Ellen Page) with the potential adopters of her baby, Veronica (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman)

Juno (Ellen Page) with the potential adopters of her baby, Veronica (Jennifer Garner) and Mark (Jason Bateman)

It’s not quite true of course. Juno, although officially an independent production, was produced from within a network of Hollywood relationships between two smaller production companies, Mandate Pictures and Mr. Mudd, and Fox Searchlight, the independent brand of the major studio 20th Century Fox. Nevertheless, Juno works as a case study for any analysis of what the demarcation lines between studio and ‘independent’ might mean and also the cultural differences between mainstream and more specialised cinema and their audiences.

In business terms, the bald facts are there to see on www.the-numbers.com. Juno cost under $10 million to produce. The marketing and promotional budget will have been large – bigger than the production cost probably. But the revenue has been substantial with $230 million worldwide (nearly two-thirds from North America) and DVD sales of $50 million in North America alone. On top of this, the film’s soundtrack has been a No1 bestseller.

The producers

Mandate Pictures is a Los Angeles based independent production company formed in 2005. In 2007 it was bought by Lionsgate, the independent studio-distributor, but Mandate continues to operate as an independent brand. Mandate’s pictures have included a number of low-medium budget pictures, some, like The Grudge, being made with Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. Others include comedies such as Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay. Mr. Mudd is also an independent producer and involves producers Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith, in partnership with the star actor John Malkovich. Mr. Mudd was also a co-producer of Ghost World and John Malkovich has helped to produce a range of films, some outside Hollywood including The Terrorist (India 1999). To further emphasise the network of independents, Mandate, now in a two year ‘first look’ deal with Mr. Mudd, is also planning to make a film with erstwhile teen star Drew Barrymore. Whip It!, starring Ellen Page is scheduled for 2009 with Barrymore directing and executive producing through her company Flower Films. Earlier, Barrymore had co-produced and starred (as an English teacher) in Donnie Darko, like Ghost World a smart film, but not a mass audience crowd pleaser like Juno.

An indy sensibility?

Juno reached a mass audience. In North America it was given a platform release – steadily growing over several weeks. The US distributor was Fox Searchlight. In the UK, the film was released as a mainstream wide release under the 20th Century Fox banner on 363 prints in second place on the UK Top 10 and with a screen average higher than any other film except for the (platformed) release of There Will Be Blood. So in the UK, it was ‘mainstream’ not specialised. Did it keep any sense of being ‘indy’? Probably not for UK audiences. In the UK we tend to see only ‘quality’ US TV on terrestrial channels and overall UK understanding of US teen culture is limited by both access to aspects of the culture and alienation from US politics and especially conservative social values. Nevertheless, Juno did receive some flak for seemingly promoting the ‘pro-life’, ‘anti-abortion’ cause. I’m not sure about this. Though I am firmly behind every woman’s ‘right to choose’, I think it’s problematic to see the choice to keep the baby in narratives like Juno as supporting the anti-abortionist stance. It is argued that the overall positive message of Juno and adult (i.e. not ‘teen’) comedies such as Knocked Up leads to complacency in the audience because no real moral dilemma is explored.

If Juno is an indy film that appeals to audiences willing to reflect on how characters approach life, there shouldn’t be a problem. But if the film is mainstream entertainment, does the viewing context change how the audience is asked to view the film? I don’t think the mainstream audience is less intelligent or less perceptive, but the context is different. It’s this quandary that makes Juno interesting for me.

I think it’s a shame if the wonderful language of Juno puts off audiences in other, non-English speaking countries. I’m waiting to see attendance figures across Europe, but the film generally did not do anywhere near as well outside the US/UK. The current figures suggest only 37% of box office was outside North America (when the norm is more like 55-60%). How well did the subtitling/dubbing convey Juno‘s use of language?

Useful Links for studying Juno:

An interesting blog with lots of comments on the film: http://www.pajiba.com/juno.htm

Scroll down this blog from Filmbrain to find some juicy comments on Diablo Cody and Juno (re the critiques in Cineaste)

Reverse-shot, another blog with a distinct downer on the film and some interesting comments on how indy film is attempting to be accepted by the mainstream – not a good idea?

Ellen Page – the biggest fansite

Official Juno website

An interesting Guardian article by Tom Porretta (author of Election) on the 1980s ‘Brat Pack’ teen movies by John Hughes

Somers Town Part 3

Tomo and Marek

Tomo and Marek on a spree

A viewing finally allows me to return to discussion of Somers Town and its funding as well as comparing notes with Rona’s Edinburgh Festival review. On reflection, I think that the film is light in narrative terms – certainly in comparison with Shane Meadows’ earlier successful films. However, the film has the potential to work well with audiences and I think it is very interesting as a ‘text in circulation’.

I saw the film on a digital print which meant that it appeared on the larger of the two main screens at the National Media Museum. (One of the problems associated with digital prints is that they can’t be moved between screens.) A relatively small audience rattled around in the theatre, but they seemed to enjoy the film. Applying the Mark Kermode test, the film must be a genuine comedy since I laughed out loud on several occasions (Kermode admits this is rare with most mainstream comedies). This bodes well for the three events I have coming up.

I suspect that the first problem facing Meadows and scriptwriter Paul Fraser was the basis on which they would expand the initial idea from a 9 minute short to a 70 minute feature. I have no expertise as a scriptwriter, but it seems obvious to me that it isn’t just a question of lengthening scenes and adding events and sub-plots. Just as a short story is a different form to a novel, a short film is a different form to a feature film. What is apparent in Somers Town is that the Thomas Turgoose character, ‘Tomo’, has no back story. All we know is what he reveals in a cafe conversation – that there is no one for him in Nottingham. Is he running away from a violent father, from simple boredom, from a criminal past or something else entirely? Or is the line in the cafe just part of a con to get sympathy. I don’t remember any specific clues. Of course, there is no reason why he should be anything else other than an enigma, but this would be less of an issue in a short film. In a feature we expect to learn a little more about characters and Somers Town inverts our usual experience. Tomo is the enigma and Marek, the migrant ‘other’, is someone with more background. Marek is, in some ways, a typical character with a father who works hard and drinks hard and who is capable of violence when provoked. (Or perhaps I’ve just been unlucky in the few Polish films I’ve seen recently, all of which which feature heavy drinking.) The third young character, Maria, is a kind of magical/mythical creature – the perfect fantasy girlfriend. There are only two other significant characters, played by Kate Dickie and Perry Benson, both of whom are ‘helpers’.

In terms of style, the obvious references are to the 1960s and both French and British New Wave films, not least because of the black and white cinematography. Here’s Shane Meadows on eyeforfilm.co.uk:

“I went to London – I’d not really shot outside of the Midlands before. I was very excited but when I actually started taking photographs of the various locations, because there was a massive range of buildings from a massive range of times we ended up with a huge variation in colour. So I started to worry that it wasn’t going to look great. I had some of the photographs converted into black and white and suddenly it started to look like the same place rather than this mish-mash. Around St Pancras there’s so much development going on, there was any colour of plastic sheeting – it was like any image was going to be a patchwork quilt of colours – so black and white film was able to temper that design and to get the best out of the area.”

The connection to Paris suggests several potential French comparisons – perhaps to Truffaut’s slightly younger characters in 400 Blows (1959). As far as British cinema is concerned, there is a reference to The Knack (1965) in the Sight & Sound Review by Mark Sinker – prompted by the the scenes in which Tomo and Marek push Maria along in a wheelchair (in The Knack, Rita Tushingham is pushed along on a brass bedstead). I’m not sure about this, the trip down to St Pancras in 2008 from Nottingham seems a lot less of a shift of culture than coming down from the North in the mid 1960s. On the other hand, there is still a charge in the suggestion that London is a different place and as another review (can’t remember by who) put it, Somers Town is a welcome alternative to the view of English working-class life offered in a London-set film such as Adulthood. The Knack was clearly an attempt at a form of social satire (from the play by Ann Jellicoe) and 400 Blows was a powerful film about youthful alienation. Somers Town seems much lighter. Partly, this is because of the final sequence – the ‘money shot’ for Eurostar, I guess. I don’t want to spoil the film for potential viewers, so let’s just say that the ending is possibly a fantasy (which does take it back to The Knack, perhaps.)

The release pattern of Somers Town has been quite interesting. Presumably, the distributors, Optimum Releasing, thought that despite the success of This Is England in ‘breaking out’, Somers Town would struggle to find an audience beyond specialised cinemas. As a consequence, the film opened on 62 screens in the UK with a steady screen average of just under £2,000 for the opening weekend and No 13 slot in the Top 15. Week 2 saw a 37% drop and Week 3 a 43% drop, but this was mainly because the screen count dropped to 39. In retrospect, I think that the film probably exceeded the expectations of Optimum and that if they’d managed to keep it at 50+ prints in a wider range of multiplexes they might have had a bigger success. Even so, £400,000+ after 3 weeks is a good return for a low budget film. The UK Film Council is also probably feeling quite pleased since it awarded Optimum £140,000 to boost the print count to 62.

The other interesting aspect of the release was that Arts Alliance, the company which supplied digital projectors for the Digital Screen Network in the UK, funded a digital print of Paddy Considine’s Dog Altogether (17 minutes) to be shown before Somers Town on the same programme. The short was presumably available to any programmer with a digital screen (though not all seem to have taken it). Arts Alliance is also connected to the City Screen chain of cinemas, so I presume that they took it if they had a digital screen available. I’m pleased that the National Media Museum did take it as I hadn’t seen it before (it has appeared on Channel 4 and is available (to UK and Ireland PC owners – not Macs, boo!) on 4OD. The two films together make an 88 minute programme which I think is OK (I think other cinemas tried to find other suitable shorts). It’s great to see short films used in this way – they are important in introducing new directors and they need to be seen in mainstream cinemas, not just on TV or at festivals. There was only one problem with this particular combination – the certificates. Dog Altogether is a 15 Cert short (it deals with a character’s struggles with violent behaviour) but Somers Town is 12A. This must have caused a few headaches for cinema directors and front of house staff.

Dog Altogether is an appropriate partner for Somers Town in the sense that Paddy Considine is a long time collaborator with Shane Meadows (performing lead roles in A Room for Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes and he acknowledges Meadows help:

However, in tone Dog Altogether is much darker and I’ve heard of several complaints from audiences expecting a light comedy and not happy about seeing something else. This used to happen in the days of the ‘full programme with supporting feature’ when inappropriate B features would appear on the bill with A comedies – there is mileage here in research into how audience tastes have changed (i.e. audiences are perhaps now less tolerant of the unexpected – or perhaps feel that they have paid specifically to have seen the single title, whereas previously they paid for ‘a night out’.

I’m collecting clips and useful websites, more to come later:

Here’s Thomas Turgoose being interviewed about the film:

http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1757643372/bctid1759735473

For all things Shane Meadows, the best source is http://www.shanemeadows.co.uk/

Here is the interview on ITV’s This Morning featuring Shane and Thomas Turgoose discussing how Tomo was cast for This Is England:

A couple of YouTube clips while we wait for the DVD release. The first is a Sky ‘bitesize clip’:

This one is a video package from Associated Press – a good example of the material available to TV stations and other media outlets from agencies:

These are ads directed by Shane Meadows, so Somers Town isn’t his first ‘sponsored’ film:

The official website: http://www.somers-town.com/

An article in Campaign Magazine about how the advertising agency Mother Vision started off the Somers Town project.

Co-producer on the film was Barnaby Spurrier and Tomboy Films

There are not many women in the UK who are award-winning cinematographers, so check out Natasha Braier’s website.

Check out this Finnish blog for an interesting quote linking Shane Meadows and François Truffaut!

And here is a possible Truffaut stimulus film, Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers). This is the first part of a two part short film:

I think this film shares not only a narrative idea (boys attracted to an older girl) but also a light tone.

Here is the UK Film Council chart for the week of the film’s release.

Die Welle (The Wave, Germany 2008)

Herr Wenger gets started on 'Autocracy'

Herr Wenger gets started on 'Autocracy'

Die Welle has received good coverage in the UK media for what is a ‘specialised release’ in the UK (i.e. only a few prints on release). However, it was slagged off by both Bradshaw in the Guardian and the academic turned critic Sarah Churchwell on BBC2 Newsnight Review. For me, they both make the mistake of judging the film as an art object and not what it is – a solid, mainstream teen movie (or youth picture as I would prefer).

The first thing to be clear about is that this is that very rare beast in the UK – a mainstream German picture, from one of the main German film companies. Usually, we don’t get to see the big German comedies and action films, presumably on the grounds that it is too expensive to dub them for the multiplex and that the arthouse audience won’t like them if subtitled (as per Bradshaw). This is unfortunate as it deprives us of German popular culture as study texts for film and media studies.

The plot of the film is derived from a German best-selling novel, in turn based on events in a California high school in the 1960s when a teacher decided to teach about fascism by putting his students through a programme of inculcating discipline, uniformity and commitment to the group. In the film, the self-selecting group of students who opt for a Project Week topic on ‘autocracy’ find themselves with a popular and laid-back teacher, horrified that he’s been given the topic to teach and that his preferred option ‘anarchy’ (he has been a real anarchist) has been given to the most conservative teacher in the school. Faced with a class expecting something new, “Not the Third Reich again, man!”, he quickly decides he needs a new idea.

The narrative, as befits the youth picture genre, is compressed into a week, Monday to Saturday. Things happen very fast in the youth picture. Another convention of the youth picture is that there are plenty of characters, all of whom are ‘typed’ in some way because there isn’t time to make them into ’rounded characters’. (Apart from the teacher, there are at least eight or nine important student characters.) Watching some critics grapple with this is amusing, but also frustrating.

The filmmakers obviously want to reach the 15-24 market and they have adopted a muscular and very American style. It’s in ‘Scope and features some fast cutting matched to a rock soundtrack as well as the usual array of computers and software that perform tasks at an astonishing speed in highly visual ways. If only students could design webpages and logos at this speed – but this is a genre movie.

I have two interests in the film. First, amongst all the Americanisation, what is distinctive about German popular culture, since we see it so rarely? I gleaned a couple of things. In the play with types it is important that one sympathetic character is a rather good-looking young Turk and another character is identified as an Ossi. I don’t have much of a problem with typing, but the rather cynical/dour young woman who represents the ideologically pure hippie dissenter was a mistake, I think. The main distinguishing feature in the school, apart from the wealth of many of the students and the quality of the school building, was the choice of water polo as the sport in which the ‘jocks’ display their macho prowess (the central teacher character is also the water polo coach). This is a welcome riposte to the American football of Hollywood teen movies (American ‘football’ is one of the few sports that leaves me completely unmoved). I always think of the famous water polo match between Hungary and the USSR in 1956 (recently the subject of a Joe Esterhazy-scripted movie) as being an indicator of a different sports outlook in Central Europe. The water polo is linked to another aspect of Die Welle, which is the location of the teacher’s home on a houseboat moored on a lake near the school. Summer, lakes and forests take me back to the German textbook we had at school for O Level. I’m sure we followed a German family through the Summer from school (do German schools start early in the morning in Summer?) to the holidays.

The second interesting aspect of the film is, of course, how it deals with fascism. Here the film is quite astute. It may be ‘simplistic’ and ‘naive’ as the critics make out, but the filmmakers have thought about a teen audience and how they might be engaged. There are aspects of fascism which are not just attractive, but seemingly morally pure – the possibility of inclusivity, the eradication of differences caused by wealth etc. The teacher uses these aspects to draw in students. One visual signifier of this is the uniform. The whole uniform scenario works very well – not least because it is so visual, but also, in a UK context, because the return of uniforms happened a long time ago and it will be interesting to see what UK teens think of the film in this respect. There are some great scenes and I really enjoyed the burning of Nike and Adidas sportswear in favour of the simple uniform the students adopt – an attack on German and US capitalism as part of a ‘new movement’. The revelation of the evils of fascism is much more effective when it can be seen to be seductive and reasonable as well. I also thought the film handled the conflicting emotions around romance and commitment to the cause very well.

I think the film does run out of steam in the third quarter and I felt the ending was a mistake in some ways, but overall, I think this will work well with its target audience. It certainly bears comparison with Hollywood and it’s good to see an entertainment film that tries to take on board ideas. I don’t think teen audiences will feel patronised by the film and even if they don’t like it, I’ll be interested to hear what they have to say.

Myrin – Jar City (Iceland/Germany/Denmark 2006)

Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as Inspector Erlendur in Jar City

Ingvar E. Sigurdsson as Inspector Erlendur in Jar City

I don’t normally do this, but I watched the film of Jar City just days after finishing reading the book. This was preparation for an introduction to the film as an example of literary adaptation – something I’ve blogged on before.

A little background. Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason has produced a series of crime novels featuring Inspector Erlendur. The books have been extremely popular in Iceland and the first to be translated into English in 2004 carried the Icelandic title Myrin. In the UK it was published as Jar City. Ironically, the filmic adaptation is officially called Myrin – Jar City on the title-card for the BBFC certificate, but the novel has been re-published as Tainted Blood. Go figure, as the Americans say. I think ‘Myrin’ means ‘marsh’ in Icelandic and here it refers to an area in Reykjavik where a building houses a large number of medical specimens in in glass jars. Thus ‘Jar City’.

As an adaptation, the film is interesting in terms of the decisions taken over narrative structure, characters and presentation. I don’t want to spoil either the film or the book, so suffice to say, the film drops a sub-plot of no real narrative importance except to flesh out the story about Erlendur and his daughter Eva Lind and also re-orders events a little. The result in my view makes the film less of a procedural investigation and possibly a more familiar form of filmic narrative. I’m fine with this. I enjoy the slower pace of the procedural, but I recognise that it may not be something for a mainstream audience. It also goes with what I think is quite a clever attempt to make Erlendur a slightly more conventional investigator. (The novels portray a much more dishevelled, older man who forgets to eat properly and rarely has clean clothes – Ingvar (above) is quite striking without the heavy glasses and has a natty line in cardigans and parkas.) However, this ‘softening’ is a matter of degree. The filmmakers have kept Erlendur’s junior partners much as described in the books (the two I’ve read so far). Sigurdur Oli is suitably Americanised and bumptious, while his female colleague Elinborg is happily an ‘ordinary’ and quite sensible woman. I confess that I had no real idea what she would look like, so the joke’s on me if I expected someone more glamorous.

Of course, outside Iceland this won’t be treated as a mainstream film, except perhaps in other ‘Nordic’ countries. Iceland itself has perhaps the highest cinema attendance per head of any country in Europe – perhaps in the world – so perhaps I shouldn’t expect anything other than a ciné literate film from Baltasar Kormakur, the director of 101 Reykjavik, the only other Icelandic film I think I’ve seen. That seemed quite hedonistic by comparison. In style terms, it’s noticeable that Jar City uses a CinemaScope frame, filling it with quite a few long shots of bare landscape and modern housing/offices, sometimes aerial shots and mostly cast in bluish/greenish light. I’ve not been to Iceland, but I could feel the cold and the wet. I could also smell it since this story rather overdoses on the olfactory. The other style feature is the use of music, at times quite obtrusive and sometimes using choral voices. I fear that to those outside Iceland, the music probably simply conveys a sense of Nordic solemnity – I couldn’t find out much about it, not even from the minimal press notes. This was one part of the film I didn’t understand. The opening and closing images feature close-ups of men in uniform singing outdoors as if in a choir on parade. The closing shots reveal that Erlendur is amongst them – so presumably it is a police choir or some form of ceremony at which the police are on parade. I have got some ideas, but I don’t want to spoil the film. If anyone can give me a clue that isn’t a spoiler, I’d be grateful. It’s an interesting element since the other Indridason book I’ve read focuses on a child who is a choral superstar, so it clearly has resonance for the local audience.

Back to the adaptation question. The film is, I think, more conventional in the way it presents the criminal activity that Erlendur investigates. There is little time to consider the serious ethical and sociological/political issues that the story raises. In the book, because Erlendur and the team struggle to get leads, it actually became more gripping. On the other hand, the realism of the film gives a much better sense of what Iceland might actually be like and what being a police officer in a country of only 320,000 must be like. As a vegetarian who lives in a sheep-rearing region, I’m still flashing back to the sight of Erlendur tucking into a boiled sheep’s head that he buys from a drive-thru. There is also a funny anti-vegetarian joke, but at least its at the expense of Sigurdur Oli.

As far as I can see, the collection of samples in Jar City and the associated research is a national issue since Iceland’s small population – sometimes considered the most developed society in the world – is the first to be properly classifiable as a genetic population. This raises quite a few potential questions. The other important theme is the contrast between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Iceland. The director has said that this is what attracted him to the character of Erlendur, who embodies many of the values of ‘old’ Iceland. His daughter represents ‘new’ Iceland – which does seem to have problems.

I’d recommend the film and the book.

(Apologies that I haven’t managed to represent Icelandic names properly – I haven’t managed to sort out my keyboard!)