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Posts Tagged ‘it’s grim up north’

Ah, it’s probably one of my favourite films – the story of the insignificant clerk Lowry, perpetually hassled by his overbearing, critical mother, and only ever to find some respite through the sheer power and vibrancy of his imagination and his dream life. Unfortunately, that is not what we are here to talk about – well, not exactly. I’m talking about the premise of Terry Gilliam’s magnificent Brazil, but the film on the docket is Adrian Noble’s Mrs Lowry & Son, a film which appears vaguely similar on paper, but is entirely different once you actually film, edit and project it.

I think there’s something more than a bit ironic when an artist in one medium owes most of their fame to a piece of work in another, especially one which they didn’t actually make themselves. Yet here we are with the case of the painter L. S. Lowry, a prolific recorder of scenes of industrial Lancashire life in the early and middle 20th century. I think a lot of people in the UK are probably aware of Lowry and his work, but I also suspect that most of them would genuinely struggle to actually name a Lowry painting, far fewer than could sing the chorus to ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’, a rather sentimental novelty record about the artist which was a substantial hit a few years after his death. (Yes, I know – I could have sworn it was Matchstick Men, etc., too…)

The song does not appear in the movie. On the other hand, Vanessa Redgrave and Timothy Spall do turn up in the title roles (I will leave it to the on-the-ball reader to surmise who is playing Mrs Lowry and who isn’t). It is 1934 and the duo are sharing a house in Greater Manchester; she is essentially bedridden and almost wholly dependent on her son, who has a small-potatoes job as a rent collector for the council. The late Mr Lowry was apparently a bit of a rascal and left significant debts behind upon his death, which is an issue, possibly for her more than him: Mrs Lowry is very aware of her own social status, still thinking of herself as middle-class and appalled to be living in such a proletarian neighbourhood, to say nothing of actually owing money to other people.

Lowry is famous as a painter, of course, something which the film naturally acknowledges from its opening moments, but we’re a fair way into proceedings before the fact of his putting brush to canvas is acknowledged in the story. This is because Mrs Lowry is implacably disapproving of the fact he spends all his free time either sketching or sitting in the attic working on his canvases – she’s never liked any of his paintings, feeling they are ugly, primitive daubs, and feels his time would be much better spent cultivating the right kind of social circle. Naturally, he disagrees with her – but will the possibility of public recognition of his art lead to some kind of reconciliation between them?

I suppose you could also say that this film also bears something of a resemblance to Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner from a few years ago, in that it’s the bio-pic of an artist starring Timothy Spall as the man with the magic touch. Well, again this is probably something of an optical illusion, as the new film is much more limited in its scope, less of a test of endurance, and – perhaps most importantly, for many people – does not feature Spall rumphing and gronking and making other strange noises all the way through.

This film started life as a stage play (the original playwright, Martyn Hesford, adapts), and really not much has been done to it in the process of bringing it to the screen: it mostly takes place in Lowry’s terraced house – mostly in Mrs Lowry’s bedroom, come to that – and Spall and Redgrave have the only significant roles. Nor is it the case that the two undergo a dramatic emotional transformation together. It’s clear from the opening scenes that she is a clinging, self-pitying snob obsessed with petty issues of class and status, while he is a dutiful and caring son who is nevertheless conflicted because of his calling to be A Great Artist, and this is the dynamic which essentially plays out for the rest of the film.

Not exactly even-handed, then: Lowry is by far the more sympathetic of the two. And this does feel like a bit of a rigged game: we all know that Lowry is destined to go on to be A Great Artist whose paintings sell for huge sums and who will have maudlin pop-folk songs written about him, and so we are naturally sympathetic to his desire to sit in the attic and paint. Mrs Lowry doesn’t know this, and surely this mitigates somewhat in her favour. If the film was about some anonymous schmo living with his elderly mother who spends all his free time in seclusion painting rather odd pictures, who the audience doesn’t know will end up with a major arts centre named after him, the tone of the film would surely be rather different: rather than being quite so sympathetic, one might be minded to call the social services.

Regardless of all of that, much of the film does have a rather uncomfortable and oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere to it: many scenes in the bedroom of Mrs Lowry bewailing her lost middle-class youth and backhandedly putting down her son, and him quietly accepting all the abuse. It almost put me in mind of a strange variation on Steptoe and Son, only without the jokes. Naturally, there are two star actors here, and the performances are impeccable, but I did feel they were taking their characters on a journey from A almost to B. All the most interesting stuff seems to be going on around the fringes on the film – their neighbours seem to be having quite interesting rows, for instance, and the most interesting and uplifting (not to mention cinematic) part of the film comes when Lowry is out and about in a series of non-naturalistic scenes where he talks about his inspiration and art.

In the end there is a sort of emotional and dramatic climax, but it feels a little contrived, and by the end we are more or less back to the status quo from the start of the film. There’s a weird coda where Lowry appears to travel through time to visit the present-day Lowry in Salford (shades of that thing Richard Curtis wrote about Van Gogh), but this really only adds to the impression that all the really interesting parts of Lowry’s artistic career happened outside the time-frame of this movie. Mrs Lowry & Son is well-mounted and well-performed, but it does fall into the trap of suggesting that the most interesting thing about L. S. Lowry was his home life, and doesn’t really engage enough with all the thing he is remembered for, and the reason why he is deemed movie-worthy in the first place.

 

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With the awards season over and done with, and the first of the year’s bona fide event movies still a few weeks off, we have entered one of those cinematic dead zones which is almost entirely populated by the hopeful, the unregarded, and the forsaken. Quite which of these categories the Wolfe brothers’ Catch Me Daddy falls into I am not quite sure: this movie has some reasonable clout behind it, in the form of Film Four, if not Screen Yorkshire, and played at Cannes last year, but it is creeping out on a fairly limited release.

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I only went to see it, in fact, because I knew less about it than virtually any other film currently showing. (And if you’re wondering why I bother going to the cinema when there’s nothing on I particularly want to see, you may have a point. But there we are perhaps entering the realms of the pathological.) It’s one of those films where most of the plot seems to be in the publicity material, to be honest.

If you go in to see it completely unaware, it may be a while before you work out what the plot actually is. A middle-aged man living in fairly squalid circumstances somewhere in Britain goes about his daily routine, which includes a significant degree of drug abuse. A young mixed-race couple have set up home in a static caravan, in the same part of the world. A group of Asian men gradually assembles, along the way carrying out such idiosyncratic tasks as lining the boot of their SUV with plastic sheeting.

Slowly the truth becomes apparent – the couple, Laila (Sameena Jabeen Ahmed) and Aaron (Connor McCarron), have run away from her disapproving family and are trying to keep a low profile. But her male relatives are relentless in their desire to punish her for what they see as the disgrace she has heaped on the family, and have hired a couple of unsavoury white ‘bounty hunters’ (for want of a better term), one of whom, Tony (Gary Lewis), we met at the top of the film. If the hunters catch up with their quarry, an ‘honour killing’ is on the cards. A long night and a desperate flight are in prospect.

Just to recap, all this is taking place in present-day Britain, and – perhaps more startlingly – this film is being part-funded by Screen Yorkshire, whose mission statement claims its aim ‘has always been to… make Yorkshire… one of the most sought after destinations… in the UK’. Hmmm. I have spent many months in Yorkshire. I have innumerable happy memories of the county. Nevertheless, Catch Me Daddy has nearly put me off going anywhere near the place at any point in the future, for it successfully depicts the region as something akin to hell on Earth.

There is a long and mostly respectable tradition of ‘it’s grim up north’ drama in British cinema, and I suppose you could make a good case that Catch Me Daddy belongs to this, but this movie is so unremittingly grim and awful that it’s just repellent more than anything else. No-one lives anywhere remotely nice, everyone has some kind of substance abuse problem, you can’t walk into a nightclub or tanning salon without a fight breaking out, and Laila emerges as the most sympathetic character not through any positive virtue, but simply because she isn’t actually a violently homicidal racist or misogynist, and isn’t a workshy drug addict.

And beyond this, the opening sequences of the film are even more of a trial, because the directors have chosen to go for a style which is both grittily naturalistic and ostentatiously arty. So rather than much in the way of dialogue or actual plot, we just have a succession of scenes of people rattling about in caravans and car parks, and shots of people exchanging meaningful (or not) looks, nail varnish, and ears. At one point there is an extended discussion between Ahmed and a non-professional actor about how to make milk shakes and what the best recipes are. To say all this is a bit depressing understates matters.

However, Sameena Jabeen Ahmed is not without a certain screen presence (or, indeed, acting talent), and it would be remiss of me to say that Catch Me Daddy is wholly lacking in virtue. An undeniable atmosphere of suspense builds up as the hunters close in, and is maintained, more or less, throughout the middle section of the film. The question, however, is surely one of whether this is a drama about the very real issue of honour killings which is partly framing itself as a thriller to appeal to a wider audience, or a thriller which is seeking to acquire a bit of gravitas by tackling a social problem.

That arty style gives the answer, I think, and tells us that this wants to be a serious drama rather than a pure thriller. It’s supported by the fact that watching this film is a largely joyless experience: it’s hard to really care about the central characters in any sort of positive way, and there is no humour or other leavening material. Even the early quiet moments between Aaron and Laila are rather downbeat, focusing on the stresses their predicament has put on their relationship.

It’s not as if it works consistently as a thriller, either. After a reasonably solid second act, the climax unravels quite badly, with characters behaving in a peculiar and seemingly arbitrary way – not to mention the fact that there are a couple of extremely convenient kidnappings. This leads up to a prolonged climax which seemed to me to be rather fumbled: the film-makers seem to lose their nerve and cop out of delivering the utterly dismal denouement the rest of the film has been promising from the start, possibly out of a realisation that this would make watching the film an utterly negative experience.

Well, cheers for the thought, guys. I’m not going to say that Catch Me Daddy is an out-and-out bad film, because there are some reasonable performances and it is a well-filmed picture. But it’s not remotely the kind of film you would go to watch out of a desire to be entertained. The problem is that it doesn’t do anything to make you think or care about the problem it depicts – the world of the film is so relentlessly horrible, with no sign of any mitigating features, that you just clench up and wait for it to go away, rather than allow it to affect you in any way. Some promise here, for certain: but a film you should only go to see if you have the burning desire to reassure yourself that you’re a thoughtful, progressive person.

 

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