Monthly Archives: January 2013

Film and TV in Denmark

The Grand Teatret, the principal arthouse cinema in the centre of Copenhagen.

The Grand Teatret, the principal arthouse cinema in the centre of Copenhagen.

Danish film and television is very much a presence in the international arena. With an Oscar nomination for A Royal Affair next month and the extensive international sales of the filmed TV serials The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge, this small European country with a population of only 5.5 million and a language only intelligible to its Scandinavian neighbours is competing effectively with much bigger international players.

According to a Cineuropa report, 2012 was a successful year at the Danish cinema box office with record attendances of 14.2 million – the best for 30 years. 28% of the film market was captured by the 21 Danish releases with the three standouts being A Royal Affair alongside Susanne Bier’s Love Is All You Need and Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis’ This Life. Bier’s film is a romantic comedy-drama starring Pierce Brosnan set for release in several European countries. This Life is a Second World War family drama which I don’t think has sold outside Denmark yet.

The Hunt, which has gathered so much praise around the world, isn’t included in these figures because it wasn’t released in Denmark until 10 January 2013 – when it had the second highest audience figures for an opening weekend since 2000. It was delayed so as not to compete with the other Danish releases, but it has contributed to the success of Danish films at international festivals where they have won 82 prizes from the 272 screenings.

Denmark sees only half the number of film titles released in the UK, France and Germany – 256 in 2011. There are approx. 161 cinemas with 396 screens, but only 18 multiplexes (2011 figures). With local films getting over 20% of the market, around 55% goes directly to Hollywood and 15% to other European films (the biggest earners being UK-US Hollywood productions such as Skyfall, the biggest box-office winner in 2012). Overall Denmark competes with Norway for the role of most cinema visits per head in Scandinavia at around 2.2.

Acoording to Cineuropa’s ‘country profile’ the average budget for a Danish film is €2.3 million with nearly 40% of funding coming from the Danish Film Institute (a useful statistics manual, in English, is available for download) – in 2012 the total DFI Production and Development spend was €39 million. The two main public service broadcasters in Denmark, DR and TV2 are both expected to support the funding of Danish films and to broadcast them. DR’s television serial drama productions such as The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge have played a central role in introducing the amazing acting talent in Denmark to audiences worldwide with series sold to terrestrial networks and VOD providers around the world. The serials feature actors who work in cinema features and theatre and episodes are written and directed by creatives also working in cinema. These three serials will go down as marking a change in Denmark’s international film profile much as the first Dogme films did between 1998 and 2002.

Garage (Ireland 2007)

Pat Sortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

Pat Shortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

The recent release of What Richard Did by Lenny Abrahamson (review to follow) has prompted me to go back to look at his earlier release from 2007. Both this and his 2004 first feature Adam and Paul were on my radar but I hadn’t found time to watch them. I’m glad now that I finally made the effort.

Garage is set in an unnamed small town in rural Ireland (it seems to have been shot in several different parts of the country, but mainly in the ‘West Midlands’) and its central character is Josie (Pat Shortt), a 40 year-old man who ‘runs’ the town’s filling station/garage situated outside the town on the main road. In reality he is mainly the caretaker as business is slack and we never see Josie actually serve anyone. He’s employed by one of his old schoolmates who is now an entrepreneur in the town and he lives a fairly solitary life, bedding down in a backroom of the garage. Josie is considered as a little ‘slow’ by the local community – but he is cheerful and friendly and most of the locals don’t make fun of him or abuse his trust. The one lout who does bully him in the bar is the exception. Josie’s life begins to change when his boss decides that there is more passing trade and that the garage should stay open longer. Consequently  Josie is joined by an ‘assistant’, a shy and gawky 15 year-old, David. Well-played by Ryan O’Connor, David is a ‘blow-in’ to the small community and therefore initially an ‘outsider’ like Josie in social terms. He’s intelligent and sometimes a bit spiky – a ‘normal’ adolescent – but he gets on with Josie and they become friends. This friendship leads Josie into contacts with the other local teens and perhaps makes him reflect on his loneliness. Indirectly, David’s presence will lead to a series of tragic events.

My first thoughts about the film were that this was a low-budget European art film. There are no genre indications as such except towards the setting of the small town and its possibilities for drama. The town and the handful of local inhabitants are presented in a realist manner and my thoughts turned towards the Dardenne Brothers – but not so intense. A review I read mentioned Bresson. There is gentle humour in the initial representation of Josie’s mundane daily rituals and his contact with various characters. There is also a sense of the relative tranquility of rural Ireland and the potential for some kind of magic in the evening light – although the skies that Josie so enjoys seemed foreboding to me with their scudding clouds. Gradually however, we realise that happy though Josie appears to be in his own little world, he still seeks the possibility of intimacy in a relationship. Eventually too, we realise that Abrahamson is using Peter Robertson’s beautiful cinematography to compose shots very carefully and to look for various forms of symbolism in the mise en scène. The film is slow and nearly always calm. Pat Stortt’s performance is exceptional. He was first a comedian specialising in physical comedy and he uses the skills of a physical comedian to create a distinctive gait for his character, as well as an appropriate voice. His performance also has a resonance since he is well-known in Ireland for a comedy series set in the same kind of location as that in Garage.

I was a little surprised to read in the Press Pack this quote from Lenny Abrahamson:

“Josie is really a contemporary village idiot character but the Irish village doesn’t have
any place for him anymore.”

I’m not sure I would use that term to describe a character in a contemporary drama. Of course, I know what he means but it does raise what might be the uncomfortable question at the centre of the film. If this is a realist depiction of Irish rural life, it suggests that there is no modern infrastructure to replace the traditional village community in what is usually seen as one of the more affluent and ‘developed’ societies in Europe. On the other hand, as events transpire, we might argue that the ‘regulation’ of contemporary society is what really makes Josie suffer – that and economic developments. The town’s residents who know Josie and tolerate him don’t really listen to him or help him with his problems. They are just glad that he seems happy. I was interested to read the range of IMDb comments. They include many Irish commentators, but also other Europeans. While most clearly liked the film and thought it praiseworthy, there are a couple of gainsayers, including one who argues that it isn’t a very good representation of a character with mild learning difficulties and another who argues that the residents are too morose and that the rural Irish are more likely to moan and get angry about their lot. These are fair points but as an arthouse film Garage works very well. The excellent production is enhanced by the presence of George Costigan in a small but vital role and Anne-Marie Duff as Carmel (who could probably act as a focus for another story). I can see why the film won one of the Cannes prizes and why Abrahamson and his collaborators are seen as one of Ireland’s most important filmmaking teams.

The final shot of this rather good trailer offers an example of the very effective lighting and composition:

Borgen Season 2 (Denmark 2011)

A wonderful melodrama composition featuring Birgitte (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and behind her Cecilie, Birgitte's husband's new partner. (High res image courtesy DR taken from the website at http://www.linktv.org/borgen/press)

A wonderful melodrama composition featuring Birgitte (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and behind her Cecilie, Birgitte’s husband’s new partner. (High res image courtesy DR taken from the website at http://www.linktv.org/borgen/press)

The second season of Borgen has now reached halfway on BBC4 in the UK (having aired in Denmark in Autumn 2011). I don’t think I’ve waited so eagerly for something on TV for a long time. But what’s it like the second time round? I’m conscious that I might be watching it in a different way – or perhaps reflecting more on what I’m seeing.

Season 1 established that there would be three central characters and this has continued in Season 2. Birgitte as Prime Minister and Kasper as her political adviser are engaged in trying to keep the coalition government in power, but both have issues with their partners/families. Meanwhile Katrine has left her job at the TV company and joined the tabloid edited by the disgraced Labour Party leader. Katrine also has a new partner of sorts with Episode 1 showing her growing professional relationship and friendship with the older journalist Hanne who has a drinking problem. The structure of each episode has remained the same with an ‘external’ issue concerning the government involving each of the three protagonists to a different extent. Each has also got an ongoing personal narrative and at least one of these is advanced in each episode – and sometimes two or all three. My impression is that the central political narrative is beginning to fade into the background at this halfway point. The political stories seem more cut and dried, more neat somehow. Birgitte seems to solve a problem in a skilled but not altogether plausible way. She appears much harder and more pragmatic. In one sense of course this makes sense as she is likely to change with experience – but the writers seem less interested in the political stories and more in how the three central characters are under stress.

I think that this shift – if it exists and isn’t just a function of my own shifts in how I’m reading the narrative – means that the overall narrative is becoming more of a melodrama. The serial structure does allow for reflection over 10 weeks in the Danish case (and over several months between each season). In the UK there are two separate episodes/stories transmitted one after the other which perhaps alters our readings here slightly but I think I am reacting to each episode as if it was just another episode of a well-loved soap opera. That sense was confirmed after episode 5 when we have just seen the return of the PM’s secretary Sanne to her old job. It’s almost that like Birgitte, we’ve missed Sanne’s warmth.

Kasper and Katrine follow Birgitte to Afghanistan in Episode 1 of Season 2 (picture credits as above)

Kasper and Katrine follow Birgitte to Afghanistan in Episode 1 of Season 2 (picture credits as above)

If it is getting more like a soap or perhaps more like a telenovela, I have to say that the tension for me is all about Kasper and Katrine. There seems little mileage in Kasper’s attempt to set up home with his new partner Lotte and Katrine has just gone through a whirlwind change of jobs (four, over six episodes). I want Katrine to be happy and Kasper to get sorted out. Birgitte is clearly going to have more problems with her children. I know that many viewers are fond of Birgitte’s husband Philip but I’ve always found him a bit dispensable. I’d rather Birgitte found someone more interesting. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind if Birgitte got to grips with some more complicated politics and left the shenanigans to Kasper.

On a recent Late Review, there was discussion (à propos of the revamp of Yes Minister on Sky) about how politics are treated in British drama/entertainment. The suggestion was that we are just too cynical in the UK and can only take politics as satire/comedy in shows like The Thick of It or thrillers like House of Cards. I didn’t quite follow this and there didn’t seem to be any suggestions as to why 1 million of us watch Borgen or even more followed West Wing so avidly. Perhaps we need a telenovela that extends beyond the remit of the UK’s community or institution-based soaps? The Danish political world is institutional of course, but it is also exotic – and oddly glamorous. Or at least Kasper and Katrine are glamorous if not the politicians. What does anyone else think?

King’s Game (Kongekabale, Denmark 2004)

Lars Mikkelsen (left) as the spin doctor feeding the naive Ulrik (Anders W. Berthelsen)

Lars Mikkelsen (left) as the spin doctor feeding the naïve Ulrik (Anders W. Berthelsen)

Was this the blueprint for Borgen (and The Killing to some extent)? I missed it altogether on its limited UK release in 2005 and caught it as a VOD offer from Lovefilm (I think it is also available on DVD, but at a price). King’s Game was a major box office and critical winner in Denmark as the first film from Nikolaj Arcel, recently nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with A Royal Affair, one of our films of the year. It is based on a novel by a politician and deals with internecine strife in the Centre Party in Denmark during an election campaign.

The central character is Ulrik, a young journalist played by Anders W. Berthelsen (the father of the abducted child in The Killing III). He suddenly discovers that he has been offered the chance by his newspaper to join the team covering ‘parliamentary affairs’ at Borgen. He has no previous experience of politics except that his father, now a businessman, was once Justice Minister for the Centre Party. His first visit to Borgen occurs when the Centre Party is in disarray after a car crash puts its leader into hospital. He is seriously ill and there are fears for his life. Ulrik is then offered a story (in an indirect way) about the ‘next in line’ at the Centre Party – by the party’s own spin doctor (nicely played by Lars Mikkelsen (Troels, the mayoral candidate) in Killing I. How long will it take the naïve Ulrik to twig that he is being set up? I won’t spoil any more of the plot except to point towards other similarities with Borgen such as the prospect of the first female Prime Minister in Denmark.

I found the film to be very entertaining and pleasingly presented in CinemaScope with crisp and sometimes noirish cinematography. The cast is very strong, especially for a first film. As well as Berthelsen and Mikkelsen, I also recognised Lars Brygmann (who suffers a very similar fate to his character of Troels Höxenhaven in Borgen 2), Nicholas Bro (Justice Minister in The Killing II) and our old friend Bjarne Henriksen (Theis in The Killing I and the Defence Minister in Borgen 1 and 2). This time Henriksen plays a crucial role as a television interviewer. The other lead in the film is played by Søren Pilmark who has an impressive CV but doesn’t appear to have been in either of the two serials that have been successful in the UK. The roles for women are not so good in the film and the principal role of a female political leader is played by the director’s sister Nastja Arcel.

It was interesting to see a more ‘cinematic’ presentation than is usually offered by Borgen, but this came mostly via the thriller elements. I missed the family melodrama elements of the serials and it was interesting that one of the best scenes in the film involved Ulrik dealing with his father – in the presence of his wife. This lack of background for the main characters is possibly the main weakness of the script – but then the film is only a 100 minutes or so and much of the time involves the twists and turns of the investigation. The film has also been criticised for the seeming simplicity of the plot and the ease with which the naïve journalist  is able to tie things together. Fortunately, Berthelsen is such a good actor that I think we go along with him. His character is also resourceful and determined – which makes an interesting dramatic mix with naiveté.

I’m surprised that I haven’t come across references to Kongekabale in discussions of Borgen. I’m sure that British fans of the TV serial would find it an interesting and enjoyable precursor. Here’s a trailer with English subs:

King's Game (Kongekabale, Denmark 2004)

Lars Mikkelsen (left) as the spin doctor feeding the naive Ulrik (Anders W. Berthelsen)

Lars Mikkelsen (left) as the spin doctor feeding the naïve Ulrik (Anders W. Berthelsen)

Was this the blueprint for Borgen (and The Killing to some extent)? I missed it altogether on its limited UK release in 2005 and caught it as a VOD offer from Lovefilm (I think it is also available on DVD, but at a price). King’s Game was a major box office and critical winner in Denmark as the first film from Nikolaj Arcel, recently nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with A Royal Affair, one of our films of the year. It is based on a novel by a politician and deals with internecine strife in the Centre Party in Denmark during an election campaign.

The central character is Ulrik, a young journalist played by Anders W. Berthelsen (the father of the abducted child in The Killing III). He suddenly discovers that he has been offered the chance by his newspaper to join the team covering ‘parliamentary affairs’ at Borgen. He has no previous experience of politics except that his father, now a businessman, was once Justice Minister for the Centre Party. His first visit to Borgen occurs when the Centre Party is in disarray after a car crash puts its leader into hospital. He is seriously ill and there are fears for his life. Ulrik is then offered a story (in an indirect way) about the ‘next in line’ at the Centre Party – by the party’s own spin doctor (nicely played by Lars Mikkelsen (Troels, the mayoral candidate) in Killing I. How long will it take the naïve Ulrik to twig that he is being set up? I won’t spoil any more of the plot except to point towards other similarities with Borgen such as the prospect of the first female Prime Minister in Denmark.

I found the film to be very entertaining and pleasingly presented in CinemaScope with crisp and sometimes noirish cinematography. The cast is very strong, especially for a first film. As well as Berthelsen and Mikkelsen, I also recognised Lars Brygmann (who suffers a very similar fate to his character of Troels Höxenhaven in Borgen 2), Nicholas Bro (Justice Minister in The Killing II) and our old friend Bjarne Henriksen (Theis in The Killing I and the Defence Minister in Borgen 1 and 2). This time Henriksen plays a crucial role as a television interviewer. The other lead in the film is played by Søren Pilmark who has an impressive CV but doesn’t appear to have been in either of the two serials that have been successful in the UK. The roles for women are not so good in the film and the principal role of a female political leader is played by the director’s sister Nastja Arcel.

It was interesting to see a more ‘cinematic’ presentation than is usually offered by Borgen, but this came mostly via the thriller elements. I missed the family melodrama elements of the serials and it was interesting that one of the best scenes in the film involved Ulrik dealing with his father – in the presence of his wife. This lack of background for the main characters is possibly the main weakness of the script – but then the film is only a 100 minutes or so and much of the time involves the twists and turns of the investigation. The film has also been criticised for the seeming simplicity of the plot and the ease with which the naïve journalist  is able to tie things together. Fortunately, Berthelsen is such a good actor that I think we go along with him. His character is also resourceful and determined – which makes an interesting dramatic mix with naiveté.

I’m surprised that I haven’t come across references to Kongekabale in discussions of Borgen. I’m sure that British fans of the TV serial would find it an interesting and enjoyable precursor. Here’s a trailer with English subs:

Midnight’s Children (Canada-UK 2012)

Parvati (Shriya Saran) and Saleem (Satya Babha) are two of 'Midnight's Children' with magical powers.

Parvati (Shriya Saran) and Saleem (Satya Bhabha) are two of ‘Midnight’s Children’ with magical powers.

I approached this screening with some trepidation. I read Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children in 1982, identifying strongly with its central theme. It felt like the cutting-edge of a fiction in tune with the cultural shifts towards post-colonialist literature. But only a few years later I started to go off Rushdie. I remember a key moment being the attack he made on Black Audio and Film Collective’s film Handsworth Songs in 1987. It’s ironic that Handsworth Songs is now rightly recognised as an important intervention in the development of a Black aesthetic in Britain, whereas Rushdie has lost some of his cultural status. That status appears to have been diminished further with the reception of the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children – scripted by Salman Rushdie who also provides several passages of narration. On its second week of release in the UK, the film was screened only once a day, in the afternoon, in the Vue multiplex at The Light in Leeds. There were just five of us in the audience. This already looks like a lack of confidence from its distributor eOne Entertainment, the new Canadian major .

So, is it as bad as all that? Well, no. I decided not to go back to the book before the screening and I watched in as objective a manner as possible. I was surprised to find myself in tears at the end of the film. That probably says more about me than about the film but in most respects this is a very impressive production. The Indian director Deepa Mehta who makes her films from her Canadian base has achieved what many thought was the impossible feat of adapting Rushdie’s novel with a wonderful cast drawn from the vast array of Indian performers working in India and North America in all forms of cinema. More than sixty location shoots in Sri Lanka stand in for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Mehta has said many things about the production and my guess is that she chose Sri Lanka for two reasons. First she had previously suffered from protests by Hindi fundamentalists when she made Water (Canada 2005), the third film of her ‘elements trilogy’. (See my earlier posting about this film.)  She moved that production to Sri Lanka where she discovered that Columbo and its environs has preserved much more of the ‘heritage buildings’ from the colonial period than equivalent cities in India. Midnight’s Children was a much more demanding shoot in terms of locations so Sri Lanka was very attractive. Rushdie’s novel has also been controversial in both India and Pakistan and the shoot was interrupted for a few days when the Iranian government tried to pressurise the Sri Lankans to withdraw permissions. It will be interesting to see what happens when the film finally opens in India (there were protests after its screening at the Kerala International Film Festival). PVR are going to distribute the film in India with a release date of February 1st. I suspect the Indian release will create a stir. I’m not sure if critics and audiences will like the film, but at least they will know the history. It is, of course, unlikely that it will be released in Pakistan except on pirated DVDs. I’m not sure yet whether it will make Bradford – where street demonstrations and a book burning were part of the reaction to Rushdie’s later novel, The Satanic Verses in 1989.

Outline

Rushdie’s long novel (500 pages of dense text in the paperback edition) tells the story of two characters born within seconds of each other at the stroke of midnight on August 14/15 1947, the moment of the end of the British Raj and the birth of two new nations separated by Partition. For reasons explained in the plot, the babies are switched at birth (in Bombay) with the poor child given to the wealthy (Muslim) mother and named Saleem and her ‘real’ son going to the poor Hindu father after his wife dies in childbirth (and named Shiva). As the two boys grow up knowing each other (but not their true identities) in the same district, they gradual discover their special powers, individual to each of the Midnight’s Children born at that one moment across the old Raj. We follow the boys through the major events of the next thirty years when they are separated only to be re-united in very different circumstances towards the end of the story. Rushdie also provides us with further background in the form of the story of  Saleem’s Muslim family since his grandfather first met the woman he was to marry in Kashmir in 1915. This means that we have a story that covers 62 years of tumultuous history in South Asia with the birth of three new countries (i.e. Bangladesh in 1971) and a host of  important characters. It shouldn’t be difficult to work out from this brief outline that a ‘magic realist’ treatment of these events enables Rushdie to create symbols, metaphors and allegories for much of ‘Indian’ history in the 2oth century. The story is essentially about the failure of the children with magical powers to help create India and Pakistan as viable democracies. Rushdie was writing at a time when Indira Ghandi had just been deposed after the period of ‘Emergency’ in 1977.

Production and reception

Rushdie’s novel was seen to be unfilmable, although a stage production was mounted in 2003 (see this review) and Wikipedia suggests that a BBC five part serial was considered in the 1990s (ironically featuring Rahul Bose who appears in Mehta’s film) but not developed when it was feared that there would be protests in Sri Lanka where it was to be shot. Deepa Mehta and Salman Rushdie share a background as diaspora ‘creatives’. Mehta was born in 1950 in Amritsar, Punjab province close to the Indo-Pakistani border created by Partition. Her 1998 film Earth is one of the best Partition films. She and Rushdie worked very closely on the adaptation of Midnight’s Children, agreeing on how much to cut from the novel’s plot to enable a runtime of 146 minutes. It would also seem that Mehta urged Rushdie to write and perform the narration – and that he agreed with some reluctance. I think that on the whole the script works (though I did feel that the last section of the film was less satisfactory in that there were ellipses that seemed to suggest cuts having been made). For me, the one big mistake was the narration. I’m not one of those who never like narration. On the contrary, I like narration when it’s done well and when it fits the narrative style of the film. But Rushdie’s voice is so well-known and his delivery for me was so flat that I winced each time it came on the soundtrack. I think an actor could have ‘performed’ the narrator’s role much more successfully.

The other criticisms of the film seem much less valid to me. Partly, I think, critics in the UK and North America don’t know the history well enough to understand the somewhat schematic presentation of some of the events and they don’t necessarily know much about the different types of Indian cinema or are familiar with the acting talent on display here. Just to take a couple of examples, Kate Stables in what is otherwise a perceptive and balanced review in Sight and Sound (January 2013), refers to “snapshots of Indo-Pakistan wars and cross-border wanderings”. There are two major wars shown in the film, the India-Pakistan War of 1965 and the conflict of 1971 which saw Indian forces crossing into East Pakistan to help secure independence for what would become Bangladesh. I’m not sure what she means by ‘cross-border wanderings’. The Guardian‘s film editor Catherine Shoard refers to “actors perfectly cast to the point of blandness” and music in which “wooden flutes, xylophones and wind chimes patter about on the soundtrack”. The actors include Seema Biswas, Anupam Kher, Rahul Bose, Soha Ali Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and many more known in India as well as the American-based Satya Bhabha who makes a good job of the lead. Perfectly cast, yes. Bland? I don’t think so. Mehta works in a form of parallel cinema that requires actors to work largely (but not completely) in English and to deal with scripts quite unlike those which they would find in mainstream Indian popular cinemas such as Bollywood or Tamil/Telegu. The overall effect is not necessarily as ‘coherent’ as we might expect in the commercial cinemas of South Asia or Hollywood/Europe. It is usually more ‘realist’ but sometimes more expressionist. The fantasy elements of this particular property (largely achieved without CGI) make this seeming contradiction more noticeable. The music in Midnight’s Children is by Nitin Sawhney. If Catherine Shoard doesn’t like his music that’s fine but as a world-class musician, a British Asian with an international reputation, he deserves not to be treated with disdain.

Midnight’s Children is not a perfect film by any means but it is a decent attempt at a literary adaptation that will please the more open-minded of the novel’s many admirers and would also please many new audiences – if they got the chance to see it. Its message of protest about what has happened in India and Pakistan over the years is still something that needs to be shouted out. I think I cried at the end because the film brought together memories of many of my favourite stories from India, partly by reminding me of the films I’ve seen and the novels I’ve read. I’ll try to keep track of what happens to Midnight’s Children in India.

Material on the background to the film’s production has mostly been taken from the Press Pack uploaded by Mongrel Films in Canada.

Here’s the UK trailer which gives some indication of the difficulties discussed above:

Quartet (UK 2012)

Pauline Collins and Maggie Smith

Pauline Collins (left) and Maggie Smith

This latest attempt to attract the older audience back into cinemas is directed by Dustin Hoffman in what I think is his first role as a director for the cinema. Not surprisingly then, this is a film for actors – or rather for ‘performers’ – with a script by Ronald Harwood based on his own play. In one sense it is a very classy production with John de Borman looking after the photography. On the other hand it’s not much more much more than enjoyable ‘middlebrow’ fluff. I think using the old term ‘middlebrow’ is appropriate here. The story involves the residents of a retirement home for musical performers engaged in the age-old narrative of putting on a show – a gala event to raise money to keep the home’s finances in the black. The success of the show is then threatened or enhanced by the arrival of a new ‘retiree’, a star opera performer who once was in a relationship with one of the existing residents. So, will Maggie Smith, for this is she, consent to perform the quartet from Rigoletto alongside Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Tom Courtenay?

Michael Gambon (left) and Tom Courtenay

Michael Gambon (left) and Tom Courtenay

There isn’t much of a narrative ‘drive’ and what there is depends very much on the playing of Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay. Fortunately, they are both very good and I think it is Tom Courtenay’s dead straight playing that saves the film. I think he actually looks better now than he did 50 years ago when he was first established as a leading man. Then he was the gawky child-man in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar. Now he is slim, upright and handsome in his mid-seventies. Maggie Smith was being nominated as ‘Most Promising Newcomer’ for her role in the Burton/Taylor film The VIPs in 1963. I’d certainly pay to see a film in which Courtenay and Smith were a couple looking back on what might have been. But I’m afraid that we don’t get enough of that here. Instead we are offered an ensemble piece which doesn’t really offer any surprises and mostly comprises predictable vignettes. The effect is ‘middlebrow’ because the film is tasteful with the enormous country house in spacious grounds presented by de Borman as almost idyllic. Don’t come here looking for the realities of social care. On the other hand, the music and discourse about opera etc. is conducted at the level of bitching about who used to get more ovations at the end of a performance. That said, the performances are entertaining. I’m not sure about Connolly as a film actor but Pauline Collins is excellent. (Sheridan Smith’s slim role is a bit of an insult to a young actor who is currently ‘hot’). Many of the smaller parts are played by retired musicians and performers and I thought the addition of their old photographs and one line bios in the closing credits sequence worked very well.

The IMDB bulletin board on the film features an entertaining rant about how bad the film is compared to the play but that isn’t going to stop the film being a hit. After one week in Australia and its opening week in the UK, Quartet is No 25 in the International Box Office Chart and No 4 in the UK. It’s likely that because the older audience usually goes to the cinema midweek, these figures underplay its appeal. I don’t think it will have the same long term box office pull that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has been able to exert. It will also have to contend with Song for Marion (with Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp) due out in a few weeks and sounding as if it will make an interesting comparison with Quartet. But what these three films show is that, following the phenomenal success of The King’s Speech, British producers have finally twigged that a solid genre film featuring the pulling power of 1960s stars like Smith, Redgrave, Stamp etc. can entice those over 60 back into cinemas. These are the audiences who as teenagers experienced British cinema at its height in the 1950s and 1960s; they still have the cinema habit in their blood and they just want films to watch.