Gholam (UK-Iran 2017)

Surreal lighting is used in this promotional image for Gholam

This unusual film places a major Iranian star actor, known in the West for three leading roles in the films of Asghar Farhadi, into a downbeat slow-paced thriller set in parts of North London. The director is Mitra Tabrizian, Professor of Photography at the University of Westminster whose 2005 exhibition ‘Border’ appears to have been the starting point for a script written with Cyrus Massoudi. The film was a first feature for both Tabrizian and Massoudi. The impressive cinematography is by South African DoP Dewald Aukema (who photographed Skin (UK-RSA 2008), one of the most viewed posts on this blog). Overall, the film is very impressive, although it is oddly let down by barely visible subtitling (a thin white typeface), sometimes lost against white backgrounds. The two main languages are English and Farsi.

The dismal bedsit where Gholam (Shahab Hosseini) spends his brief leisure time

Shahab Hosseini plays the eponymous central character, a forty-something Iranian living in a dingy bedsit in what I take to be North East London, possibly Hackney/Dalston? Gholam drives a taxi by night and works in a very quiet garage for an older Iranian migrant by day. He has an uncle who runs a Persian cafe locally and he is subject to telephone calls from his mother in Tehran, wanting him to return home. There isn’t a great deal of plot, but a double narrative develops when Gholam is recognised by another Iranian as someone who was something of a hero as a teenage ‘warrior’, presumably in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. Now he refuses to countenance helping in some form of covert activity (the narrative is actually set in 2011 during various forms of unrest in the Middle East). At the same time he has an altercation with three young white thugs who refuse to pay after travelling in his taxi. Throughout the film, Gholam seems disturbed and his mood seems to pervade the whole film. Here is a man who seems mired in his own despondency, unsure of what he wants to do and especially whether to return to Iran (we don’t know if he is a refugee or what his residency status in the UK might be). Despite this there are strangers (other migrants) who offer him kind words in shops or food stalls. He also meets and befriends a much older African-Caribbean woman (played by the veteran of many UK films and TV programmes, Corinne Skinner-Carter) and her chirpy neighbour played by Tracie Bennett a Lancastrian actor I haven’t seen for quite a while. These friendships seem positive but they have links to Gholam’s eventual fate.

I’m not sure what to make of this film. The performances are all strong and I should mention Gholam’s young cousin Arash (played by British-Iranian actor Armin Karima) who has embraced skate-boarding and rap, but still admires his older relative. As might be expected, Tabrizian has a strong feel for her migrant community characters and the London streets. There were moments when I thought about Rachid Bouchareb’s London River (2009) and Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002), both set in similar London migrant communities with that sense of the ‘invisible workers’ driving taxis, cleaning hotels and offices etc. – or running food stalls and social clubs. The Iranian migrant in Europe is also featured in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (2013) set in Paris and The Charmer (Denmark-Sweden 2017) by Milad Alami and set in Copenhagen. Gholam seems the most austere of all these films and it does need Shahab Hosseini’s commanding performance to sustain our interest. However, the thriller aspect takes over in the last section.

The setting of the garage seems to be inspired by this original image taken from the ‘Border’ exhibition by Mitra Tabrizian in 2005.

I’m surprised and also disappointed with my own lack of knowledge about Mitra Tabrizian. When I found her website, which lists the various projects and academic partnerships she has initiated or been part of since the 1980s, I realised that I certainly should have known this history. The film is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Hall and Jules Wright (who was a major figure in theatre and the art world, latterly as director of the Wapping Project). Tabrizian herself is an important link between Iranian and Western art practice in cinema and photography. Her collaborators on Gholam are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and she similarly elicited support from the wider arts community in London. This makes the film distinctive but also means that it feels caught somewhere between a kind of downbeat neo-realist thriller and the kind of essay film that might be produced by someone like John Akomfrah. Tabrizian’s visual eye is complemented by the use of Iranian music on record and by tabla and oud music at various points. Distributed by Miracle Films, Gholam has received some good reviews and I would certainly recommend it. Its actual cinema appearances are likely to be only odd dates in sometimes out of the way places (see the official website for planned screenings) and VOD may be your best bet to catch it. It is currently playing on MUBI in the UK. Here’s the trailer:

Lilting (UK 2013)

The poster for LILTING. The film is presented in the 2.35 CinemaScope ratio. The image shows Naomi Christie and Ben Wishart in Junn's room. Note also the graphics for the title.

The poster for LILTING. The film is presented in the 2.35 CinemaScope ratio. The image shows Vann (Naomi Christie) and Richard (Ben Whishaw) in Junn’s room. Note also the graphics for the title.

This film is a gem – a total justification of micro-budget filmmaking and public funding for cinema. Made for £120,000 under the Microwave scheme from Film London, the capital’s screen agency, it achieves more than most films on twenty or thirty times that budget. The Microwave scheme puts first-time feature directors through ‘micro-school’ involving a mentoring process with established practitioners including director Clio Barnard in this case. The process is explained in the Press Notes. Other Microwave films discussed on this blog include Shifty (2008) and Ill Manors (2012).

Lilting is an example of a diaspora film as discussed in The Global Film Book and particularly in Chapter 4 as an aspect of British ‘national cinema’. It’s unusual in dealing with Chinese characters in the UK since there have been relatively few films to do this and they haven’t had much exposure. Director Hong Khaou’s family left Vietnam for the UK when he was eight, having already moved from Cambodia after Pol Pot came to power. Hong’s mother has never learned English and this issue of assimilation is central to Lilting, although the story is not autobiographical as such. Lilting offers us Junn, a Cambodian-Chinese woman who now finds herself in her sixties in a care home in East London. She speaks six languages, but not English, and she is resentful of her son Kai and jealous of his ‘best friend’ Richard who may be the reason that she can’t live with her son. She is unaware that Kai and Richard are lovers. When Kai dies in an accident Richard in his grief attempts to connect with Junn. He persuades Vann, a young British-Chinese woman, to act as a translator and pays her to assist Junn in making contact with Alan, another of the home’s residents. Eventually, however, Vann finds herself with the difficult task of enabling Junn and Richard to deal with their grief and speak through her to each other.

The strengths of the Microwave scheme are in the mentoring process which focuses on script development and the practicalities of shooting very quickly on a limited budget so that ideas have to be thought through carefully and preparations made accordingly. There is little scope for reshoots. It helps to have A List performers and Hong hit paydirt with his ambition in approaching Ben Whishaw to play Richard and the great Hong Kong action star Cheng Pei-Pei as Junn. In the role of Alan, a rather seedy old man, Peter Bowles offers an ironic performance for UK audiences (Bowles was a major TV star of the 1980s playing a gentleman ‘cad’ in sit-coms and more recently a major star of West End theatre). Given these stellar performers on screen it is remarkable that the first time screen actor Naomi Christie does so well as Vann – a tribute to both the actor and the director.

Cheng Pei-pei as Junn

Cheng Pei-Pei as Junn

Partly no doubt because of the budget, most of Lilting takes place indoors – in the care home, in Richard’s flat and in cafés. The care home has décor that is supposed to remind residents of the 1960s and the look of the film is important, achieved through art direction/production design and the cinematography of the Polish-born NFS graduate Ula Pontikos, adding another ingredient to the cosmopolitan feel of the depiction of London (Hackney, Dalston etc.) Hong has said in interviews how much he loves this aspect of London. I was also intrigued to note that he lists Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999) as one of his favourite films – I’m with him on that. Like Winterbottom, Hong manages to suggest the realism and authenticity of the locations while at the same time utilising expressionist devices to convey the emotions of characters. One of his techniques is to seamlessly insert flashbacks into a scene – as if in the same shot so that Kai seems to be still alive and part of the conversation. For Junn and Richard their grief means that Kai is still alive in their thoughts. I’m not sure exactly what the title ‘Lilting’ is supposed to indicate. It refers in the dictionary definition to “singing or playing, especially merrily, or vaguely and absent-mindedly” (Chambers). That doesn’t seem quite right in this context but clearly it does refer to something found in the flow of dialogue in English and Mandarin that Vann must exchange between Richard and Junn. In his excellent Sight and Sound (September 2014) review Ashley Clarke refers to the editing technique described above as:

. . . a smart use of form to keenly evoke that strange, hard-to-communicate time in the aftermath of a bereavement, when the departed person remains a palpable presence despite their corporeal absence.

I’ve noted in another interview (which stupidly I forgot to note down) a suggestion that this ‘presence’ of the deceased character is an aspect of East Asian film culture. Hong replies that his family has a shrine to his father in their home and I think it is the case that the film does enable an exploration of grieving which opens up a discourse across cultures. Clarke’s review also tells us that the script began as a stage play but without the LGBT dimension. The film does, I think, manage to make that work too as a gentle reference to cultural difference. Vann is a sensible and sensitive British-Chinese who provides the bridge – perhaps she creates the ‘lilt’?

This is one of my films of the year and I urge you to seek it out. It’s still playing in cinemas and is available online through Curzon Home Cinema.

Here’s the Artificial Eye trailer that suggests at least some of the film’s qualities:

The Awakening (UK 2011)

Rebecca Hall (Florence) and Dominic West (Robert) on the moors above the school.

Rebecca Hall (Florence) and Dominic West (Robert) on the moors above the school.

I missed this film in cinemas and I was grateful for a TV screening that fitted into the ‘Christmas ghost story’ slot. The production was part-financed by BBC Films so it may be repeated in future Christmas schedules. The title refers to something repressed by the central character, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a war widow and an educated and independent young woman (with plenty of money) in London in 1921. After the successful publication of her book about ‘ghost-hunting’ she is employed as a freelance investigator and the film opens with a set piece exposé of a fraudulent medium. But then Florence receives a visit from Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher from a boarding prep school in Cumbria where a young boy has died in mysterious circumstances in what is believed to be a haunted building. Reluctantly, she agrees to travel north. What then transpires is an interesting drama involving mystery, romance and something which the rationalist Ms Cathcart is forced to come to terms with.

On the whole I enjoyed this first feature by director Nick Murphy who also co-wrote the film with the more experienced Stephen Volk. The weakest section for me was the opening up until the arrival at the school. The séance scene worked well but once outside the house I suddenly felt plunged into ‘BBC costume drama London’. Realist aesthetics in British film are so problematic. Recreations of 1920s/30s London always tend to use the same few ‘preserved’ streets which are so carefully ‘dressed’ and so clean that they look unreal. This was aggravated by the overall colour palette of the film with its almost bleached and subdued range. The squares (around Regent’s Park, I think) of white-painted houses positively gleamed in the sunlight – much as they have in countless TV series and several other films. This was then followed by the most picturesque train journey, actually through Scotland (Creative Scotland was another funder) – looking like an outtake from Harry Potter. Fortunately, once the narrative deposited the audience at the school (an amalgam of Scottish stately homes) the genre tropes kicked into gear and Eduard Grau’s cinematography and David Pemberton’s score became much more acceptable. All of this might be put in perspective by comparing the film with Hammer’s The Woman in Black (2012), which faced with a similar narrative set just a few years earlier, goes for broke with Gothic expressionism.

The Awakening is perhaps trying to distance itself from the heavily Gothic trappings and, unconsciously or not, links itself to the post World War I dramas about loss, trauma, grieving etc. (I was reminded Regeneration, the 1997 adaptation of Pat Barker’s novel.) Nevertheless, The Awakening mixes elements easily identifiable from three classic films: The Innocents (UK 1961), The Others (Spain/US 2001) and El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). Thus we have an emotionally stressed young woman, a child/children and mysterious servants in a remote house. Murphy and Volk juggle these elements quite well and deliver an enigmatic but satisfying ending. Rebecca Hall has to carry the narrative drive and she does so magnificently. Again I was a little unsure at first about her character who seemed just too ‘modern’ in speech and behaviour, but as the narrative moved more towards melodrama she grew into the part very well. Dominic West is very good as well (though disconcertingly he looks exactly as he does in the 2011-2 TV series The Hour, set in the 1950s – whereas Hall I saw in Parade’s End (2012) set in roughly the same period). The other leading players include Imelda Staunton as the school’s matron, Shawn Dooley as another (damaged) teacher and Isaac William Hempstead as one of the boys (he’s since appeared in Game of Thrones).

awakening_indexThe Awakening isn’t a masterpiece like each of the three titles listed above, but it is an interesting attempt to re-work the same elements and to draw on a different notion of national trauma – something perhaps worth researching further and comparing to the importance of the ‘disappeared’ in Francoist Spain which informs El orfanato. The Lumière Database entry on the film reveals that although business was weak in the UK, it was much better in several other European markets – Spain matching the UK and Italy recording double the number of admissions. Russia and Poland also chipped in. Unfortunately, DVD figures are harder to find but there was a release in the  US and in Japan (see the poster which emphasises the Gothic heroine).

I hope that the film doesn’t disappear and that it generates interest from scholars.

Whisky Galore! (UK 1949)

George (Gordon Jackson) rescues The Biffer (Morland Graham) as the SS Cabinet Minister threatens to sink.

George (Gordon Jackson) rescues The Biffer (Morland Graham) as the SS Cabinet Minister threatens to sink.

BBC4 is such a blessing. Without it UK TV would be unbearable. This Christmas holiday the channel revived the traditional Yuletide TV schedule and gave us a run of Ealing films. The standout for me was Whisky Galore! which I hadn’t seen for many years. For anyone who doesn’t know the story, adapted from Compton Mackenzie’s novel, it is inspired by a real-life incident in which a ship went aground off the isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides in 1941 – enabling islanders to ‘salvage’ much of its cargo of whisky. Mackenzie was himself the local Home Guard commander who turned a blind eye to the salvage operation. In the film, the locals of the mythical island of ‘Todday’ (a play on ‘toddy’?) are offered a similar opportunity during a period when their own supplies of whisky have run out. The only barrier to their enjoyment of the spoils is the local Home Guard commander, the English Captain Waggett played by Basil Radford, one half of the comic duo ‘Chalders and Caldicott’ with Naunton Wayne who appeared in several British films from 1938 onwards. Waggett brings in the ‘Excise men’ to hunt for the whisky hidden by the islanders. In doing so, he finds himself at odds with nearly all of the islanders.

Whisky Galore! is now considered a ‘classic comedy’. Initially it was only a moderate hit in English cinemas, playing better in Scotland but scoring an unexpected success in the US (as Tight Little Island) and in France where the title translated as ‘Whisky a GoGo’. Its release in 1949 alongside Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets, helped to establish the idea of the ‘Ealing comedy’. As Philip Kemp points out in his book on director Sandy Mackendrick, (Lethal Innocence, Methuen 1991), once a film gets the ‘classic tag’ it is often difficult to step back and view it objectively. But let’s try anyway.

The film’s production context is crucial. It was made in 1948 when the UK attempted to keep Hollywood productions at bay through import tariffs as part of the struggle to achieve a balance of payments. Hollywood responded by embargoing British cinemas and UK producers attempted to fill the gap with increased production. Alexander Mackendrick was a young filmmaker at Ealing given his first directorial task on a location shoot (with all available studio space taken). Mackendrick was American-born but part of a Scottish family and he would go on to become one of the stars of Ealing and a director and later film teacher with an international reputation. His first film, not surprisingly was a little uneven and took twice as long as the budgeted 60 days to shoot on the remote (from London) island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Watching the film now I’m struck by three immediate observations. First, there is a great deal of music, both in terms of score and the diegetic music used for local celebrations. Second, the location photography and the use of local non-professionals creates a very strong sense of place. Third, the narrative is actually pretty thin with the one central conflict and a couple of romantic sub-plots involving the two daughters of the island’s central entrepreneurial figure Macroon who runs the general store. This means that one of Ealing’s bigger stars, the husky-voiced Joan Greenwood is rather under-used. In fact all three central female roles (the other daughter and Waggett’s wife) are similarly under-used apart from a few one-liners. On the other hand, the film celebrates that Ealing trait of the small community working together and the film succeeds because of the sheer vitality of the camerawork and editing supporting the performances and the direction of the central narrative.

The interest for film scholars now, I think, lies in the film’s representation of certain ideas about ‘Scottishness’ and its relationship with similar films in terms of location and thematics. This dossier of materials compiled by Paul Cronin on the website ‘The Sticking Place’ provides many interesting starting points for debates. I’d like to pick up on what is sometimes referred to as the ‘kailyard’ tradition. This term can be traced back to at least the sixteenth century and it refers to the practice in rural areas whereby worker’s cottages would have attached a small plot of land to grow cabbages or other brassicas such as kale. In the 1890s the term was used to describe a certain kind of Scottish literature perceived as sentimental and nostalgic at a time when the Central Lowlands of Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh) had developed into major urban centres within the British Empire. In 1982 Colin Macarthur re-ignited the debate in his book about Scottish cinema, Scotch Reels, and the kailyard and ‘tartanry’ traditions. (‘Tartanry’ refers to the whole paraphernalia of the Victorian construction of Highlands culture.) It’s not for sassenachs like me to lecture Scots on national identity but I would point out that the kailyard has its equivalent in Ireland and the parts of England that I’m familiar with – workers’ cottages with a garden for the spuds and cabbage and a pen for a pig. The kailyard itself is authentic but the problem comes when it becomes the central focus of national identity and is disproportionately represented in comparison with the industrial tenement.

Whisky Galore! with its ‘Highlands and Islands’ setting is certainly rural and culturally Gaelic, but in fact the film makes relatively little of local culture apart from the narrative necessity of a whisky-fuelled celebration for the nuptials of Macroon’s daughters. What is important is that the central narrative hinges on the response by the locals to the actions of ‘outsiders’ – Waggett and the Excise Men. This sets up a romantic, idealised local community opposed to the rational, orthodox ideas of the English ‘colonial’ administrators. This rather than the kailyard seems to be the way in to the narrative and its ideological readings. Whisky Galore! is interesting in its relationship with what went before – Robert Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran (1934) and Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1937) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945) – and what came after, including The Wicker Man (1973) and Local Hero (1982). These films (and several others) all celebrate the resistance of the ‘spirit’ of the Celtic fringe in resisting the intrusion of the ‘modern’ consumerist and regulated world into the organic but fantastic community of the Irish/Scottish Highlands and Islands.

One of the important decisions about the film’s script was to jettison the local religious conflict between two different island communities. In the novel, the wreck presents a salvage opportunity for both the Protestant (Calvinist) community of a ‘Northern Isle’ and the Catholic community of a Southern isle – the ship grounding on the dividing line in the Outer Hebrides. Ealing was terrified of the religious question and Mackendrick himself , although not a practising churchgoer, was a Protestant who said he did not understand the local Catholic community who seemed more Irish than Scottish. The result is that the film fails to convince when the Todday men, confirmed whisky drinkers, are unable to go to the wreck for 24 hours because they respect the Sabbath day (surely more of a Calvinist concept).

I enjoyed watching the film again. I was thrilled by the overall presentation and, like several other commentators, I was intrigued by the use of conventions relevant to 1948 – the noirish lighting of the salvage scenes and the war film references in which the excise men seem like the Gestapo searching houses for contraband whisky. But I would have liked more Joan Greenwood and more of the romance on those wonderful beaches – one day I’ll spend some June nights in the Hebrides!

Whisky Galore! is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

The Selfish Giant (UK 2013)

the-selfish-giant-photo-agatha-a-nitecka-000093170028large4

Arbor (Conor Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Photo by Agatha A. Nitecka http://film.agathaa.com/the-selfish-giant

This is Clio Barnard’s second feature and I feel much the same about it as I did about the first, The Arbor, in 2010. It’s extremely well made with excellent performances and it acts as a challenge to anyone who has a complacent view of the lives of working-class families in the less salubrious parts of the UK’s major urban areas. I admire it very much but it disturbs me. The film is again set in the housing estates of South Bradford, but this time less precisely than in The Arbor. Indeed, the camerawork at times uses shallow focus to obscure road signs and blur backgrounds so that we can’t be sure exactly where the story is set.

Audiences in Bradford have been very healthy for what is a specialised film with only a restricted distribution to cinemas. The bigger than average audience I was part of was noisy and appreciative in the early stages of the film but very quiet at the end. As usual for a film of this kind, the major public reaction has come from metropolitan critics who don’t venture up here that often – they can treat it as an art object, safely ‘cased’ in a specialised cinema, but to me it feels much more compelling as a form of public document. A couple of features of the Leeds/Bradford conurbation are important for the narrative. Bradford has a large and dispersed population as a ‘Metropolitan District’ – over 500,000 people, many of them living in smaller communities in rural areas. In both Leeds and Bradford the richer leafy areas of middle-class accommodation are mainly to the North of the cities and the ‘badlands’ are to the South. It is the latter that are featured in The Selfish Giant. I live in the Northern part of Bradford Met and I don’t make any claim to know the area the film is set in. Perhaps that’s what leads to my discomfort – so near yet so far in terms of what the film depicts.

I’ve seen references to ‘post-industrial’ Bradford and even Clio Barnard herself has made references to Ken Loach, Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold as well as the Dardenne Brothers in terms of ideas about social realism. I think that these comments should be approached with some caution – simply because these different filmmakers tend to focus on different aspects of an overall realist approach. For instance, I don’t think that The Selfish Giant has much to do with the view of a working-class mining community in 1969 offered in the Barry Hines/Ken Loach presentation of Kes (which Barnard herself compares to the horse in this film), but there certainly is a parallel of sorts with the Paul Laverty/Ken Loach world of Sweet Sixteen set much later in 2002 in post-industrial Greenock.

The inspiration for The Selfish Giant came from the Oscar Wilde short story with the same title. I haven’t read the story but I understand that it involves an ogre/giant who at one point prevents children from playing in his beautiful garden with the effect that the garden dies until children find a way to sneak back in. The theme of the story appears to be redemption, ultimately involving a form of Christian religious allegory (I was surprised to learn this). Barnard certainly pursues the idea of exclusion and offers some kind of hope at the end without resorting to religious meaning (as far as I could see). She creates a kind of magical tale that involves tragedy before the final sequences. I can see that there might be some connections to the Dardennes Brothers’ stories – and particularly the most recent ‘inspired by fairy tales’ story of The Kid With a Bike. In the same way, I can see a kind of ‘magical’ touch in the presentation of the urban meets rural landscape that is also there in Lynne Ramsay’s wonderful Ratcatcher.

In all of these films there is the warmth of a humanist depiction of families in difficult situations. Is it there in The Selfish Giant? I think it is, but it is presented with a bleakness and the almost complete absence of social structure/social networks – in short, any sense of community apart from the culture that surrounds the scrapyards of South Bradford. Clio Barnard has spoken about the research she has done into the traveller communities in the region and this is evident in the depiction of the scenes featuring illegal ‘trotting’ races using ‘sulkies’ – two-wheeled lightweight carts – on major roads in the early hours of morning. The film has to tread a fine line in these kinds of representations – there is a danger I think that they might be viewed through the lens of the reality TV camera. Bradford has been the subject of several recent reality TV programmes. The most recent of these, Bradford City of Dreams on BBC2 in May this year, was actually quite a decent stab at representing the city’s diversity but I am reminded of the scene in La haine when the youths chase off a TV crew who have come to shoot on their estate for a news report on local protest marches. What Bradford needs most is investment and economic regeneration rather than more attention from cultural commentators.

The two central characters who are ‘excluded’ are Arbor and Swifty, 13 year-old boys excluded from school because of behavioural problems, marginalised in society generally because of poverty and unemployment and struggling in families with other social problems including alcoholism and drug use. Swifty escapes into communion with horses but Arbor is more active in seeking to earn money ‘scrapping’ for anything he can find. This leads the pair into the dangerous world of copper cable theft and into the ‘giant’s den’ – a local scrapyard run by ‘Kitten’, an unscrupulous dealer who also owns a prize trotting horse.

I don’t need to spell out what happens in the narrative. The dangers associated with stealing copper wire from the railways, electricity sub- stations or telecommunications hubs are obvious. I suppose what disturbs me is I can’t see any way out for the lads. There isn’t any political solution or indeed any form of collective action put forward to rescue these communities from their exclusion. I can quite understand why Nick Lacey, as a local teacher, despairs at the depiction of the school that excludes the pair (see his blog entry). And watching them in the opening scenes make off with a length of cable stolen by other scrappers from a local railway line isn’t really ‘magical’. I’ve sat on too many trains delayed by signal failures after cable thefts.

That opening scene by a railway line reminded me of Ken Loach’s The Navigators, so I wasn’t too surprised to find that The Selfish Giant was shot by the same cinematographer, Mike Eley. There are other names that stand out in the crew including Harry Escott for the music and production design by Helen Scott. It’s great that Clio Barnard and her collaborators have had international festival success and the shoot did bring a production team to Bradford, but perhaps we could have a comedy next time?

Steve Coogan in Philomena (UK 2013)

philomena07

Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin (Steve Coogan) with the nuns in Tipperary

Philomena will be a big hit and it deserves to be so. There will be plenty written about it so I’ll confine myself to just a few comments. The biggest surprise for me was the seemingly ‘personal’ or ‘authorial’ stamp of Steve Coogan. The film may star Judi Dench and be directed by Stephen Frears, but it feels like Coogan is the driving force. He identifies with the subject matter (as a working-class/lower middle-class boy from a Manchester-Irish Catholic background), he produced the film using his own company Baby Cow, co-wrote the film with Jeff Pope and he takes one of the two leading roles as the Martin Sixsmith character.

The highlights for me (and other audiences will pick others) are those scenes in which Coogan/Sixsmith struggles with his own mixture of anger, frustration, cynicism and some form of revelation. For anyone interested in film acting and the exploitation of a ‘persona’, Coogan is a fascinating case study. He’s an accomplished mimic and comic actor but his success in creating ‘alternative’ comic personalities such as Alan Partridge means that it’s sometimes possible to see Coogan on screen struggling to contain three different characters inside the same role. For me The Look of Love earlier this year demonstrated how this can all go terribly wrong, whereas The Trip was a complete success. Coogan’s persona also fitted his portrayal of another North-Western character in 24 Hour Party People, again for Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom got it wrong with The Look of Love and credit, it would seem must go to Stephen Frears for keeping Coogan in check in his role as Sixsmith.

There is an interview on the Guardian film website with Coogan and Sixsmith together which I found quite fascinating. Sixsmith is yet another North-West boy (from Cheshire) but Oxford and stints in Moscow and Washington for the BBC have given him the confident sheen which Coogan hasn’t quite got. Watching Coogan as Sixsmith in the Washington scenes of Philomena, there is a tension because of this but it works to help represent the struggle going on within the character. At other times, I thought “those are Coogan lines” – there is a lovely bit of ‘business’ when Coogan/Sixsmith spots a photo of Jane Russell on the wall in a house of nuns and confuses her with Jayne Mansfield, blurting out that they were both ‘big’ women. Somehow these scenes too seem to help the characterisation.

Philomena is one of those popular films that have the potential to get people talking about important social issues. It’s a quality production with Robbie Ryan looking after camerawork and Alexandre Desplat as composer. It has some oddities in its narrative construction, partly the result I imagine of adapting a book which itself is a narrativised account of Philomena Lee and Martin Sixsmith’s search for the son she ‘lost’ 50 years earlier. It also poses an interesting question for narrative theorists. I won’t spoil the storytelling but do watch out for the use of old home movie footage that is introduced early in the film – before any of the characters on the screen could have seen it. I’m not sure what you could call this as it is a flashback and flashforward at the same time. I’m now interested to see what form any future critical writing about the film takes. I had feared that Philomena might be just another of those dull ‘awards films’ but it is much more interesting than that. I have seen some IMDB comments suggesting that it is another King’s Speech. Philomena has had similar ratings problems in the US (there are two or three, wonderfully effective, ‘fucks/fecks’ in the film) – but don’t worry it’s much more interesting than that earlier box-office winner.

Filth (UK/Sweden/Germany/Belgium/US 2013)

Bladesy (Eddie Marsan) and Bruce (James McAvoy) on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

Bladesy (Eddie Marsan) and Bruce (James McAvoy) on the Reeperbahn in Hamburg.

This is a thoroughly entertaining film. It’s scabrous, perverse, surreal and offensive but nonetheless engaging. You need to know that is an adaptation of an Irvine Welsh novel and that therefore there will be sex, drugs, violence and various obscenities. Nothing is to be taken seriously. In strict Aristotelean terms this is possibly a tragedy rather than a comedy – but even then the ending is ambiguous.

I haven’t read the Welsh novel, but a glance at Wikipedia’s page suggests that the adaptation has changed several aspects of the narrative and this may be a problem for Welsh fans. Non-Brits should be aware that ‘Filth’ is a slang term for both the police (‘Polis’ in Scotland) and for pornography as well as more properly for ‘dirt’. The anti-hero of Filth is a Detective Sergeant in the Edinburgh CID, Bruce Robertson, played by James McAvoy. Robertson is put in charge of a murder case which he must solve in order to gain promotion – and win back his wife and child who have left him. But this is a policeman who has a serious mental health problem and who is declining rapidly under a regime of cocaine, alcohol and obsessive sex. He is haunted by a childhood memory that begins to haunt him after he becomes involved in a street incident. Ironically this incident offers Robertson a possibility of some form of redemption but he is already set on a path of destruction which will damage all his colleagues.

Director John S. Baird is not an innovator matching the Danny Boyle of Trainspotting and there is nothing too surprising in the aesthetics of the film, but those of Welsh’s ideas that have made it into the film adaptation added to the array of fine performances by a truly stellar cast carry the film through: Baird keeps the pace going at a fair lick. It’s perhaps invidious to pick out only one or two actors and many of Scotland’s finest are here including Gary Lewis, Kate Dickie, Shirley Henderson, Martin Compston and John Sessions. You can’t really go wrong with talent like that, especially when you throw in the English stars like Eddie Marsan, Jamie Bell, Jim Broadbent and Imogen Poots. But above all there is James McAvoy. I’ve previously questioned his casting in action roles but here he is unassailable, generating viciousness, self-loathing and gleeful pleasure in tricking his colleagues.

This production is a good case study for an investigation of ‘British independent’ production in 2013. Despite the the Irvine Welsh connection (or perhaps because of it – two other adaptations after Trainspotting failed) and the excellent cast, money was hard to come by and the producers appear to have been in that classic position of paying the actors out of their own pockets at one point. Once again Europe comes to the rescue with public funding from Film i väst in Sweden and various funds in Germany and Belgium. This explains the insertion of a trip to Hamburg in the narrative. It looks like an injection of cash from Trudie Styler’s company topped off a £3 million budget. That’s about twice the size of a ‘domestic’ UK movie budget these days but it does appear that the money has been well spent on cast and effects plus music. Clint Mansell is in charge of music and though I have no real knowledge of the tracks used in the film, I think that they work pretty well. I’m sure that eventually there will be a fan community analysis of the music.

After three weekends on release (the first only in Scotland) Lionsgate are probably fairly pleased with the box office returns, especially given the ’18’ certificate in the UK and distribution to certain overseas territories has been finalised. Censorship will keep it out of India and North America might be a problem but in Northern Europe I think it will play well. So far the UK total is just over $4 million with only a 25% drop in Week 3.

It’s been a good couple of weeks for Scottish films with Sunshine on Leith and the specialised offering For Those in Peril. Here’s the shortest of many official trailers for Filth: