Monthly Archives: April 2009

Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In, Sweden 2008)

Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar

Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar

I’m not sure what it says about contemporary culture when it regularly seems to be the case that the most compelling, the most intelligent and the most provocative films turn out to be variations on themes from the horror repertoire. I expected a great deal of Let The Right One In, released in the same slot in the UK calendar as The Orphanage in 2008. I wasn’t disappointed. Like that film and the Japanese Ring series, this new Swedish film cries out to be a study text – though I did wonder as I watched it that some students might not thank me for introducing them to such a disturbing tale.

If you haven’t yet seen the film, you probably know that it features a 12 year-old boy, Oskar, living in a nondescript Stockholm suburb in the winter of 1982. He’s bullied at school and not really supported by his parents who are separated. One day a 12 year-old girl, Eli, appears next door – but of course, she isn’t really 12 and she isn’t exactly a girl. What follows is a story that mixes the traditional narrative of a vampire movie with a youth movie focusing on the bullying at school and a kind of romance. At times comic and occasionally delving into social realism, the narrative also refers to fairy tales and gradually manipulates its audience into a moral dilemma around identification with the predicament of the vampire and the murders of innocent people. At times, the film feels like a children’s film and at times it is very ‘adult’. This confusion is in itself disturbing.

The film is based on a novel (2004) and adapted for the screen by the author, John Ajvide Lindqvist. As I understand it, there are significant omissions from the book narrative in the film. The film’s director is Tomas Alfredson, about whom I know very little except that he seems to have a reputation in Swedish TV and cinema for surrealist humour. He adopts a distinctive style for the film. In many sequences he uses a very shallow field of focus and combined with the expanse of snow in many scenes this allows a distorting effect for the occasional flash of colour. The snow also provides an appropriate backdrop for the blood (and a joke about ‘yellow snow’). The ‘Scope frame is also well used (and the print I saw was an excellent digital print). I also liked the music track which feature symphonic music performed by the Slovak Symphony Orchestra and Swedish rock music from the period.

The apartment where Oskar lives is in a block that reminded me of the soul-less buildings of Kieslowski’s Polish films and throughout the film the snowy mise en scène made me think of countless Scandinavian/Canadian/Russian narratives – some films and many crime novels. I think that the use of the winter scene is one of the strengths of the film. I’ve read several reviews and there are definitely observations that I will follow up. One is the historical setting. I’m not sure why 1982 is chosen. As one reviewer points out, this was the year that Sweden had some issues with the Soviet Union and there is a possible link between fear of the foreign intruder and the arrival of this ‘Romanian-looking’ girl – who teams up with the flaxen-haired Swedish boy. Neil Young (the film reviewer, not the singer) refers to this in terms of the beginnings of Muslim immigration in Sweden. I’m not sure about this, but there must be some significance intended by the historical setting – I assumed that there was a connection to a ‘real world’ incident.

What I liked most about the film was that I wasn’t sure what would happen next. I knew that the vampire conventions would be brought into the narrative, but I couldn’t (didn’t have time and didn’t really want to) work out the context in which they would be applied. The USP of the film is, I think, in the moral questions it raises. How can you have a ‘good’  vampire? What does it mean if we will a character to take revenge? (What do we make of authorities in liberal Sweden who don’t appear to punish Tomas when he does retaliate?) During the screening, I thought about fairy tales. Now, I can’t remember why I made the connection. Undoubtedly there are some nice narrative touches and some interesting ‘significant objects’. I’ll return to this after reading the novel. My only concern is that the Hollywood remake has already been announced. I almost wish that Eli had decamped to wherever the would be producers of an unnecessary remake are based.

There is some useful material in the film magazine Little White Lies. Read the online magazine here.

Red Riding: formats

There is some confusion over the broadcast formats of the the three Red Riding films, so I’ve taken a screen grab from each film and measured each image in terms of the pixel matrix to calculate the aspect ratio.

Andrew Garfield as the young reporter in Red Riding: 1974

Andrew Garfield as the young reporter in Red Riding: 1974


I calculated this image to be 1086 x 608 pixels on my computer screen (it’s scaled down here) and that equates to a screen ratio of 1.79:1. I may be one or two pixels out given the way I use the grabbing software, but no more than that, so I’m fairly confident that the Channel 4 image is 1.78:1 , i.e. the standard 16:9 of the modern widescreen TV set.

Paddy Considine as Peter Hunter in Red Riding: 1980

Paddy Considine as Peter Hunter in Red Riding: 1980


The interview of the 'Wrong Man', Michael Myshkin in Red Riding: 1983

The interview of the 'Wrong Man', Michael Myshkin in Red Riding: 1983

Using the same procedure on the grabs from 1980 and 1983, these came out as 1086 x 476, equating to a screen ratio of 2.28:1, which is slightly less than the cinema projection standard for CinemaScope of 2.35:1. I find this a bit strange. No doubt Channel 4 alienated a small proportion of viewers by showing the films in ‘Scope (especially given how murky 1980 becomes). But why compromise on 2.28? Why not 2:1 or the full 2.35? Is this in any way related to the use of Super 16 or the Red One digital camera? Or is this just Channel 4 ‘house style’? Of course, it could also be an issue to do with how the TV signal is broadcast or received. Mine came via cable, set to letterbox for my 4:3 TV set.

Nouvelle vague Stars 5: Stéphane Audran

Stéphane Audran and Bernadette Lafont in Les bonnes femmes

Stéphane Audran and Bernadette Lafont in Les bonnes femmes

There was a period in the early 1970s when I was so struck by Claude Chabrol’s Le boucher (1970) that I sought out all his other films. I’m sure, however, that a major part of my intense interest in these films was simply in watching Stéphane Audran on the big screen. In those days, repertory cinema in London made it possible to catch up with art films from the 1960s so there was often a Chabrol film, with his then wife Audran, showing somewhere.

I’m not sure if a career mainly working for one director qualifies Stephane Audran as a ‘star’ of la nouvelle vague, but she was certainly the star of Chabrol’s films. Her career began with small roles in two mainstream features in 1957/8 when she was in her mid twenties. This was followed by a small role in Eric Rohmer’s first feature before her first (small) role for Chabrol in Les cousins in 1958. In 1960 she is one of the four shopgirls in Les bonnes femmes, but for the next few Chabrol films she has only minor roles with the exception of the little seen L’oeil du malin (1962) in which she is one of the three leads. Her rise to stardom comes with Les biches (The does) in 1968 – in which she plays one of a pair of bisexual women who become involved with Jean-Louis Trintignant. She had married Chabrol in 1964 and for the next few years, the couple had a golden period producing well-received bourgeois crime thriller/melodramas.

Claude Chabrol was easily the most prolific director of his generation. Between 1958 and 1970 he made 22 films (4 of which were ‘segments’ in portmanteau films). It’s hardly surprising that Audran didn’t have too much time for work with other directors. Chabrol also tended to make the same kinds of films – mostly related to his great interest in Hitchcock’s work. Stéphane Audran became his ‘cool blonde’. I need to go back and watch some of the classic films from the late 1960s and early 70s again, but my memory is that Stéphane Audran could manage to create a tension between an elegant and aloof cool sophistication and hints of vulnerability. I did watch Le boucher again a few years ago and it stood up very well. (In the book on Chabrol by Robin Wood and Michael Walker, Walker points out that where most mainstream critics praised the film highly, Cahiers du cinéma turned against Chabrol for the first time.)

Here is the trailer for the elusive L’oeil du malin – could a UK or US distributor find this and put it out on DVD please?

. . . and as Ginette in Les bonnes femmes.

Red Riding: themes and characters

Maxine Peake as DS Helen Marshall – one of only two women in the series to have a professional job, but even so her main function is to make a man vulnerable.

Maxine Peake as DS Helen Marshall – one of only two women in the series to have a professional job, but even so her main function is to make a man vulnerable.

Following last Saturday’s event in which I discussed the Red Riding Trilogy alongside The Damned United as adaptations of the novels of David Peace, I’ve learned a few things from colleagues.

I always stress to students that some of the most useful analyses of films and and other media texts start with stating the obvious and then trying to work out its significance. The obvious point to make about these five novels that became four films is that each of them has a central male character (actually two characters in 1977 and 1983). There is no corresponding female character in any of the stories. All the female characters are wives in the backgrounds, lovers/casual partners of the central character, prostitutes or other women who are the victims of male violence. Even the two women who do actually work for a living other than selling their bodies are both defined more by their relationship with the male protagonist than by their professional work.

The majority of the characters in the stories are racist and misogynistic in their use of language. West Yorkshire is a place of almost unremitting gloom in a moral sense (and often in terms of the weather!). In three of the films, the main protagonist arrives in the county by road, peering through the driving rain. David Peace is a Yorkshire novelist, but he seems to have adopted that well-known Lancashire saying, “the only good thing that comes out of Yorkshire is the road to Lancashire”.

So, going into the hell that was West Yorkshire from 1974 to 1983, the male protagonist, a vulnerable and corrupted man, compromised often by his relationships with women, finds enough vestiges of decency or moral fibre to redeem himself in some way and to help to make the world a marginally better place. All these men seem to me to be lower middle-class, grammar school boys in the days before mass university entrance. They have jobs that are not (yet) affected by the industrial decline beginning to take place in the region. They are policemen, journalists, a solicitor, a football manager. Their strengths and weaknesses are associated with sex, violence, alcohol and football – a stereotypical mix of the qualities of masculinity in the North of England. And for these men to succeed, many women have to be sacrificed. (I’m not suggesting that Brian Clough was a violent or promiscuous man, in Peace’s fictionalised version he uses violent language and alcohol to counter his despair about the potential waste of his football talent.)

My conclusion from this ‘obvious’ observation is that David Peace is more likely to have fans who are young and male and attracted by the the ‘hardness’ of the writing. However, my event attracted an audience with a fairly equal proportion of men and women and the person who had the most experience of Peace’s writing was a young woman. I’m not sure what I make of this. I find the books very hard going partly because of the sheer brutality and misogyny of the language, but I realise that I shouldn’t assume that this will necessarily deter female readers.

One aspect of this that I do find interesting, however, is that the two male characters who have to themselves be sacrificed in their attempt to uncover the truth are the two who are in some ways more ‘feminised’/less brutal in their behaviour and who return to Yorkshire from ‘outside’, ‘tainted’ by their experience of living in the South or, nearly as bad, in Lancashire. For some cinema/TV fans, the actor Paddy Considine has been something of a hero figure after his roles in two Shane Meadows films, A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) and Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and also in Last Resort (1999) and My Summer of Love (2004) for Pawel Pawlikowski. In all these films, Considine is at times charming but then disturbing and sometimes violent. I think this led to expectations about his role in Red Riding 1980 in which he plays an Assistant Chief Constable from Lancashire who is recruited by the Home Office and the Police Inspectorate to find out what has been happening in the West Yorkshire force. Once over the shock of Considine as a senior police officer (aged 40 in the book – Considine was born in 1974) I thought he played the role very well, but there have been complaints that he was miscast, since he doesn’t act the ‘hard man’ and is instead emotionally ‘weak’. In fact he’s probably the least corrupt and most honest of all of Peace’s male protagonists, despite his infidelity. In a starry cast across the mini-series, Considine is perhaps the best known actor for an international audience.

For whatever reason, 1980 had the lowest audience figures on Channel 4 out of the three films (1.9 million, compared to 2.03 million for 1983 and 3.00 million for 1974). Personally, I thought James Marsh’s film was the most coherent and most focused of the three films and the most consistent in style. In the range of responses that I have seen it is often named as the best or the worst.

Several other ideas came up in our discussion. I introduced the concept of ‘British noir‘ by screening the opening to Get Carter (1971) in which Michael Caine travels North to Newcastle from London to attend his brother’s funeral. We then used our discussion of this well-known film in relation to the opening of Red Riding 1974. I confess that I hadn’t chosen Get Carter for any other reason than it was ‘to hand’ and it represented an interesting attempt to make a noirish crime film in the early 1970s. However, one of the audience pointed out that 1974 has a very similar opening – a young man returns to West Yorkshire from the South in order to attend his father’s funeral and to start work as a crime reporter on the Yorkshire Post. Like Michael Caine/Jack Carter he is dressed in more modern clothes and has developed a sophisticated swagger which makes him stand out in the newsroom, the press club bar and the family funeral. We also noted that the same cooling towers, often visible in Red Riding, were passed by Jack Carter’s train going North.

One of the reasons for showing Get Carter was also to make the point that it is now very difficult to recreate the landscape of the 1970s in the cities of the North of England. The docks and the cranes and often the vista of back-to-back houses has gone from Newcastle and Liverpool and Salford, along with the mills, the mines and the manufacturing plants and the Victorian town centre buildings. Control was a good example of a British film set in the 1970s that was unable to use ‘authentic’ locations, because they simply aren’t there any more. How much is this a factor in Red Riding‘s locations and its stylised, expressionistic camerawork and production design? I’m not sure, because in the three novels used Peace restricts himself to fairly generic locations/buildings in the area around Wakefield and the Leeds scenes can be kept inside the Post building, a police station etc. However, the restriction to interiors and fairly anonymous locations allows the expressionist presentation to create an overall sense of the ‘hell’ that is West Yorkshire. Locations in The Damned United are more problematic since Elland Road and the Baseball Ground, the homes in 1974 of Leeds United and Derby County, have been re-built and demolished respectively. Again the number of locations is restricted. Budgetary considerations also mean that Scarborough stands in for Brighton and Saddleworth for wherever the Cloughs had their house in the 1970s (I’m assuming Derby/Notts). (The novel of 1977 would also have caused problems since it has scenes in Bradford and Manchester.)

Overall, Peace creates a world of his own imagination that he presents as West Yorkshire in the 1970s. Although his novels are pitted with news events and appropriate pop songs on the radio, there is no attempt to represent the ‘real’ West Yorkshire of the period – in which as some local residents have pointed out, journalists and others were still dependent on buses rather than driving their own cars. This isn’t the ‘authenticity’ of costume drama, but it may in some way represent how people felt during the dreadful years of the Ripper and violence on the football terraces.

Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Pianist, France 1960)

Charlie (Charles Aznavour) and Clarisse (Michèle Mercier)

Charlie (Charles Aznavour) and Clarisse (Michèle Mercier)

Tirez sur le pianiste was Truffaut’s second feature, following on from the critical and commercial success of Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows). It failed to emulate the success of its predecessor, depressing Truffaut (who cared about commercial success) and pushing him towards the more obvious commercial appeal of Jules et Jim, made in the following year. Yet, from the perspective of 2009, Tirez sur le pianiste was a film ahead of its time. It has aged well and appears now to represent many of the significant innovations of la nouvelle vague – indeed it may be the most representative film of that important movement.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a family of three unlikely brothers. Charlie looks after his younger brother Fido, still a child, and works as a piano player in a bar. One night a second brother, Chico, a petty criminal comes to the bar pursued by two other crooks he has double-crossed. Charlie has a casual relationship with the prostitute who lives across the corridor and he is also the target of the affections of Lena, who works behind the bar. Like all good film noir males, Charlie has a mysterious past.

Truffaut and la nouvelle vague

François Truffaut (1932-84) became a convinced cinéphile in his early adolescence, escaping from his own unhappy family circumstances into the cinemas of Nazi occupied Paris. After the war he became an habitué of the Paris Cinémathèque, meeting the other young men with whom he would become identified as first a vigorous critic of the established tradition de qualité in French cinema in the 1950s and later as a ‘new director’. In 1954, at the tender age of 22, Truffaut wrote his famous essay, ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma‘, in which he denounced the cinema of ‘old men’, concerned with highly polished and carefully constructed artificial stories, and strove to promote an alternative cinema which gave true expression to the ideas and emotions of the filmmaker. From this developed la politiques des auteurs.

The emphasis on the director as auteur or ‘author’ as distinct from metteur en scène (literally the person who films the script) became the effective manifesto of the young, first time, directors who comprised what came to be known as la nouvelle vague towards the end of the 1950s.

Defining la nouvelle vague
One way to conceive of la nouvelle vague from a contemporary perspective is perhaps to think of the ways in which the UK press created the idea of ‘cool Britannia’ or ‘Brit Art’ in the 1990s. In France between 1959 and 1963 over 150 new filmmakers and actors became identified with the new and ‘youthful’ trend in French cinema (and the arts generally). The defining moment (i.e. when the term was first widely used) appears to have been the success at Cannes of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups in 1959.

Film scholars have discerned a number of different groups of filmmakers, each of which challenged the dominant mode of so-called ‘quality cinema’ from the 1950s onwards. The group which gained the highest profile were arguably the quintet of critics turned directors; François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard , Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette.

The group’s ideas were developed through the 1950s in their critical writing. Their filmmaking styles were not identical but they did share a number of commitments so that, at least in the beginning, there were identifiable elements in all their films (and in those of other young directors):

  • characters were ‘young and reckless’
  • they used new young actors, creating new ‘stars’ – Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Claude Brialy, Stéphane Audran, Anna Karina etc.
  • the films were set mostly in Paris or the ‘tourist’ areas of France
  • mostly shot on location, using natural light and hand-held cameras – improvised and self-conscious cinematography
  • editing ‘rules’ were broken and devices from cinema history re-worked
  • rising stars of cinematography, music etc. worked on several new wave films, e.g. Raoul Coutard, Henri Decaë, Michel Legrand
  • narratives were either ‘original’ or based on popular fictions; ‘small stories’ were as important as ‘big’ ones
  • they often paid hommage to Hollywood and to the European masters (Renoir, Vigo etc.) with direct references in the films
  • new producers appeared to back the films, including via co-productions with Italy
  • the group helped each other get films started, taking on associate producer roles, providing script ideas or appearing as actors in small parts
  • the directors were the product of years of film viewing and criticism rather than film school.

Tirez sur le pianiste as a ‘new wave’ film

  • Set on the streets of Paris and the mountains near Grenoble;
  • based on a novel (Down There) by the ‘hardest’ of ‘hard-boiled’/‘pulp’ writers, David Goodis;
  • mixes American culture and traditional French popular culture, personified by French superstar Aznavour (arguably the most popular singer in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century) in the lead role;
  • looks back to the ‘tricks’ and devices of ‘silent’ cinema.
  • Although it does refer to ‘genre’ (like the quality films), it is a distinct mixture of generic references, prefiguring the ‘hybrid’ films of postmodern cinema in the 1990s. Ostensibly a ‘gangster/film noir‘, Tirez sur le pianiste is also a comedy and a tragedy about the life and loves of Charlie Kohler. (This particular mixture recalls Alfred Hitchcock – a major influence on all Truffaut’s films.)
  • A ‘personal’ film for Truffaut it includes several familiar elements from his other films, including familiar actors, childish, weak men and strong, ‘mysterious’ women. The mixture of ‘dark’ and ‘light’ tones is also a Truffaut trait.
  • Photographed with his usual flair by Raoul Coutard, the most innovative of the new cinematographers.
  • The film offers a running commentary on cinema itself – the camera is ‘knowing’, almost ‘winking’ at the audience at various moments.

The critics
The film was poorly received at the time. Ironically, the ‘faults’ which critics pointed to are now accepted as commonplace – the genre mixing and change of tone. Consider Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction. The famous scene between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson featuring a discussion about Big Macs (and the talk about Madonna in Reservoir Dogs) is similar in many ways to the inconsequential chat in the car between the two gangsters and their captives – first with Charlie and Léna about women and lingerie and then with Fido about gadgets and foreign clothes.

Truffaut as auteur
Although at first glance very different from the more well known films that preceded and followed it, Tirez sur le pianiste is immediately recognisable as a ‘Truffaut film’. It is the first of a series of ‘genre explorations’, including three further films based on ‘hard boiled pulp fiction’ – La marieé etait en noir (The Bride Wore Black) (1967) (in which Jeanne Morea plays Julie Kohler) and La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid) (1969), both based on stories by Cornell Woolrich (best known perhaps as the author of the short story which was adapted for Hotchcock’s Rear Window) and Vivement dimanche! (Finally, Sunday!) (1982), Truffaut’s last film based on a story by Charles Williams.

Charlie is a typical ‘Truffaut male’, seeking the love of a ‘magical and mysterious’ woman, who is far stronger and more confident – not least in the physical sense, since Truffaut males are short and wear a puzzled expression. This also carries over into the quartet of films which follow on from the autobiographical story of Antoine Doinel in Les quatre cent coups. The best example is probably Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses) (1968) in which Antoine becomes involved in comic attempts to become a private detective in his pursuit of a young woman.

Truffaut’s ‘personal’ style of filmmaking can also be identified in the mix of the comic and the tragic (often abruptly switching between the two), in his love of cinema and all its devices, and in his reverence for masters such as Hitchcock and Renoir.

In the clip below we meet the bumbling gangsters who ‘kidnap’ Charlie and Lena in an attempt to find out the whereabouts of Chico. This sequence includes the comic conversation about men and women and an insert (one of several using very traditional cinema ‘effects’) in which Lena identifies the source of the gangsters’ knowledge about her and Charlie. The ‘three screens in one’ use of the DyaliScope frame (a cheap imitation of CinemaScope) is a nod towards the great French cinematic innovator Abel Gance. At the beginning of the sequence, Fido ‘bombs’ the gangsters’ car with milk – a stunt that might have come from Les quatre cents coups or its inspiration, Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite.

Discussion questions
1. Is Tirez sur le pianiste more accessible now than when first released? Has modern cinema absorbed the ideas that Truffaut thought were experimental (the genre mixing, changes in tone etc.)?
2. What kind of a hero is Charlie? How do we understand his attitude towards women (and that of the other male characters)?
3. Does the film have anything to say about French and American culture in the way it ‘plays’ with American genres like the gangster and the film noir? Is the representation of men and women in the film a reversal of the usual American representation?

References
Don Allen (1986) Finally Truffaut, London: Paladin
Jill Forbes (1998) ‘The French Nouvelle Vague’ in Hill and Church Gibson op cit
Susan Hayward (2000) Key Concepts in Cinema Studies, London: Routledge
John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (1998) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford: OUP
Jim Hillier (ed) (1986) Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1960s, Harvard: Harvard University Press
Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram (1998) François Truffaut, Manchester: Manchester University Press
Graham Petrie (1970) The Cinema of François Truffaut, London and New York: Zwemmer and Barnes

© Roy Stafford 22/4/01

Red Riding – Introduction

Sean Bean as property developer John Dawson in Red Riding.

Sean Bean as property developer John Dawson in Red Riding.

The TV ‘event’ of the year so far in the UK was arguably the broadcast by Channel 4 of the Red Riding mini-series, or perhaps the three-part ‘special’, in March. The media community of critics and industry commentators fell on these three films (around 100 minutes each) as the first evidence for several years that UK TV could match the ‘quality’ offerings of HBO and other American producers. The argument has been made that HBO could not exist in the UK as the subscription TV audience (for drama) is not large enough to merit sustained production of filmed series. Both Channel 4 and the BBC, the two publicly-owned channels have found themselves needing to find co-production partners in Canada, the US or Europe in order to fund major series.

Red Riding is a three film adaptation of four novels by David Peace, one of Granta magazine’s ‘Young British Novelists’ in 2003. Peace was 32 when his first novel was published in 1999 and 35 when the quartet was completed in 2002. Since then he has completed other novels such as The Damned United (2006). The three films are essentially ‘cinematic’, all directed by UK film directors (two in ‘Scope) and co-produced by Film 4 with Revolution Films (the company owned by producer Andrew Eaton and prolific British director Michael Winterbottom) and LipSync Productions with support from the Regional Screen Agency, Screen Yorkshire.

There seem to be mixed messages about the technical production credits, but it seems like the first two films were shot on 16mm (Super 16?) and the third using the Red One digital camera. All three were printed to 35mm for possible cinema releases outside the UK. All three have been screened in at least one cinema in Leeds (West Yorkshire being the location for the stories) and there are indications that the films will be released in the US and other territories. For those who can’t wait, the UK Region 2 DVD box for the trilogy has already been released.

So why all the fuss? First the Film 4/Revolution Films tie-up means that this was always going to be innovative/challenging etc. The three directors, Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker are all front-rank, experienced directors with Marsh of Man on Wire fame, being one of the most celebrated UK directors of recent years. Then there is the cast, one of the finest ever assembled for a UK production. Northern talent dominates UK drama production and half of it is on show here with Paddy Considine, David Morrissey, Warren Clarke, Mark Addy, Maxine Peake, Jim Carter, Sean Bean plus Peter Mullan, Rebecca Hall, Eddie Marsan, Sean Harris, Andrew Garfield etc. from points South and further North. 

The novels were adapted by Tony Grisoni, who previously worked with Eaton and Winterbottom on In This World (2002), one of the great and unjustly neglected British films of recent years. He has also written for US independents such as Terry Gilliam on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tideland. Grisoni’s solution to the problem of budget restrictions (which meant three films rather than four) was to cut out the second book (1977) focusing on the infamous ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ investigation and to rework the other three, moving some events from one book story to another. The films carry the book titles, 1974, 1980 and 1983, but the final film includes elements of the first story in flashbacks – the whole thing is very confusing and reading the books simply adds more detail without necessarily explaining everything. Overall, Grisoni remained ‘faithful’ to the tone of the novels, whilst changing characters and story structures. As for the actual budget of the three films, I haven’t yet found it, but I think the cost was £2 million per film. This doesn’t sound much, but it’s about average for a 100/120 minute filmed TV drama and actually slightly more than the median budget for a UK feature film for theatrical release (where budgets have dropped alarmingly – or perhaps it’s a good thing?).

What’s it all about? That’s easy – it’s corrupt police power, brutality against prostitutes, criminal business dealings, naive journalists etc. David Peace is often described as a disciple of James Ellroy. It’s ‘Yorkshire noir‘ with Peace drawing on his childhood memories of the Ripper investigations and the sheer brutality of his home territory on the outskirts of Wakefield. He also draws on the literature of the area’s most famous literary figures, the 1960s writers Stan Barstow and David Storey.

For those outside the UK, it’s worth explaining the title. A ‘riding’ is old Norse for a ‘thirding’ – the Viking invaders dividing up the land into three. These became the North, East and West Ridings (there never was a South Riding, though this was used as a fictional district by the novelist Winifred Holtby). In 1974, local government in England was revised and the ridings disappeared. The largest and most populous, the ‘West Riding’, was split in two and two new ‘metropolitan counties’ (i.e. primarily urban areas) were created, known as South Yorkshire (Sheffield/Rotherham/Doncaster/Barnsley) and West Yorkshire (Bradford/Leeds/Wakefield/Huddersfield/Halifax). The Red Riding Trilogy is based in the new West Yorkshire of 1974 – when the police force was also a new separate authority. I confess that when I first heard the title, I leapt to the conclusion that it referred to the political hue of the region, i.e. ‘red’ socialism. But, it was Sheffield in South Yorkshire that was known in the 1970s as the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. Not that politics weren’t important in West Yorkshire, but Red Riding has other meanings and in the novels much is made of characters known as ‘the wolf’, ‘the owl’, ‘the badger’ and ‘the rat’, not to mention the swans. This suggests that we are in the territory of a very macabre fairy story about Little Red Riding Hood and the big bad wolf.

So far, I’ve read one and a half of the novels and watched the TV series. I’ll report back when I’ve discussed the series at a public event coming up soon.

The Damned United (UK 2009)

Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) leads out Leeds Utd at the 1974 Charity Cup

Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) leads out Leeds Utd at the 1974 Charity Cup

This is a strange film in many ways. Based on a ‘fictional’ account of the story behind Brian Clough’s 44 day reign as manager of Leeds United in 1974, it nonetheless mixes documentary footage of the real events in with its re-creations of the same events. (The fiction is connected with how Brian Clough acted when he wasn’t in front of the cameras.) It isn’t a biopic because we see relatively little of Clough’s early career or of his ‘private life’ outside football. The book by David Peace from which the film is adapted was widely praised as one of the best books about sport, but even so, I’m not sure that this adaptation would have made it to the big screen without the combination of Peter Morgan as screenwriter and Michael Sheen as Clough – his third uncanny performance as a UK celebrity figure, following Tony Blair (twice) and David Frost. This combination presumably convinced Sony that they could sell the film to a wider audience in the US, where I presume Clough is a completely unknown figure.

Some of the evidence so far suggests that the film does work with people who don’t know/care about football, but who read the story as being about two men (Clough and Peter Taylor) who worked very well together in an unusually close working relationship. The Damned United is then the story about what happened when they were parted by events.

I feel torn in several directions by the film. I confess that although I can see why the book was so highly praised, I didn’t really enjoy it as it seemed to represent a very dark view of a one-dimensional Brian Clough. The film leaves out some of the darkest moments of the story and generally lightens the tone. However, I’m not sure if this works overall. I couldn’t bear to watch Sheen as Blair (I can’t stand Blair in any representation) in The Deal or The Queen and I missed Frost/Nixon, so I wasn’t prejudging Sheen. He does very well and on occasions he has the voice completely (according to my memory of Cloughie). But I don’t think that he looks like Clough and when the real Brian is on screen, I just wished he would take over. The situation with Timothy Spall and Peter Taylor is even more problematic. Spall is a great actor, but at times he and Sheen are almost like a comedy double act (as distinct from characters who liked to make each other laugh) and Spall is physically the wrong size and shape for Taylor. It works for Colm Meaney as Don Revie but all the footballers appear ‘wrong’ in terms of how they move (though not Sheen, who clearly had footballing ability in his youth).

I suspect that most football fans who remember the 1970s and who weren’t Leeds Utd fans, all hated Leeds and would have agreed with Clough that they were “dirty cheats” (although also very talented). On this basis, the film faces difficulties as a drama, since most of us are with Clough in taking on the players. Personally, I don’t really care if Clough was arrogant – he was a great manager, a great character and usually a good socialist. He should have got the England job (the scene at the FA in the film is very good). The book paints Clough as a foul-mouthed alcoholic. Much of this is taken out in the film and instead the focus moves to Clough’s relationship with Taylor. I don’t really ‘believe’ in either the Clough or Taylor characters in the film. But, of course this doesn’t necessarily stop the film being an enjoyable drama for a general audience and it is certainly competently directed and well-acted.

One scene stood out for me, when Clough visits Taylor in hospital. The camera cuts between MCUs of the two men, but both are in the ‘wrong’ part of the frame – they are at one side of the frame with the open space effectively ‘behind’ them, suggesting that our interest should be in that space, which usually the characters would speak or move into. I’m assuming that this is deliberate and that it is meant to emphasise their closeness – they almost lean out of the frame as if wanting to climb into the other frame. Overall, the style of the film is not ‘social realist’ – partly perhaps because of the difficulty of recreating the Northern landscape which has been transformed over 35 years. There are just a few locations, the Clough house, Elland Road (Leeds Utd’s ground), The Baseball Ground (Derby County) etc. The director (Tom Hooper) uses these locations as dramatic spaces, sometimes as enclosed and atmospheric, sometimes as open and desolate with smaller figures isolated in long shot. The film is carefully colour coded, avoiding the usual urge to paint the 1970s solely in browns. Instead, some scenes emphasise blues and greens and muted reds. One aspect of 1970s football the film captures well is the violence on the pitch and the dreadful state of many playing surfaces, Derby County’s especially. Here the colour schemes work well with the sound of the squelch of the mud (and the crunch of boot on bone). On the other hand, the schema backfires in Brighton, I think, which seems peopled entirely by the elderly with zimmer frames (possibly an anachronism for the UK in the 1970s?). I can see that this might be a result of the film’s attempt to represent the North/South divide in 1970s football, emphasising that Clough and Taylor had contempt for Southern football.

Whatever my misgivings about the film, wrapped up I suspect in my own memories of the 1970s, The Damned United has been a success so far, taking £1.3 million in its first two weeks (although the cinema averages on a wide release of 200+ sites were not that great and the film dropped out of the Top 10 in Week 3). The reasons for success might be any of the following:

  • an interest in celebrity culture, including TV celebrities of the 1970s (Clough was a major figure on UK TV)
  • a fascination with Hollywood success in the UK and the hype surrounding Sheen/Morgan
  • nostalgia for the masculine values of 1970s football before the ‘fall’ brought on in the wider society by Thatcherism and the decline of British working-class culture . 

Actually, I hope we get many more explorations of what happened to working-class culture in the 1970s, but as far as Brian Clough is concerned, I did enjoy ITV’s ‘spoiler’ documentary, broadcast the week before the film’s release, more than The Damned United.

There is an amazing amount of TV footage of Cloughie on YouTube and other sites and you can see many of the scenes in the film as they actually appeared on TV (including the famous Yorkshire TV interview after his resignation from Leeds). The skill of Michael Sheen’s mimicry is evident when you make the comparisons, but I still think that there are aspects of Clough’s personality in these clips that don’t appear in Sheen’s portrayal.

Here’s the interview after Clough’s sacking:

and the scene in the film when Clough tells his Leeds players that they are cheats: