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Posts Tagged ‘Jenny Agutter’

I wouldn’t consider myself a particularly keen Scrabble player, nor an expert on the game, but there was a point a few years ago when the unruly searchlight in my brain locked onto the game of bag and tiles and I found myself playing hundreds of games over the internet (not quite Scrabble itself, but a copyright-baiting near-clone). I recall one red wine-fuelled face-to-face session which eventually disintegrated into what I can only describe as Scrabugeddon (always agree in advance on what, if any, the time limits on play are going to be, and also how the seating arrangements will be decided), and also Boxing Day 2007, when Mama and I spent about seven hours solid playing in front of a Two Ronnies marathon (at one point I got three bingos on the trot and was nearly disinherited). So, obviously, the lack of genuine Scrabble-based cinema has occasionally been a source of just a tiny amount of angst for me.

And now just such a film has come along, in the form of Carl Hunter’s Sometimes Always Never. I get the impression that the film had the working title Triple Word Score, but I suspect they couldn’t justify the licensing expense, hence a title which is catchy but almost meaningless in this context (apparently it is an old dictum concerning the disposition of a well-dressed chap’s buttons).

In the film we are introduced to Alan (Bill Nighy), who we quickly learn is a slippery and devious fellow, albeit in the most benign and affable-seeming way. As the film opens Alan is meeting up with his son Peter (Sam Riley), as they depart on a rather grave family mission, and the atmosphere is not helped by the obvious tensions between the two men. Peter clearly thinks that Alan’s generally dry and idiosyncratic demeanour has not made him a good father, especially considering that he was a single parent following the death of Peter’s mother.

Their trip turns out to involve a night away, which is a surprise to Peter but not Alan, and their stay in a B&B takes an unexpected turn when Alan starts hustling the other guests at Scrabble for eye-watering sums (old favourites like Muzjiks, Griot and Esrom all make an appearance on the table).  (Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny play Alan’s victims in this very funny sequence.)

However, the father-and-son road trip proves fruitless, and Alan and Peter are left to contemplate their relationship, and the others within their family: Peter has a wife (Alice Lowe) and son (Louis Healy), all of whom have impressive Scrabble skills of their own. The irony, of course, proves to be that for all the massive vocabularies the family possess, their actual ability to communicate meaningfully is almost non-existent. Perhaps it was this that drove away Alan’s other son, Michael. But now Alan has found himself playing online Scrabble against someone with an eerily familiar approach to the game. Could it possibly be Michael, trying to get in touch?

The writer of Sometimes Always Never is Frank Cottrell Boyce, who has an eclectic and rather variable CV, if we’re honest: he started his career on the long-defunct soap opera Brookside, went on to various big-screen collaborations with respected directors like Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom, wrote a few novels, and won last Christmas’s celebrity University Challenge match between Keble College Oxford and Reading almost single-handed, Reading scoring no points whatsoever. Personally, I find that for every Goodbye Christopher Robin on the list, there is also a Butterfly Kiss; this film is probably towards the top of the pile, for it is amusing and engaging and only occasionally irritatingly mannered and affected.

That said, you are never in any doubt of the fact that you are watching a quirky British film which has clearly been made on a punitively tiny budget. There are various scenes of characters driving back and forth across the north of England, which are mostly realised using obvious back projection, while one plot development which was obviously beyond the reach of the financing is depicted using stop-frame animation. The director works hard to make this look like part of the film’s general quietly off-beat style, but I doubt anybody will be fooled.

I find myself wondering how much of the film’s general tone and identity is the result of an actual creative decision and how much is something necessitated by the lack of money. The setting is mostly suburban, with various scenes in pubs, cafes, kitchens and bedrooms; people sit in cars and caravans as they talk. But there is a lot of talk and not a great deal of the characters actually doing much, unless you include them playing Scrabble with each other. The film has a low-key, deadpan quality which is quite endearing but not especially cinematic – this is one of those films you could watch on the TV without really missing anything. There is nothing especially cinematic about it.

That said, it is still quite watchable, mainly as a result of Nighy’s contribution. To begin with I wasn’t sure about the rather Ringo-esque Scouse drawl he adopts for the role, but it works for the character and I did get used to it. And it is a very funny performance as a man whose apparently laid-back inscrutability masks an implacably ruthless knack for getting whatever he wants. You can tell that deep down Alan is a decent man whose heart is in the right place – but you’re also entirely sympathetic to Peter, who clearly considers him a nightmare to be around.

The problem with the film, if problem it is, is that even the various excavations of the two men’s difficult shared past are so low-key and off-hand that they don’t feel as though they’re carrying much dramatic weight. The film is much more obviously successful when it is trying to be funny than in its more serious moments, which only adds to the sense that this is ultimately something rather lightweight. You can certainly see why Bill Nighy would choose to get involved in this project (he exec produces as well as stars); the film is built around him and it is a brilliant showcase for his talent. And, as noted, the film is often very funny and never less than pleasant to watch. It’s a nice film. The problem is it never feels like it’s more than that, nor even as if it’s really trying to be.

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We talk quite glibly about ‘the war movie’ as a distinct genre, and I suppose there is some truth to that – there are enough commonalities of subject matter, setting, and theme for these films to comprise a recognisable canon of sorts, after all. And yet war films are as diverse a bunch as any other, often depending on exactly which war they concern and the accepted narrative concerning it. War movies made during actual wars are usually propaganda, plain and simple; ones made in the decade or two after a war become testimonials, usually concerned with retellings of notable deeds. After enough time has elapsed they just become backdrops for rousing adventures and/or examinations of more universal themes.

John Sturges’ film adaptation of the Jack Higgins novel The Eagle Has Landed came out in 1976, thirty years after the Second World War concluded, at a point when the myth of the war and its iconography was perhaps beginning to displace memories of the reality in terms of how it was perceived. Certainly the film itself is hardly painstaking in its attempts at historical accuracy.

 

(I have to say, respect is due to an impressively imaginative poster, which features all sorts of elements – exploding churches, strafing Messerschmitts, and so on – which do not prominently feature, or indeed feature at all, in the actual movie. Not sure they’ve got Jenny Agutter’s face quite right, though.)

Things get underway in – one surmises – late 1943 or early 1944, with the result of the war no longer in doubt, only the final score. Inspired by the rescue of Mussolini from captivity in Italy, Hitler (played by the late Peter Miles in scenes which didn’t make it into the final cut) orders the kidnapping of Winston Churchill from Britain: no-one but Himmler (Donald Pleasence) takes this notion seriously, but the head of German military intelligence is obliged to carry out a feasibility study for political reasons anyway.

The job is assigned to a Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall), who – rather to his astonishment –  discovers that there is an outside chance that the trick can be turned: Churchill is due to be spending a weekend at a secluded country house close to the east coast of England. To carry out the mission, Radl recruits IRA man and mercenary Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland) and decorated, but now disgraced Fallschirmjager officer Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) and his men. Soon enough Operation Eagle is underway, with first Devlin and then Steiner and the others inserted into the UK in disguise. But even the best laid plans can go awry, especially given Devlin’s penchant for romantic entanglements and the presence in the area of a force of US Rangers…

The Eagle Has Landed is very much an all-star all-action mid-seventies ITC Entertainment kind of production, and it is perhaps illuminating to compare it to the 1943 movie Went the Day Well?, directed by Cavalcanti. Both deal with the same idea, of a British village being seized by enemy paratroopers as part of a wider plot, but the treatment is quite different, as is the context of the films (of course). Went the Day Well? is a propaganda movie, and an occasionally brutal one, with precious few shades of grey as the heroic villagers (including a gun-toting Thora Hird) rise up and do battle with the vicious German interlopers. At the time the threat of invasion was still a recent memory, and the war still being prosecuted, but in 1976 things were very different.

We tend to remember the Second World War as one of the ‘good’ wars, justified by the fact it was essentially a heroic battle against the darkest of evils, but there’s little sense of that watching Sturges’ movie – this is a war movie oddly bereft of bad guys. All the German characters are rather sympathetic, Himmler excepted, and the movie is at pains to establish Steiner as a decent man revolted by the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority. The structure of the movie means we get to know these people rather better than any of the British or American characters who are ostensibly the heroes who foil Radl and Steiner’s plan – the US Ranger commander played by Larry Hagman is a vain, pompous fool, his subordinate (Treat Williams) something of a cipher.

The result is that the action sequences towards the end of the film, in which the German-held village is assaulted by American soldiers, feel like a curiously empty spectacle. They’re very well staged and directed, and do stir the blood a bit, but you always know what’s going to happen, and you don’t feel particularly invested in watching the inevitable Allied victory – you will almost certainly be hoping that Michael Caine survives, and may even be hoping that (in defiance of historical fact) he succeeds in his mission.

The question is whether this moral vacuum at the heart of the movie is a deliberate choice, reflecting the fact that there can be heroes and villains on both sides in a war, or just the result of a director not quite getting to grips with the material. Certainly Caine thought it was the latter, complaining that Sturges had no involvement with the editing of the film once shooting was complete, choosing to go fishing instead. He lamented the fact that what could have been a more substantial thriller ended up as a somewhat cartoonish action adventure.

I can see what he’s getting at, because – as someone else has pointed out – Pleasence’s impersonation of Himmler is the most credible thing in the movie by quite some distance. Caine is still good, as are many of the other supporting players, some of them better known as British TV faces – Jean Marsh is in there, also Roy Marsden and Denis Lill – but possibly a bit too prominent is Sutherland. Sutherland goes all-out for the central casting Oirishman from County Leprechaun approach, and it does make you roll your eyes a bit, as does the improbable romance between him and a young local girl (Jenny Agutter).

In the end The Eagle Has Landed seems to have become one of those largely innocuous all-star movies which regularly pops up on TV on Bank Holiday weekends, usually with its gorier moments (Hagman’s death, for instance) snipped out. Which is fair enough: it is an example of the war movie reduced to the status of simple entertainment – it doesn’t have the simplistic morality of the worst kind of war film, nor the complex ambiguities of many of the best. It just doesn’t seem inclined to deal with wider moral issues at all, focusing on its straightforward action-adventure story to the exclusion of all else. And there’s not much actually wrong with that, I suppose: but with the kind of talent involved in this movie, you could be forgiven for hoping for something slightly more substantial.

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