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Posts Tagged ‘drama’

Sometimes, the desire to do or possess something can become so overpowering you almost forget the reason why you wanted to do or own that thing in the first place, or even exactly when and where it first gripped you. So it has been with me and Matthew Bright’s Tiptoes, which I must have heard of back in the mid 2000s – I honestly have no idea. The sheer staggering misconceivedness of a central element of this movie, and the weirdness of the rest of it, seized my imagination in a vice-like grip; this same elements, ironically, mean it has virtually been obliterated from history. Long-suffering readers may recall my oft-expressed hope that my DVD rental service would, sooner or later, send me a copy of Tiptoes (they never did; I’m not even sure it’s available on disc in this country); since that company folded I may have still occasionally expressed a vague desire to see the film, but never with any great expectation of it coming to pass. Tiptoes became a kind of chimerical beast or cultural legend: I would hear vague rumours of it, and there was enough hard evidence to convince me that it really did exist, but there was no more chance of actually watching it than there was of encountering Bigfoot or a sea serpent.

Nevertheless: post-pandemic, major life changes loom, with the outcome still uncertain in many ways. And so I decided I would be damned if I did not make a proper effort to finally see Tiptoes before all of this came to pass. Is it on any of the streaming sites? It is not. Is it available to rent through the Main Big River service? Only if you live in the States, apparently. All seemed lost until a search of a prominent video-sharing site turned up the entire movie, which had been there for nearly six months. It was dubbed into Polish or Russian, in the crushingly artless way that former-Soviet Bloc countries normally do their dubbing (a gravelly male voice intones all the dialogue in a monotone), but it was better than nothing; and I have always felt that with a proper movie you don’t really need the dialogue to follow the story. So off we went, Tiptoes and I, together at last (albeit in Polish or Russian).

There’s a sense in which Tiptoes is a fairly straightforward comedy-drama with elements of romance to it. As it opens, the couple at the centre of the action are Steve and Carol. Steve trains firefighters for a living, while Carol is an independent, free-spirited artist. All is well, except for Carol’s nagging concerns that despite their plans to marry, he has yet to introduce her to anyone in his family.

The reason for this becomes clear as we see Steve entering a convention centre which is full of – and here we must be careful to get our terminology right – short people. Yes, there is a gathering of short folk underway, their number including virtually Steve’s entire family: he is the only person of normal stature in the clan. Even his twin brother Rolfe is short.

When Rolfe turns up at Carol’s studio looking for Steve, she is naturally surprised, but both of them are perturbed about Steve’s decision to keep quiet about his family’s shortcomings. Is he ashamed of being the scion of such a diminutive clan? The issue becomes a pressing one when Carol discovers she is pregnant, and there is a strong possibility the child will also be short. Can Steve overcome his issues and fully commit to both the relationship and parenthood, or will Carol be forced to fall back on the help of Rolfe and the rest of the family?

Yeah, well, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? I mean, I should say that the movie itself is a bit more tonally distinctive than it sounds – it’s not like this is some earnest issue-of-the-week telemovie: the B-plot appears to concern a French Marxist biker short person played by Peter Dinklage, who engages in a wild affair with a free-spirited and open-minded woman played by Patricia Arquette (the scene in which the two of them consummate their relationship, to a reggae soundtrack, is not one which quickly or easily fades from the memory). It does have some star power attached to it, too. Carol is played by Kate Beckinsale. Steve is played by Matthew McConaughey. And Rolfe is played by Gary Oldman.

(A brief pause to let that sink in is probably appropriate at this point.)

Yes: Rolfe the short person is played by Gary Oldman, who is five-foot-nine (174cm, for metricalists) and thus not the most obvious choice for the part. Oldman himself has said he thought it was a dream of a role, but admits that playing a short person was ‘a stretch’ (a perhaps infelicitous choice of words). He spends the majority of the film shuffling around on his knees, or kneeling down behind things, or with his lower body concealed inside furniture and tiny prop legs arranged in front of him. The prosthetics and so on are all acceptably well-done, but it’s still obviously Gary Oldman on his knees attempting a role for which he is arguably not qualified. I mean, it’s Oldman so he gives a great performance, as usual, but it’s like watching a man attempting complex and subtle card-tricks while the building around him burns down: your attention is always being dragged elsewhere.

Gary Oldman is on the left, in case you were wondering.

I’m not normally one to get too exercised about the whole issue of ‘appropriate casting’, but in this case it’s a difficult thing to get past – this one creative decision sends the whole film into a spin, making it uproarious and risible even when it’s trying to be serious. The presence of Dinklage really strips away the producers’ possible defence that a capable short-person actor was not available (though to be fair, Dinklage has defended the casting of Oldman).

I suspect that at this point in his career, Matthew McConaughey was doing whichever script landed at the top of the pile on his doormat, but the presence of Kate Beckinsale is at least a little curious: apparently she agreed to do the film at a greatly reduced rate, provided she was allowed to wear her lucky hat on-camera. This sounds like a bluff to me, but the director agreed (a row about the hat between the director and the producers ensued). Exactly what Kate Beckinsale’s lucky hat looks like I’m not sure, as she explores several curious avenues of the milliner’s art in the course of the movie; she is playing the type of character who tends to express their individuality by putting weird things on their head.

It’s hard to imagine Tiptoes having been made with a different cast – the extant version does burn itself into the memory once seen – but even so, I think the audience would still have been in for a rocky ride with this movie. It’s not just the casting that makes Tiptoes feel quite so off-kilter and peculiar, it’s the script. Towards the end all the weirdness with French Marxist bikers and the sex lives of short people drops away and it turns into a rather contrived and sentimental melodrama, as Steve falls short of meeting his responsibilities and romance blooms between Carol and Rolfe. If, as some would have you believe, this is a rom-com, it’s a rom-com where the main character abandons his wife and child and she then settles down with his short-person brother instead. Richard Curtis this is not.

No wonder the film has essentially vanished into obscurity. Is it worth watching? Well – if you’re a particular admirer of Gary Oldman and his undoubted talents, then perhaps,  but for everyone else this is the kind of film you only watch in order to confirm for yourself it actually exists. It does: it is every bit as magnetically weird and appalling as I had suspected (and hoped). I don’t have much of a bucket list, and the one I do have is now appreciably shorter.

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They held the Oscars last weekend, and a weird ceremony it was too (at least, the little of it that actually made it onto the news).  Perhaps it’s just me and my unreasonable sentimental attachment to the theatrical experience, but it seems very strange and perhaps even wrong to have an Academy Awards ceremony for a year in which hardly any films have been released to the big screen: I think I’ve been to see about six genuinely new movies in the last twelve months, mostly during that brief July-to-October period when the cinemas reopened. Letting films which have only been available to screen via streaming sites win Oscars is just playing into the hands of those sites, and potentially damaging theatrical cinema itself.

Then again, Netflix has been playing this game for a couple of years now, sneaking one of its movies out with the smallest possible cinema release necessary for it to qualify for Oscar nomination. Most studios make prestige projects with more than one eye on the gong season, but in the case of a streaming site which normally doesn’t release films at all, it seems particularly calculated and mercenary (I am aware this is becoming a bit of a theme when I start writing about Netflix films).

This year’s Oscars tilt from Netflix took the form of David Fincher’s Mank. Shot in luminous black and white, it opens with the arrival at a remote Californian ranch of screenwriter, wit and general bon vivant Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who is recovering from a broken leg suffered in a car crash. It is 1940 and Mankiewicz, his secretary (Lily Collins), and various other assistants are here to write the screenplay for a movie, to star and be directed by the prodigiously talented young Hollywood outsider Orson Welles (Tom Burke) – Welles will also get sole credit for the script.

The writing of this script is essentially a frame story for a film looking back on the previous ten years or so of Mankiewicz’s career in Hollywood, and particularly his relationship with the media tycoon and politician William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his wife Marion (Amanda Seyfried). Mankiewicz’s personal politics tend towards the left-of-centre (inasmuch as he has political beliefs, preferring to just be louchely witty when not drinking or gambling), quite unlike Hearst’s by this point – but it seems that Hearst enjoys having him around.

This becomes increasingly uncomfortable for Mankiewicz, as the ruthless power politics of Hollywood and California in general become more and more savage, and his own career begins to slide into decline as he alienates the studio bosses and generally makes himself unemployable. Perhaps these men, despite their lesser minds and imaginations, have realised more quickly than he the potential power at their command? Phony newsreels play a key role in the defeat of the Socialist candidate Upton Sinclair in a gubernatorial election.

The film’s thesis is that it is these experiences which influence the fallen-from-grace Mankiewicz when he is writing Welles’ film for him. That film turns out to be Citizen Kane, of course, which Hearst interpreted as a hatchet job against him and tried very hard to have stopped or suppressed – most people agree that Kane is indeed based on Hearst, but Mankiewicz’s motives for doing so are less clear-cut than the film suggests.

As noted, at least part of Netflix’s motivation for financing Mank seems to have been the expectation it would snag a few awards – which it has duly done, albeit mainly for its cinematography and production design. Why do I say this? Well, there are certain types of film that are much more likely to get attention from organisations like AMPAS, a set of boxes to be ticked.  One of the best bets is the box marked ‘Make Film About Hollywood Itself’ (the ‘Shoot In Black And White For Added Artsy Gravitas’ box is also good value). The fact this is a true-life tale of a well-remembered industry figure taking a stand on behalf of justice and integrity is also another factor in the film’s favour.

The fact that Mank is a movie about the origins of what’s still often hailed as the greatest film ever made (although apparently it has recently been the subject of a fierce challenge by Paddington 2) is obviously another point in its favour. The fact that this is a film about Citizen Kane in which Orson Welles is a relatively minor character is certainly an oddity: you might even argue that Mank suggests that Kane’s greatness is as much due to the contribution of Mankiewicz (a man with a long career as a Hollywood insider) as that of Welles (a colossal talent unable to find a place within the established studio system).

If you accept this reading, then beneath the surface the film is a little conflicted – the glamour of old Hollywood and its stars rubs up against the venality and ruthlessness of studio bosses (Louis B Mayer in particular gets it in the neck). Then again, perhaps this clash between dreams and reality is at the heart of all the films purporting to go behind the scenes in the movie business.

This one handles both aspects pretty well, at least on a visual level – all those awards were certainly deserved. What’s particularly clever is the way in which many of the scenes reference elements of Kane, even on a subliminal level: Hearst’s palatial mansion, with its own zoo on the grounds, inevitably recalls Kane’s retreat Xanadu; there are countless other references as well.

This kind of self-referentiality extends throughout the movie – transitions between the 1940 sequences and flashbacks are signified by captions in the form of stage directions – and initially I thought Mank was going to turn out to be a bit too clever for its own good: a lot of whistles and bells and great visuals but essentially just another example of the movie business gazing into its own navel while patting itself on the back (if you consider a film never really intended to run in cinemas to be a genuine part of the movie business, anyway).

In the end I think Fincher and Mank get away with it, mainly because of the strength of the central performance: I knew Herman Mankiewicz’s name, vaguely, before watching the film, but wasn’t really familiar with who he was; Gary Oldman brings him to life. It’s not the flashiest of turns – though Mankiewicz’s legendary wit certainly provides him with some good dialogue – which may be why it hasn’t brought him the same kind of acclaim as his (slightly hammy) performance as Churchill a few years ago. By the end of the film you do care about Mankiewicz and how his experiences have affected him. Oldman gets to do some good drunk acting, too, of course, as the screenwriter’s alcoholism and compulsive gambling are both dwelt upon in the movie.

Did Mankiewicz really write the bulk of Citizen Kane in less than a fortnight while permanently sluiced? It is at least an appealing bit of legend, although given that much of the ‘history’ presented in Mank has been challenged, one is inclined to doubt it. (If the rest of the film has the same level of historical accuracy as the scene at a 1930 script conference where someone describes a movie as being like The Wolf Man, a film which wasn’t made until 1941, then I am almost forced to conclude that Citizen Kane was never actually made at all, and our memories of it are just a case of Mandela syndrome.)

Mank is certainly worth watching, if only for the look and craft of the thing, and some great performances – as well as Oldman, Charles Dance is good value as Hearst, and there are decent turns from Tuppence Middleton, Arliss Howard and Lily Collins, too. It’s a witty and intelligent film that presents an interesting tale of life in Hollywood in the 1930s and early 40s. Whether that tale bears much relation to reality is another question, of course, but if nothing else the film reminds us that this has always been a complex and occasionally fraught issue.

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For someone who is overwhelmingly best-remembered as a singer, Frank Sinatra had a pretty good career in non-musical films: he won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity, directed None But the Brave (the first American-Japanese co-production), and at one point was in the frame to play the lead in both Dirty Harry and Die Hard (admittedly, the latter offer was a contractual obligation on the part of the producers). On the other hand, he did reject the idea of making a movie of A Clockwork Orange, thinking the idea had no potential, but nobody’s perfect.

Sinatra himself felt the zenith of his acting career came in 1962 with his role in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, one of those films which regularly shows up on lists of classics. (There was a fun pub quiz question a few years back – who is the only actor to appear in three of the movies on the AFI’s 100 Best of All Time list? I’ll give you a clue: they were also in Night of the Lepus, which is probably something they’re less proud of.) Certainly this is a formidably accomplished and intelligent film – it would be wrong to say that it hasn’t dated at all, but this hasn’t affected its ability to engage and entertain.

Sinatra plays Ben Marco, who at the start of the film is serving in the Korean War (that least romanticised of the USA’s 20th century conflicts). He is the leader of a patrol, assisted by his sergeant, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) – but things do not as planned when their native guide betrays them and they are captured by communist forces.

Three days later the patrol makes it back to their own lines, having lost only a couple of its members – Shaw’s incredible bravery has ensured their survival, and all the other survivors agree on his decency and general wonderfulness, even if they’re not convinced they actually like him all that much. Needless to say, Shaw gets the Medal of Honour for his deeds, which is eagerly seized upon by his calculating mother (Angela Lansbury), who sees it as a great publicity tool for Shaw’s stepfather, a senator of somewhat extreme views.

But Marco is troubled by nightmares, remembering the patrol being held prisoner by the Red Chinese and subjected to intensive conditioning and psychological programming: Shaw in particular being transformed into a mindless, remorseless killer. It is just a nightmare, though, isn’t it? But then he learns of other survivors of the patrol who are having the same dreams…

Yes, the whole story about Shaw’s stupendous bravery is just a cover-up for the abduction and processing of the patrol, as well as providing a convenient method of establishing Shaw as an unimpeachably heroic figure. Someone with knowledge of the right triggers – certain phrases and objects – can direct Shaw against any target they choose…

Stephen King has suggested that the political assassin – the proverbial lone gunman – was, for a while at least, one of the great bogeymen of American culture, and The Manchurian Candidate can’t have done anything to dispel this. Perhaps it’s fitting that this most famous of paranoid thrillers is surrounded by real-world conspiracy theories, but it’s certainly a striking coincidence that this is the second Sinatra-starring movie to revolve around a plan to effect change at the top of American society via a political assassination, the first being 1954’s Suddenly. Sinatra allegedly wanted both films withdrawn from circulation when it was suggested they had played a role in inspiring Lee Harvey Oswald’s successful assassination of John F Kennedy – rumour had it for a while that Sinatra bought the negatives to Suddenly and had the film destroyed. The assassin of Robert Kennedy, meanwhile, made various allegations concerning amnesia, brainwashing, and clandestine government activity, all of which are themes this movie touches upon.

Nevertheless, for a political thriller, this is a film which is notably difficult to read in terms of its own politics: one can perhaps detect a note of sympathy towards liberalism, but in general it is fiercely cynical when it comes to ideology of all flavours: quite which party the climactic convention is being held by is left open, while the particular agenda of the villains of the film is also quite obscure – they aspire to a level of social control which will ‘make martial law seem like anarchy’, but this feels more like a kind of authoritarian megalomania than a particular political position. They certainly don’t feel like committed communists – Lansbury vows to topple the communist powers which have assisted her. Then again, even the ideological commitment of the communists seems to be somewhat lacking: one Soviet agent is pleased to report that one of their front operations actually turns a modest profit, while another looks forward to spending an afternoon visiting a high-class department store. In all cases, it seems to be about the exercise of control in pursuit of enlightened (or not so enlightened) self-interest.

The film is quite open about this, opting not to present the story as a mystery – the explanation as to what has happened to Shaw and the rest of the patrol is presented very early in the film, before Marco or anyone has really figured it out. The real driver of the plot is what Shaw’s controllers have in mind for him to do, which is indeed held back until the final act of the movie. In the meantime the movie is powered by the intricacies of the plot and the strength of the performances.

The acting is uniformly good, although Harvey’s tendency to declaim his dialogue in a rather sub-Olivier manner is an unusual choice. Sinatra gives a fine, subtle performance – although the scene where he engages hand-to-hand combat with a Korean communist agent inevitably brings to mind Peter Sellers fighting Burt Kwouk – and he has some engaging scenes with Janet Leigh (who is our pub quiz answer: her other two films from the top 100 are Psycho and Touch of Evil). The film’s star turn, however, is Angela Lansbury, who creates a quite extraordinary monster in Shaw’s mother, Mrs Iselin – it’s been suggested that Richard Condon’s original novel was partly plagiarised from I, Claudius, in which case it makes perfect sense that Mrs Iselin should be a modern-day equivalent of Livia Drusilla. (Seeing as we were recently talking about unlikely parent-child age-gaps in cinema, it’s worth mentioning that Harvey and Lansbury are completely convincing despite there being only three years between them.)

As I’ve said, some stylistic elements of The Manchurian Candidate have dated a little, but the film’s cynicism and intelligence are as engaging as ever. Perhaps in its own way it also acknowledges the fragility of human beings, and the invisible damage that soldiers can carry home with them, a notion which perhaps feels much more modern than one might expect. It’s the mixture of intelligence, cynicism and humanity which makes the film such an impressive and successful piece of entertainment.

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Another day, another Netflix movie which I guess is really aimed at a YA audience, a bit like A Week Away (I suppose). Today we are discussing Moxie, based on a novel by Jennifer Mathieu and directed by Amy Poehler. Normally I’d be a bit wary of approaching this kind of film, but revisiting Parks and Rec (starring, produced, and occasionally written and directed by Poehler) has been one of the things that’s kept me sane during the current lockdown, so I figured it was worth a look.

It starts off looking like a fairly routine high-school comedy-drama. Main character Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are just starting eleventh grade; we see are the usual high-school tribes and characters, including a comedically jaded form room teacher and a less than entirely impressive principal (Marcia Gay Harden). There is also new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena), who immediately makes an impression by questioning the choice of The Great Gatsby as an English lit text, as it is predominantly concerned with the lives and issues of wealthy white men.

This puts Lucy on the wrong side of wealthy white American football team captain Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who sets out to annoy (in the words of his defenders) or persecute (in the words of everyone else) his victim. This only makes Vivian more aware of the entrenched unfairness of the high school system, especially when the jocks post their list of all the girls, ranked according to various demeaning criteria.

Vivian finds herself compelled to do something about this, but what? It turns out her mum (Poehler) used to be a bit of a rebel herself, and a fan of the early-90s radical feminist riot grrl movement. Vivian is inspired to anonymously publish a zine she calls Moxie, urging the young women of the high school not to accept the status quo, but to stand up and make their voices heard, finally…

So, once again it’s fair to say I am probably not in the primary target demographic for this movie – unless this notion itself is just another example of putting people into categories rather than judging them as individuals. It may be slightly counterintuitive to say so, but this is a rare example of a mainstream movie which doesn’t, on some level, have a feminist subtext. However, this is only because Moxie has an explicitly feminist text, albeit an inclusive one that suggests men can be feminists too (hey, you know what, I’m absolutely not even going there).

Now my a priori response to something like this would be to echo the old Sam Goldwyn (or possibly Humphrey Bogart, or Ernest Hemingway) line about how messages are for Western Union and this sort of thing is best done with a light touch. But here again I am forced to doubt myself and wonder if doing so isn’t itself being complicit in the misogynistic culture the film is rightly so critical of.

I suppose this in itself is a sign of the film’s success in raising awareness of the issues involved and making the viewer (i.e. me) think about what it’s saying. I was always aware I was having issues raised for my attention, and being gently (or not so gently, most of the time) guided towards a particular set of conclusions, but the film never feels especially shouty or strident: angry, yes, but justifiably so.

How does it manage this? Mainly by never losing track of the traditional storytelling virtues. It’s not just about issues and injustices: the characters are carefully drawn and played by the (fairly) young cast with conviction. None of them are established names, as far as I’m aware – with the exception of young Schwarzenegger, and this is a different sort of thing entirely. (Let’s be scrupulously fair here and judge Patrick Schwarzenegger on the merits of his own performance, which does everything the film requires, rather than his family connections or anything arising from them.) Good work, too, from the older cast members: Poehler gives a very nicely-judged turn, and she is supported well by Ike Barinholtz, Harden, and Clark Gregg (eagle-eyed viewers may spot a very tiny cameo by Helen Slayton-Hughes, whom Parks and Rec fans will recognise as long-suffered City Hall clerk Ethel Beavers).

Still, this is a more serious piece of work in every respect than the kind of thing Poehler is best-known for. It would be deadly for this to come across as too much of a single-issue movie, though, and Poehler dodges the pitfall by ensuring it is nuanced and character-driven. Loud and angry protesting doesn’t come easily to everyone: one of Vivian’s closest friends has a different cultural background and as a result has a slightly different set of issues to deal with. There’s also the fact that being a perpetual state of anger is exhausting and risks alienating otherwise-sympathetic people around you.  The film recognises that, no matter how glaring and egregious an injustice may be, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the solution to it is simple, straightforward, or will come without sacrifices.

The only times the film falls down are when it loses track of this, and becomes more simplistic, even verging on the melodramatic: the disinterest of the school principal is essential to the framing of the story – this is young rebels versus the establishment, after all – but it just doesn’t seem credible, post-Weinstein, for a female character in a position like this to be quite so indifferent to some of the abuse going on. There’s also a third-act plotline about a sexual assault which feels just a tiny bit glib and contrived. We could also talk about the problematic way in which white men are inevitably demonised, to some extent at least, in this kind of narrative, but this is a big and complex topic.

Given that Netflix have, as noted, also recently funded a faith-based musical romance of almost ferocious innocuity, one has to wonder the extent to which its commitment to feminism agitprop is equally calculated. The two films couldn’t be more different: but this is by far the superior of the two. It’s not perfect, but then axe-grinding films like this one almost never are. Nevertheless it manages to be an engaging piece of entertainment as well as an openly angry and political film, and this is a considerable achievement.

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There’s a game you can play, if you get really bored and someone is prepared to do the research: it’s called Oscar or Not? and you play it like this. Someone says the name of an actor and everyone else has to say whether or not they ever won an Oscar. Easy peasy, right, but as ever, there may be a few surprises.

So – Woody Harrelson: Oscar or not? Not. Jason Robards? Oscar (two back to back, in fact). Jim Broadbent? Oscar. Peter O’Toole? Not (eight times). Brad Pitt? Oscar (two, but only one for acting). As you can see, there are literally seconds of fun to be had. Go on then, one more: Harrison Ford: Oscar or not?

If you don’t know the answer, it’s a tricky one, n’est-ce pas? Harrison Ford’s the kind of person who must have won an Oscar, surely? A few years back, someone did the sums and worked out that Ford’s movies, collectively, had made more money than anyone else’s collated filmography, and that kind of box office clout is not the sort of thing the Academy usually overlooks. (Then again, someone may have snuck past Ford in the intervening period, mostly likely to be either Christopher Lee or Samuel L Jackson, and neither of them have picked up a little gold homunculus.) On the other hand, as we have noted hereabouts in the past, Harrison Ford has stuck pretty strictly to his only-one-movie-a-year regimen for the last forty years, and for the last couple of decades his projects either haven’t been particularly high profile (I give you Crossing Over, Morning Glory and Paranoia, just for starters), or have been calculated franchise extensions mainly noted for being considered inferior to other Ford films from the 1980s.

Well, fear not, I shall put you out of your misery. Not by bringing this piece to an end (ha, ha) but by going to the point and revealing that, no, Harrison Ford has never won an Oscar (and if you ask me, he’s leaving it a bit late if he’s serious about getting one). The closest he came was in 1986 when he was nominated for Witness (this was a fairly noteworthy occurrence, as the film was actually released prior to the previous year’s Oscars rather than in the traditional awards period).

The film was Peter Weir’s first US project. It opens with the wide open spaces and swirling grassland which form the backdrop of most of the movie, as the people of a old-fashioned rural community come together for a funeral. The young widow, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), struggles through bravely; one of her neighbours (Alexander Godunov) is clearly looking to press his suit, but circumstances dictate he bide his time. Not long after, Rachel and her son Samuel (Lukas Haas), set off to stay with relatives – which involves passing through another world.

For they and their community are Amish, devout Anabaptists who eschew most contacts with the modern world. This makes travelling through Philadelphia a bit of an adventure, for Samuel at least, but things take a darker turn when he witnesses a brutal murder in the railway station restroom. Soon on the scene is detective John Book (Ford), who reveals that the victim was an undercover cop. Despite Rachel’s desire to get away from this sordid world, Samuel’s testimony will be vital – especially when it looks like the killer (Danny Glover) is himself part of the police department.

However, Book shares his suspicions with the wrong person, for his captain (Josef Sommer) is part of the plot as well. Book takes Rachel and Samuel home, trusting to the insularity of the Amish world to protect both them and himself – for an attempt on his life has left him wounded. But can a big city cop fit in here well enough to hide from the men who are hunting him?

This is essentially the first act of the film, which handles the requirements of its thriller element briskly and with clarity. There’s a sense in which this is a rather calculated piece of work – you can tell that director Peter Weir isn’t really that interested in a thriller about being on the run from dirty cops, but at the same time no major studio is going to put money about a clash of cultures mostly taking place amongst the Amish of Pennsylvania (‘we don’t make rural movies,’ insisted one big-name studio when offered the chance to finance the film).

The thriller plot is very straightforward and mainly there to make the film appealing to a wider audience; the latter is also really true of the presence of Ford himself, who at this time was overwhelmingly known for his various films with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. All of those were big, flashy, often noisy movies, with Ford’s main duty arguably to bring a little humanity and self-deprecating humour to great machines which could easily have becoming grating and soulless. You can see why the actor would jump at the chance to appear in a much quieter film with only the most cursory genre elements – and he makes the most of the opportunity, still retaining his movie star charisma but giving a performance of great warmth, subtlety and wit.

Witness is often acclaimed for its success as a romance, but while this is ostensibly a relationship between Ford and McGillis, there’s a sense in which she represents the totality of the rural experience and the environment in which Book finds himself – something totally new to him, for there is a sense of community here which seems to be lacking in the big city. The most famous set-piece of the film (if set-piece is the right way to describe a sequence in which a group of people build a barn) depicts the community coming together, and the long middle section of the film portrays Book slowly assimilating amongst the Amish, and becoming accepted by them.

The dictates of the plot, however, require that this be a less than total assimilation: Book isn’t capable of passively accepting the crass behaviour of tourists, thus standing out in the community, and in the end he leaves and returns to his old life. That this somehow feels an acceptable and logical ending for the film – Book really has little to return to, as we have already seen – suggests that Weir never quite stops presenting the Amish something as other and somehow strange, literally otherworldly. Nevertheless, the film is striking for its openness toward stillness, silence and simplicity: this is what marks it out as something unusual amongst studio thrillers, and perhaps what has given it its reputation for artiness. But this is also what makes it such an impressive and satisfying film, one of the best in Ford’s filmography.

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Kornel Mundruczo’s White God, originally released in 2014, opens with a rather lovely aerial shot of a seemingly-deserted city, which I presume is Budapest (this is a Hungarian production). Gradually we become aware of a single moving figure in the great urban expanse – a teenage girl (Zsofia Psotta), riding her bicycle. (There is a trumpet sticking out of her backpack, incongruously enough.)

Questions as to what is going on begin to get an answer very soon, although it is not one of those answers which is particularly helpful: the girl, whom we eventually learn is called Lili, is being chased by dogs. But just one or two dogs. Not even a pack of six or seven or a dozen. Hundreds of dogs of all shapes and sizes are pursuing her through the streets of the apparently empty city.

My default position is to be rather disparaging about films which open with this kind of striking sequence and then jump back to days or weeks earlier to show how we ended up in this situation. With a TV show or a book, where the audience may have come across it by chance and may not be fully committed, fair enough: hook them in. But for a movie? Come on. They’ve already bought their ticket and popcorn and settled in. This kind of tease is surely not necessary.

Except when it’s really well done, of course. The opening of White God (as far as I can tell this is a fridge title, by the way) is certainly well done enough, and, like the rest of the movie, scores impressively high on the ‘well, I’ve never seen anything quite like this before’.

The plot proper begins with Lili’s mother having to go to Australia for her work for three months, obliging Lili to go and live with her cold and distant father, Daniel (Sandor Zsota). This would be awkward enough – Daniel’s flat is so small that the two of them have to share a bedroom – but the situation is exacerbated by the fact that Lili, naturally, insists on bringing her dog Hagen with her (Hagen is played by two other dogs, named Bodie and Luke).

It turns out that the Hungarian government has recently imposed a special tax on non-purebreed dogs (just go with it, I guess), and naturally Hagen is a mongrel. This is the last straw for Daniel, who turns Hagen out of the car on a busy road and drives off.

So far, so very much like a whole load of weepy melodramas about dogs and their young owners – but even up to this point, the film has had a bleak, hard edge to it, suggesting things may take a slightly different path. So it proves, as the narrative splits – one strand follows Lili’s attempts to find Hagen, rebelling against her father and getting into trouble as she does so. This isn’t a barrel of laughs, but it’s still lighter than the travails of Hagen, who is variously hunted and exploited by the human beings he encounters, eventually being sold to a man who trains him to take part in dog-fighting bouts. (There is a degree of grisliness involved, but the film almost goes out of its way to indicate no animals were harmed, etc.) Hagen ends up being grabbed and taken to the pound, but there’s only so much that a dog can take before he snaps…

As readers of long standing will know, I usually avoid lazy ‘this film is like X meets Y’ formulations, but the temptation to describe White God as ‘Lassie meets Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ is irresistible (obviously). Soon enough Hagen is leading a horde of warrior mongrels into the city, intent on a terrible revenge against human civilisation…

Well, as I said: the film does score highly on the ‘not seen this in a movie before’ front, and the storytelling is very well done, considering that quite long stretches of the film feature no dialogue whatsoever. The radical shifts in the narrative – from girl-and-her-dog melodrama, to the bleak and naturalistic mid-section, to the slightly surreal fantasy-horror of the closing stages – are very adroitly handled as well. Nor should one overlook the contribution made by the two lead actors – Zsofia Psotta in particular gives an impressively self-possessed performance.

The truth is, while novelty isn’t everything when it comes to a story, genuine novelty can take you a surprisingly long way. I can understand why the makers of the film decided to open with the flash-forward to the third act: seeing how we get from an ordinary, rather downbeat domestic drama to one of the more surreal movie apocalypses of recent years is the film’s main point of traction.

That said, once the doggie apocalypse gets going, there’s an element of slightly self-conscious weirdness to the film that stops it from being completely successful and immersive as either a drama or a piece of horror – perhaps it’s there all along, albeit as manneredness rather than weirdness. Possibly even the writers and director are aware that suggesting a canine rebellion could put a whole city into lockdown and lead to the army being called out.

Beyond that, I’m also slightly curious as to what the moral premise of the movie is. There’s clearly some kind of subtext about animal rights going on – Daniel appears to be some kind of quality control inspector at an abattoir, and we get to see various scenes showing what goes on there (knives and bone saws are prominent). Clearly, if everyone had been nicer to Hagen from the start, things would have worked out differently – but is the subtext and fundamental message of the film really just ‘be nicer to dogs’? I rather think it might be, in which case we kind of have to conclude that White God is ultimately quite facile.

But, as noted, for all that it may be a slightly odd and simplistic fable, White God is well directed and performed, with sterling work in particular from the animal trainers. It’s certainly worth watching simply for its sheer ‘you what…?’ value.

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There’s a school of thought which suggests that the western genre was essentially a wholesome, thoughtful and sincere vehicle for examining the nature of the American national psyche, until Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood came along and perverted it into something cynical, nihilistic and obsessed with hollow slaughter. I think this is overly simplistic: darkness crept into the West years before the spaghetti western came into vogue, allowed in by some of the genre’s most celebrated home-grown exponents.

John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arriving by train in the town of Shinbone, presumably some time around the turn of the century (the film is deliberately coy about the times and places involved, for this is in a sense the story of the entirety of the American frontier). Stoddard is one of America’s leading politicians and a very significant figure; his unexpected arrival causes a stir. What has brought him back to the town where he first became famous?

Journalists gather, but Stoddard and Hallie are more interested in catching up with old acquaintances: retired marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) and lowly ranch-hand Pompey (Woody Strode) chief amongst them. There is an air of inescapable melancholy and regret in the air, of things long-buried being uncovered, all connected to the reason for the Stoddards’ visit: to attend the funeral of washed-up town drunk Tom Doniphon (who, when he eventually appears in the flashback which makes up the bulk of the film, is played by John Wayne). But why?

Stoddard, with the air of a man finally getting something off his chest, tells the tale. The scene changes to many years earlier: Stoddard is travelling to Shinbone by stagecoach, a freshly-qualified lawyer. However, the coach is ambushed by the notorious local bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his men, and Stoddard is badly beaten when he resists. What’s left of him is hauled into town by Doniphon and his servant Pompey, and he’s taken in by the family running the local saloon. He’s nursed back to health by their daughter, Hallie, which Doniphon is a bit disgruntled about (he has plans of the marryin’ kind which involve her).

Stoddard is determined to see Valance brought to justice, which Doniphon roundly ridicules him for: law books mean nothing here, compared to the authority of a gun barrel. If Stoddard wants to stop Valance, he’s going to have to kill him, law or no law. Stoddard is appalled by the prospect (to say nothing of the fact he’s useless with a gun). Meanwhile, tensions are growing between Doniphon and the lawyer, as Stoddard grows closer to Hallie, teaching her to read and write in his capacity as the town’s new schoolteacher.

The lack of law and order in Shinbone is partly due to the territory not having been given statehood yet, which Stoddard and the town dignitaries would like to see happen – but the powerful local cattle barons want to see things stay as they are, and retain Valance to ensure this happens. Stoddard finds himself inevitably heading for a confrontation with the gunman – but, even with Doniphon’s tuition, can he possibly have a chance?

There’s certainly more of a drama than a traditional western about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and perhaps a fair bit of a romance, too: a big portion of the plot revolves around the love triangle between Doniphon, Hallie and Stoddard. The fashion in which this resolves is one of the bittersweet elements which runs through the movie; there is something profoundly melancholy and wistful about the framing scenes that bookend it. The Stoddards reflect on the changes that the railroad and modern technology have brought to the town, rather ambivalently. ‘The desert’s still the same,’ offers Appleyard, rather dismally.

Perhaps, then, this is the story of how the west was lost – or, at least, tamed, if that isn’t the same thing. It’s about the creation of civilisation and society about of anarchy, on one level, a place where men like Stoddard can prosper, but not – it’s implied – ones like Tom Doniphon or Liberty Valance himself.  What’s telling is that it’s suggested that Doniphon has much more more in common with Valance than with Stoddard – neither man has much time for rules or finer points of behaviour, being ferocious individualists, and if Doniphon is a ‘better’ man than Valance, that’s simply due to his essential character rather than any kind of sense of moral obligation.

That this is put across so effectively is mainly due to Ford’s casting, which is both brilliant and obvious: Wayne is playing his usual monolithic rugged individualist, verging on self-parody by this point: by his own admission, a very tough, unreconstructed alpha male. You can’t imagine him playing Stoddard any more than James Stewart playing Doniphon: like Hitchcock and many other directors, Ford recognised Stewart’s genius for playing flawed, human heroes, and that’s what he does here. (We should probably note the irony that in real life, Stewart was a decorated war veteran, while Wayne was acutely self-conscious about his own lack of military service.) In many ways the film is much more about the conflict between Doniphon and Stoddard than either man’s clash with Valance himself (and, as noted, Doniphon and Valance are in many respects mirrors of each other).

In the end, of course, Valance is shot and a bright future for the west is assured – but this, like most of the film, is couched in numerous levels of irony and ambiguity. The film does romanticise the old west, but not without qualification; it suggests that the old west, with its heroes in white hats and virtue always naturally triumphant, is a myth, with little grounding in truth – in this respect it to some extent anticipates Unforgiven, and many other revisionist westerns. But it also suggests the myth is a necessary one for America’s sense of itself to endure. In this respect The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a surprisingly dark and complex film – amongst other things, suggesting that dark and ruthless acts, carried out in secret, are necessary for civilisation to thrive – but it is also a touching and surprisingly moving portrait of the central characters and their relationship. A serious film about complicated ideas, and real emotions; one of the great American westerns, I think, and a harbinger of the genre’s future.

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Were you aware they’d done a remake of Point Break? I’m guessing it’s really not a very good movie, seeing as it’s so obscure. When I first became aware of it the other day, my immediate thought was ‘that’s a pretty new movie to be getting a remake’ – but then, of course, I thought about it and realised that Point Break – the Kathryn Bigelow version, that is – is thirty years old this year. Thirty! I can scarcely believe it.

On the other hand, while all great movies have a timeless quality, that doesn’t preclude them from also being essentially of the time they were made, either, and there is something quintessentially early-90s about Point Break: it’s not brash and excessive like an 80s movie, but neither does it have that slightly chilly slickness you get in a lot of films from the following decade. The sense of a changing of the guard is only emphasised by the presence of iconic 80s heart-throb Patrick Swayze (in a very questionable but also authentic hair-style) and also Keanu Reeves, a man for whom the 90s were a defining decade.

The film opens with scenes of Swayze hanging ten and catching waves (etc), and looking majestic doing so, while Reeves struts his stuff on the FBI academy firing range. Keanu is playing football-star-turned-rookie-FBI-agent Johnny (made-up name) Utah, whose first assignment sees him join the bank robbery section in Los Angeles. Utah is a bit buttoned-down, but not yet a fully-fledged pen-pusher like his boss. He is partnered with a world-weary veteran named Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) who has become a laughing-stock around the office: charged with catching an elite gang of robbers nicknamed the Dead Presidents, Pappas has become convinced that they are surfers, based on their schedule (they’re only active in summer, California’s surf season) and a few shreds of forensic evidence. Someone needs to go undercover on the beach and see what’s going down…

Well, it’s obviously not going to be Busey, so Keanu buys a board and is soon getting surfing lessons from a nice young woman named Tyler (Lori Petty). Through her he has his doors of perception well and truly opened up when he meets top surfer, free spirit, and near-as-dammit spiritual guru Bodhi (Swayze) and his gang of followers. Not only that, his buttons are loosened, his screws are undone and he takes to wandering about inside the FBI building carrying his board. He even turns up late for a raid after some night-surfing (and a spot of the old whoa-ho with Petty) takes the place of the recommended early night. But could Bodhi and his pals be getting up to more than some extreme sports?

It sounds rather generic when you write it down that way, and indeed one of the things that makes Point Break such an intriguing movie is the fact that it has almost exactly the same basic plot trajectory as the original The Fast and the Furious film while still feeling like a stylish and classy film for grown-ups, right down to the central character dynamic. One plot summary I’ve seen of this movie suggests that Keanu finds his mission complicated when he falls in love with Swayze’s ex-girlfriend. The film itself is rather more ambiguous on whom the exact object of Keanu’s affection is, something which Hot Fuzz recognised with typically forensic accuracy when one character summarised a key sequence: ‘Patrick Swayze has just robbed this bank, and Keanu Reeves is chasin’ him through peoples’ gardens, and then he goes to shoot Swayze but he can’t because he loves him so much and he’s firin’ his gun up in the air and he’s like ‘ahhh!” It’s all very subtextual, naturally, but Swayze is very sinewy and macho and Keanu is still at that point where he’s often sort of blankly bovine and – there’s not really another mot juste in this case – pretty.

Nevertheless, Keanu is showing signs of improvement, and this is surely the first film to establish his potential as a genuine action movie star: he runs and fights and chucks himself about with great aplomb. And he always has that same Reevesian charisma – he is a still point of total calm on the screen, which you somehow cannot help but fill with your affection for the lad. At one point in Point Break, the film (which has hitherto been relatively restrained and naturalistic) requires Keanu to hurl himself out of a plane in flight, without a parachute, and apprehend his quarry in free-fall. Even at the height of Bondian absurdity, Roger Moore was excused this sort of thing, but Keanu – well, he doesn’t exactly sell the bit outright, but he makes you indulge the film in it.

Of course, if we’re talking about pretty – and yes, this is a fairly shallow and spurious bit of linking – then we should also mention that Lori Petty is in this movie too. She always struck me as someone extremely smart and watchable, but – on the face of things, at least – the failure of Tank Girl dealt her career as someone who could lead a movie a mortal blow. Here, you just wish she was given a bit more to do than be a plot device: as noted, the central relationship in the movie is between Reeves and Swayze, so she ends up sidelined and barely appears in the third act of the movie.

Most of this is chasing and shooting, which Bigelow handles with her characteristic muscular efficiency: she’s had a distinguished career, but one where good films just haven’t had the success which they deserved, with some quite substantial gaps in her filmography as a result. On one level Point Break feels like it occupies some peculiar narrative space between The Lost Boys and The Fast and the Furious – Patrick Swayze (who surely gives the best performance of his career here) as the somewhat unlikely missing link between Kiefer Sutherland and Vin Diesel – but at the same time the film has a class and a quality which elevates it above the level of simply being a popcorn genre movie. I’m not sure it has any genuine depth to it, but it certainly gives that impression. A great thriller, deserving of its cult status.

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There’s nothing quite like pointlessly diluting your brand, is there, and so we shall take another break from reviewing movies old and new and looking at cult TV shows to examine another obscure play from over forty years ago. Well, maybe this stuff qualifies as cult TV as well, I don’t know – it seems to be a curiously elastic term which expands to cover everything from Supermarket Sweep to The Bridge. Up for consideration this time is a play I mentioned a little while ago when discussing Abigail’s Party: the 1974 production Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke.

Clarke was an acclaimed and controversial director who is best remembered for a series of political, naturalistic plays concerned with topics such as racism, the death penalty and the situation in Northern Ireland. Penda’s Fen is a wholly different kind of beast, and apparently Clarke himself, who was recruited to the production by Rudkin, never completely understood what it was supposed to be about. Perhaps this explains some of the play’s weirder and more outlandish images. Or perhaps not: the whole thing is like a sort of lyrical fever-dream set in the heart of England.

Penda’s Fen begins with classical music playing over beautiful shots of the English countryside – but then what looks like barbed wire is superimposed on the image and a hand, disfigured with some kind of burn or scar, rises into view to grasp at it. It’s the first of many striking images and, like many of them, the significance of it only becomes clear (or, at least, less obscure) later.

We spend most of the play in the company of Stephen (Spencer Banks), a boy in his late teens who is, shall we say, a lad of strong opinions. His father (John Atkinson) is the local clergyman, so it’s just as well that he is a devout adherent of a certain brand of Christianity; his politics are equally uncompromising and he also seems to be staunchly homophobic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all this means that he is a bit of a misfit at school, mocked and disparaged by his peers – and his teachers too, to some extent. The scorned do well to look scornful, as Aldous Huxley nearly said, and he is hostile to a local left-wing writer named Arne (played by Ian Hogg from Rockcliffe) when they meet, and Arne shares his belief that a secret military facility has been built somewhere in the vicinity.

It seems that Arne may have a point, when a young man out in the fields is found horribly burnt, and the police and army camp out around his hospital bed. (It looks like Penda’s Fen is about to turn into something resembling Edge of Darkness, but this plot point never actually eems to go anywhere.) The play has a curiously impressionistic quality to it, where it’s often not entirely clear how events are connected, but this seems to be the catalyst for a sort of existential crisis which besets Stephen: he dreams of angels, demons, and an erotic encounter with a male classmate. He discovers not only that his father is responsible for a number of almost-heretical works of theology, but that he himself has been adopted. His sense of his beliefs and himself is deeply shaken as the play continues, where he has more bizarre visions, including an encounter with Edward Elgar and a climactic audience with King Penda, the last pagan ruler of England and a symbol of…

Well, that would almost be telling, wouldn’t it? If you take a long hard look at Penda’s Fen and render it down to its essentials, it is basically just a story of the coming of age of white middle-class boy who learns to look beyond the clear-cut certainties that have previously comprised his beliefs. This is a horribly reductionist view of the play, however, missing out much of what makes it such a startling cultural artifact. It’s obviously the product of a somewhat rarefied intellectual sensibility – there are casual references to etymology, classical music (the dream-Elgar Stephen encounters imparts to him the ‘solution’ to the Enigma Variations), and theology – in 1974 it was apparently perfectly okay for a mainstream TV drama to include lengthy discussions of the nature of the Manichaean heresy.

However, what makes the play so visually striking are the fantasy elements that are perhaps responsible for much of its reputation and the continued interest people have in it. Angels and demons fill the screen, ancient kings manifest from out of thin air, Stephen witnesses a ritual where children are ritually mutilated while their smiling parents look on, the ground cracks open, threatening to engulf the action… much of this is done with a primitiveness that makes it all the more jarring. I should really it make clear that this is not a ‘naturalistic’ fantasy (there’s an awkward oxymoron for you) – it is always quite clear that the play is operating in the realm of symbolism and metaphor, rather than ‘real’ supernatural creatures: lazily putting it into the same category as a play like The Stone Tape would be a mistake.

At the heart of the play is the English countryside, which Rudkin clearly envisions as the heartlands of a kind of principled dissent, home of a spiritual awkward squad including Penda and Edward Elgar, possibly including Jesus as an honorary member and with Stephen as their latest representative. Near the conclusion of the play he laments the fact that he now finds himself questioning his faith, his political beliefs (he can no longer be sure he’s the pure-blooded Englishman he formerly thought), and his sexuality. But Penda’s apparition suggests there is no shame in any of this, that there is merit in being an outsider and a revolutionary. A play which initially looks to be in the lyrical-pastoral mode turns out to be a paean to the radicals and the misfits (not entirely surprisingly given this was initially shown in the Play for Today strand).

Put like that, the message sounds glib, but the play is powerful in both its imagery and performances, striking for its intelligence and willingness to challenge the viewer. It’s one of the most experimental pieces of TV drama I’ve ever seen, but it was clearly made with commitment and skill by Dudkin, Clarke, and the BBC. It would probably be disastrous if something like Penda’s Fen was shown on TV every week. But it must have been wonderful to live at a time when new dramas like this were always a possibility.

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Once more unto the strange demi-monde which constitutes a trip to the cinema these days. The multiplex appears to be doing its best to battle on, showing whatever new films are being released, big-screen favourites (I suspect attendance for the inexplicably popular diversity barn-dance The Greatest Showman may be hit by the fact it gets its UK terrestrial TV premiere this week), and even the odd special event (they’re opening one evening especially to show a new documentary about Gretel Thunderbird). But the signs that something is not quite right are unmissable – normally you hardly ever get out-of-genre trailers ahead of a new film, but there was a real mixed bag this time, including the trailer for Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth’s new weepie twice (once was enough to do the job).

Anyway, this week’s Medal of Valour goes to the makers and releasers of Rose Glass’ Saint Maud – although, if we’re going to be strict about this, the film actually came out a couple of weeks ago, before the local cinemas went back into siege conditions. This is, one suspects, quite a low-budget movie (not that it comes across that way), and so the exposure of the backers should be limited: with a possible American release still to come, one hopes they do okay with it.

Morfydd Clark plays Maud, a young woman working as a nurse in a grim-looking seaside town in England. Before the film even gets going we are treated to a rather ominous tableau involving a corpse, somewhere vaguely medical, and a cockroach, and of course the question is whether this is backstory or a promise of things to come. It is some time before we find out. In the meantime, Maud (who is clearly very devout and much given to prayer) starts her new posting as a palliative carer for a former dancer named Amanda (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda is very ill – ‘you’ll be seeing her soon, I think,’ Maud says to God – and perhaps finding it hard to come to terms with her condition. She is cynical and jaded.

This is not, you would think, a recipe for happy relations with a committed Christian like Maud, but Amanda seems to be fascinated by Maud’s faith and even begins to show signs of having a bit of a spiritual awakening herself. However, as all this is going on, we are learning more about Maud herself: she is prone to strange, rapturous seizures, for one thing. And also, more ominously, it becomes clear that Maud is not her real name, and there is an incident in her past which led to her leaving a job at the hospital.

But all this seems to be behind her now, as she seems to be building such a good relationship with Amanda. Until, that is, her attempts to lead Amanda into a more virtuous way of living, controlling who she sees and what she does, cross the accepted patient-carer boundaries, with eventually regrettable consequences for both of them…

Jennifer Ehle, as you might expect, is very good as Amanda, but this is one of those films which stands or falls by the quality of the lead performance – and it must be said that Morfydd Clark is quite extraordinary here. This is the kind of acting that wins awards when it doesn’t appear in a horror movie, as Clark creates a wholly rounded, completely convincing, deeply alarming characterisation in the course of the movie. You get a complete sense of this person’s personality and how it has been shaped by events in the course of what’s quite a short film (less than an hour and a half); even from the start, when Maud might just seem to be another mousy, slightly prim and repressed young woman, there is a sense that there is something just slightly off about her. She is just a bit too intense and repressed. Naturally, we get to see other sides of her character as her resolution wavers in the course of the film: which just reminded me of something I was once told – it’s all very well letting yourself go once in a while, as long as you can get yourself back again.

But events have left Maud isolated and lonely, with only her faith for consolation and purpose. I can imagine that this is the kind of film that faith groups are likely to complain about, as it isn’t the most flattering depiction of religious belief – in fact, as the film goes on it gives, I imagine, a pretty good impression of what it’s like to be trapped in the mind of someone in the process of going completely insane. It’s an outstanding character study, but throughout the film you’re seeing the world through the eyes of someone profoundly disturbed, and this is quite as uncomfortable as it sounds.

This is a film which is strong on atmosphere – brooding and oppressive, as you might have guessed – with lots of rumbling cello on the soundtrack (Adam Janota Bzowski did the music). It’s such a long, slow burn that for a while I wondered if this was going to turn out  be another of those post-horror movies we’ve been having recently. In the en d I would say not: the scares and the blood eventually arrive, to shocking effect. The film deploys its small number of digital effects cannily, to produce a genuinely otherworldly effect when they appear. There’s one particular shot at the end of the film which is so unexpected as to be almost breathtaking, almost leading the viewer to reconsider all they’ve seen – but the volta to this, when it comes, hits like a hammer.

Saint Maud isn’t a popcorn horror movie by any stretch of the imagination, but something much darker and more intense, and I can imagine some people will wonder how I can find this kind of film actually enjoyable – it’s the kind of film you emerge from shaken and rattled and glad to get back into the light. The answer is simple that’s it’s supremely well-made, especially considering this is Rose Glass’ first film as writer and director, and there’s always pleasure to be gained from craft and artistry. It’s the most impressive debut I can remember seeing in a long time, and one that makes her someone to watch out for (at least if cinema survives the current crisis). This is one hell of a movie.

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