Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Macdonald’

It’s that time of year when really big event movies are beginning to make their presence felt, with salvos of naval cannon-shells desperately competing with hurtling mystic hammers and even more arcane weaponry. You would think that now, more than ever, smaller and less obviously commercial movies would be forced out of theatres, but this is proving not to be the case – distributors are not stupid, and understand that there still exists a class of moviegoer who isn’t necessarily interested in references to obscure comic-book characters or genre movies of any kind. And so they quietly release films to which your more Bohemian or highbrow punter will flock, safe in the knowledge there will be no appearances from beauty-queens-turned-popstrels or nonagenerian self-promoting comics editors.

Currently using this strategy is Marley, an off-the-wall prequel to The Muppet Christmas Carol… no, of course it isn’t. It helps if this sort of film has a ‘name’ director attached to it, and in the case of Marley the film-maker responsible is Kevin Macdonald. Macdonald is someone whose career has skipped cheerfully back and forth between drama and documentary, including the brilliant Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland, and the not-quite-so-brilliant The Eagle. Marley finds him firmly in documentarian mode as he turns his attention to Jamaica’s most famous son, Bob Marley.

The film opens with a striking sequence which, to be honest, it never explicitly follows up on, visiting one of the former slaver fortresses off the African coast, from where thousands of Africans were dispatched to the Caribbean. From here it relocates to Jamaica itself and the remote rustic township where Marley himself was born and grew up. What follows is on one level a somewhat familiar story of rags-to-riches, hard work and talent leading to immense popular success (with some fallings-out along the way), and concluding with tragedy and premature death.

But on another level this is the story of a man who was in many ways more than just an entertainer. The film doesn’t shy away from Marley’s status either as an adherent and (arguably) great populariser of Rastafarianism (although the exact details of his ganja intake are not really explored), or his political importance within Jamaica itself. There is potential here for an absolutely fascinating story and the film takes full advantage of it.

This is not to say that this is a dry or heavy piece of work, of course. The fact that most of the interviewees are Jamaican, often speaking heavy patois, fills it with life and colour, and there are some cracking anecdotes along the way. A founder member of the Wailers recalls their manager insisting the band rehearse in a cemetery in the middle of the night, on the grounds this would eliminate any danger of stagefright later in their career. Later on, when discussing an attempt on Marley’s life, Macdonald asks his manager if the hit was professionally organised. ‘It was about as professional as anything gets in Jamaica,’ comes the reply.

Marley himself emerges as a captivating figure, albeit a mass of contradictions as well. His passion and vitality fill the movie, even though there’s relatively little footage of him speaking in it. The sheer poverty in which he grew up is really driven home when a caption labels the earliest known photograph of Marley – and he is already well into his teens. How strange it is that this man, one of the greatest icons ever to emerge from the developing world, and a spokesman for an Afro-centric religion, should in truth be the son of a British imperial functionary with a distinctly murky background. How much of Marley’s later life was influenced by his barely-existing relationship with his white father the film leaves the viewer to decide, but it is clear growing up as an outcast was hugely significant.

Very commendably, the Marley family – who were closely involved with the production – have resisted the temptation to censor the story, and the film is honest about some of the less laudable aspects of Marley’s life. He was, it seems, ruthless in pursuit of commercial success, even when that appeared to clash with his spiritual beliefs. His children still seem to be struggling to come to terms with losing him at such a young age, given he appears to have been a rather distant father. Above all, his widow emerges as a figure of almost supernatural forbearance, given his numerous infidelities (including having children by seven different women).

It’s often said that the mark of a really great documentary is that it takes a subject with which you’re not that familiar and makes it come alive for you. Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the biggest reggae fan, although I do have a vague but genuine love of the work of Jimmy Cliff (and Cliff appears in the movie, which was a welcome surprise) – but this film is rich enough in texture and wide enough in scope to engross from beginning to end. And, needless to say, the soundtrack is stunning from beginning to end – before it, I would have said I knew only two or three Wailers numbers, but tune after familiar tune keeps coming throughout the movie. If the film fails to really address the central issue – what exactly was it that transformed Bob Marley into such a huge star, still the face and voice of reggae three decades after his death? – then I suspect that’s because no-one truly knows the answer. That he is still a massive presence is confirmed by the closing credits, where people from all corners of the world cheerfully share their versions of classic Marley numbers. A fascinating and very human story, well told by Macdonald.

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I always think of this time of year as the doldrums, movie-wise: all the classy and thoughtful awards-bait has been and gone (though I note that The King’s Speech is still hanging on at the local Odeon), while the no-brainer pyrotechnic stuff that will be clogging the arteries of cinema all summer is still a few weeks off (summer seems to be starting earlier and earlier: maybe even late April, this year). In the meantime there’s a variety of mid-range releases on offer – not expected to make major money or win much acclaim. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad, by any means.

As a case in point, let’s look at The Eagle, a new movie by Kevin Macdonald (also director of the brilliant Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland). Based on a venerable and well-respected novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, this is a gritty tale of blood and honour in the ancient past of Britain.

This is the kind of film where you know to expect two things: an opening caption filling in backstory, and wobbly historical accuracy. Channing Tatum plays Marcus Flavius Aquila, a second-century Roman officer posted to the edge of the empire: Britain. Aquila’s family has been in disgrace since his father disappeared while leading the Ninth Legion into the far north of Scotland, the disastrous loss of troops symbolised by the loss of the army’s standard – a gilded eagle. Aquila is obsessed with redeeming his family’s good name but his efforts seem doomed when he is invalided out of the army following a clash with native rebels.

Then a rumour reaches Aquila: the eagle of the Ninth has been sighted north of Hadrian’s Wall, used by a barbarian tribe in their ceremonies. He sets out into the lawless wasteland to retrieve it or die in the attempt, accompanied only by his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell). Here his life will depend on the loyalty of Esca, who has sworn to obey him – but how far can he rely on the word of a former enemy of the empire?

You might be forgiven for expecting The Eagle to be a fairly standard, blokey, sword-and-sandal romp, very much in the vein of Gladiator and films of that ilk. To some extent this is true – there is a gladiator fight at one point, and very frequent swinging-of-swords throughout – but I found this film reminding me much more of other things. The quest into unknown territory with an ally who’s an unknown quantity, motivated by family loyalty, made me think rather a lot of the recent True Grit – there are some strikingly similar images here – but I was also very much reminded of Shekhar Kapur’s 2002 version of The Four Feathers.

That was a movie with a big budget and fairly big-name stars, which failed – mainly due, I think, to misjudging the tone of the material and making a potentially rousing romp drearily earnest and political. The Eagle, I hasten to say, shows no sign of failure, creatively or at the box office, but it does contain rather more depth than you might expect from this kind of film.

The most obvious expression of this is in the casting of American and Canadian actors as most of the Roman characters, with the Brits played by locals. The decision to intentionally link ‘American’ with ‘occupying army’ is, well, an interesting one. It’s not dwelt upon, though it does produce one rather jarring moment: playing a veteran legionary, Mark Strong is thus required to put on an American accent, which does seem terribly odd. The film does refuse to take sides, too: the Romans and the British are both shown as being equally capable of what seem by today’s standards to be hideous atrocities.

To be perfectly honest, The Eagle – though not a tremendously long film – does take a little while to get going, in terms of the main plot if nothing else. This does actually work in the film’s favour as it uses this time to establish a very strong sense of atmosphere and tone. Ancient Britain is a convincingly savage and unsettling place, almost unrecognisable by modern standards. The wilderness north of the Wall is, quite frankly, horrible, and very, very wet. Horrible in a different way, and less appealing to look at, is the violence which punctuates this film, much of which seems to me to be very strong for its certificate: quite apart from the numerous scenes of burly men hewing at each other with gladii, there’s a scene where someone gets his… well, anyway… and another one where somebody… yes, umm, I think you get the picture.

I enjoyed it all rather a lot, though I wonder how much of it has any basis in actual history (the Seal People, most brutal of the native tribes and effectively the bad guys here, look utterly extraordinary, more like African tribesmen than Celts). That said, the general windswept misery and brooding tone of it all mean that it never quite takes wing as a pure adventure story (the lack of any female speaking parts didn’t bother me, though I did notice it: but it’s hard to imagine how any could have been contrived), while Macdonald quite wisely doesn’t allow the more thoughtful elements to swamp the story of the two main characters and their deepening relationship.

The Eagle isn’t quite up to the standard (no pun intended) of much of Macdonald’s past work, but it works well as an intelligent, gritty, and highly atmospheric action-drama. If most of the movies we got the rest of the year were only as satisfying as this one, I still think most people would tend to consider that a bit of a gain.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 25th March 2004. I know the title is crap, but inspiration doesn’t always strike…

Growing up in a rather flat part of the UK, mountaineering never really featured on my list of things to try. In fact it never really impinged on my youth at all, with the exception of an attempt by (I think) Chris Bonnington’s daughter to climb the Old Man of Hoy1 on live breakfast TV. The highlight of the event was the intrepid young woman being vomited upon by a startled gull, and even that was hardly an advertisement for the pastime.

The same could probably be said for the astonishing drama-documentary Touching The Void, directed by Kevin Macdonald, which is – to say the least – gruelling, but still intensely watchable. (Also a rare example of a British Film Council production – in this case, in association with the now-defunct studio Film Four – that doesn’t make you want to gouge your own eyes out.)

Based on a barely-credible true story, this is the tale of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two young Englishmen who in 1985 decided to attempt the unclimbed west face of the Andean peak Siula Grande. (Ominous captions and music, not to mention Simpson’s weirdly assymmetrical nostrils, make one very sure from the start that All Will Not Go To Plan.) Attempting the ascent in the ballsy Alpine style, one is initially wrong-footed when the duo get to the top relatively easily. However, as Simpson points out in his narration, 80% of accidents happen on the way back down, and so it proves here.

After beginning the descent, the duo quickly become lost (I must confess to not quite understanding how one can become confused as to which direction is down, but I am an indoorsy type as you can probably tell) and run out of gas with which to brew their tea. But things get even worse as Simpson falls off the mountain and badly breaks his leg. (I defy anyone not to squirm at Simpson’s clinical description of exactly what happened to the various bones in his shin and knee.) You’d’ve thought that would be quite enough bad luck, but then Yates’ attempts to lower his partner down the mountainside to safety hit a snag. In the dark, he accidentally lowers Simpson off a cliff. Simpson is unable to pull himself back up, and – even worse – finds himself dangling over an ice crevasse. Yates, rapidly losing his grip on the slope, and not knowing what’s happened to Simpson, decides to cut the rope and let his partner fall…

This film succeeds so well because it combines two disparate elements with consummate skill. The actual reconstruction of events on and around the mountain is remarkable. Simpson and Yates are both played by actors – neither of whom are particularly close lookey-likees, if we’re honest, but they both spend so much time wrapped up in mountaineering gear it doesn’t really matter – but most of the climbing certainly seems to be done ‘for real’. Just getting a camera crew into some of the places this film does is an achievement in itself and for all that it’s obviously a horrible place, the mountain is amazingly beautiful. (Although – and a sign of the times, this – any sight of a really big mountain on a cinema screen these days just makes me expect Ian McKellen to go by in a pointy hat.)

Coupled to this are talking head accounts of the story from the real life Joe Simpson and Simon Yates (and also some bloke who was hanging around base camp while they were up on the mountain). Both are clearly talking unscripted, and while this leads to some amusing infelicitudes in their language (‘We had two 150-foot ropes,’ says Simpson informatively at one point, ‘and by tying them together we got a 300-foot rope with a knot in the middle’, while later on Yates weighs in with ‘Nothing continued to happen’) it’s of immeasurable aid in bringing the story to life. It is incredibly gripping – and were it not for Simpson’s actual presence, I’d’ve been willing to swear he couldn’t possibly have survived.

I personally wouldn’t want to go up a mountain with either of the guys, to be honest, but one’s sympathies are inevitably more with Simpson (if only because he isn’t the one who buggered off back to base camp). The effects of their experiences are easily discernible in the men as they are interviewed – Simpson seems secure, knowing how he’ll react in an extreme crisis, while Yates… I’m not sure, but I thought I sensed a little guilt.

In any case, this is a top-notch piece of work, engrossing, startling, and immediate, shot through with moments of subtle humour and humanity, and entirely deserving of the awards it has won. Touching The Void makes a drama out of a crisis in the best possible way. Recommended.

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