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Posts Tagged ‘Sofia Helin’

Oh, the wonders of the internet age – up until very recently I had no idea that there even was a record for the most on-screen deaths, let alone who actually held the thing. But apparently so – if you trust Wikipedia, at least – and the holder is… we pause for effect… the late John Hurt, apparently. What, really? Not Sean Bean? Not Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee? Apparently so: forty-three on-screen deaths, the last time anyone bothered to check. Does this list include the last film that he made, Eric Styles’ That Good Night? I suspect that revealing the answer would constitute a spoiler, but it would not be entirely inappropriate, given that (as the title suggests) this film is largely about the ultimate moment of mortality.

Hurt plays Ralph Maitland, a brilliant and celebrated novelist and screenwriter resident somewhere very photogenic in the Algarve, with his rather younger wife Anna (the Swedish actress Sofia Helin, whose stellar performances in The Bridge finally seem to be translating into international stardom). Ralph is, not to put too fine a point on it, a crabby old git, whom his wife and housekeeper seem improbably fond of as the film begins. Then, and the lack of subtlety with which this is handled makes one wish the film had been written by an award-winning screen-writer rather than simply being about one, Ralph has a hospital appointment at which bad news is delivered.

Not bothering to tell Anna, Ralph’s reaction is to get in touch with his son Michael (Max Brown), as there are apparently things which must be said. Nevertheless he is rather put out when Michael turns up with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards), with whom he instantly fails to hit it off, jeopardising his opportunity to say his piece. Time is an issue, as Ralph has plans which he plans to implement sooner rather than later.

So, a little background on this slightly obscure film (it had a marginal release even in the local art-houses, and I only caught it at the local classics and catch-up cinema, the Ultimate Picture Palace, where it played on a Saturday night to an audience of about half a dozen). Apparently it started off as a stage play of the same name by NJ Crisp (probably best known as a TV writer), created as a vehicle for Donald Sinden to act in alongside his son. That was back in 1996; quite why it has taken over twenty years for it to reach the screen is probably down to the glacial way in which low-budget film production happens.

Nevertheless, I think this is pertinent, because I get the sense that screenwriter Charles Savage has not adapted Crisp’s play quite as comprehensively as he might. There’s nothing concrete in That Good Night to suggest anything other than a present-day setting, but there’s something about the attitudes and behaviour of the characters that can’t help feeling very, very dated: if the film was set in the seventies, it might be a bit more credible.

The theatrical origins of the piece are never much in doubt, anyway. You can see where they’ve tried to open the story out by including various scenes of people going to the shops and what-have-you, but the majority of it takes place within about twenty feet of John Hurt’s patio, for this is where the meat of the film transpires. Much of this consists of a succession of somewhat contrived scenes in which Ralph and the other characters laboriously articulate their feelings about each other, in the process filling in some of the back-story. Really, the most distinctive thing about these is Hurt’s willingness to go all the way in his portrayal of a misanthropic sod, but even so, I found my credibility detector starting to ping a little: it feels like the script has been written to give the actor a chance to do his stuff, rather than to present a rounded character, and this is surely melodrama rather than drama.

That said, it is of course John Hurt of whom we are speaking, one of those people who always seemed almost incapable of giving a bad performance, and his talent is the firm pillar around which the somewhat rickety edifice of That Good Night has been constructed. This is a star vehicle for Hurt, and he does his very best with some rather suspect material. If this film has any kind of posterity, it will be as his final filmed performance (though not quite his last film to be released, as he has a supporting role in a thriller called Damascus Cover out later this year). Given the fact that this film is about coming to terms with the end of life – that moment when the horizon stops receding, as the film’s most memorable dialogue puts it – and the fact that Hurt himself was terminally ill while making it, it’s almost a surprise the film does not feel more poignant and affecting. But it doesn’t, and if you ask me this is just another sign of weakness in the material.

I could also complain that Sofia Helin doesn’t get the quality of script she deserves, but at least she gets a chance to show her versatility, performing in English and being almost unrecognisable to anyone who only knows her as the socially-challenged but implacable detective from The Bridge (I suspect this may be down to the magic of a mysterious procedure known as ‘acting’). To be honest, though, the only person to come close to challenging Hurt’s domination of the film is Charles Dance (landing the ‘and’ spot in the credits), who turns up as… well, again I probably shouldn’t say, but let’s put it this way – the film features a sort of plot twist, but it’s the kind of plot twist which it’s extremely difficult not to guess. Hurt and Dance get a number of rather windy scenes in which they debate the nature and ethics of euthanasia, particularly as it applies to the terminally ill. Nothing especially bold or thought-provoking is said, and it really is a tribute to the class and charisma of the actors that they are amongst the more engaging parts of the film.

In the end, though, all the film has to offer on this subject is a sort of nebulous, optimistic sentimentality, which increasingly colours its final scenes. Again, for a film which is clearly trying to hit you where you live, it is curiously affectless and bland. There’s nothing which is outright bad about it (though some of the more melodramatic moments come close), it just never really convinces as a drama. Matters are not really helped by the kind of direction and cinematography that almost puts one in mind of a reasonably classy TV drama, and an intrusive score which adds nothing to the atmosphere of the film and starts to feel like muzak long before the end.

That Good Night does touch on serious and important issues, but that’s all it does – it has no insights to offer, and it never makes you think or really feel anything. If it is worth seeing at all, it is for the performances of a number of very talented actors, but even here it is as a demonstration of their ability to lift a rum script into the realms of watchability. If That Good Night appeared as a Sunday night TV movie, it would pass ninety minutes in an inoffensive manner, but as an actual big-screen experience, it is rather lacking.

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A couple of years ago we trundled off to see the movie Suffragette and had a reasonably good time. This is not a movie notable for its ability to cause mirth in an audience – at least, not before the closing credits, anyway. At this point a sort of roll of honour unfurls, giving the names of various nations and the year in which they finally granted women the right to participate in elections: The United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, and Poland – 1918. Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands – 1919. Ecuador, Spain, and Mongolia – 1924. Switzerland – 1971. At which point people generally fell about laughing in the aisles. (Look on the bright side, any Swiss citizens who may be reading this – there’s always Liechtenstein, which didn’t take the plunge until 1984.)

One of my current semi-regular movie-going companions and I sat down to review the listings the other day, in search of our next cinema trip. We’re at one of those slightly annoying points in the year where almost the only things in theatres are films which we’ve already seen at least once, or ones which frankly don’t interest us much. Having disposed of the multiplexes we moved on to the art house, at which point my companion’s eyes lit up a bit at the sight of Petra Volpe’s The Divine Order (Schweizerdeutscher Titel: Die göttliche Ordnung), a movie about the Swiss women’s suffrage movement which had arrived just in time to miss International Women’s Day. Despite apparently being a thundering misogynist, I have the greatest respect and admiration for the feminine world, as befits someone whose mother was a woman. So naturally I readily agreed to accompany my friend to one of the screenings.

Now, with the evening slots at the Phoenix all filled with Lynne Ramsay’s new thriller (expect a review at the end of the week), The Divine Order was only showing in the afternoons when we couldn’t both make it. So we decided to go to the Saturday morning show (going to the cinema before noon was an exciting new experience for my companion). Knowing what a right-on and progressive place Oxford is, I felt strongly that we should probably book our tickets in advance, suspecting that everyone who likewise couldn’t make the weekday matinees would turn up for this one show and it would be packed out, as sometimes happens at the Phoenix.

So it was that we settled happily into our seats in an almost totally empty 164-seat cinema, alone except for someone intent on doing the giant-sized general knowledge crossword in the weekend paper. I suppose I must have overestimated the appeal of a subtitled Swiss-German film about feminism in the 1970s (or maybe Oxford’s liberal credentials are in peril), but what’s the price of a booking fee between friends? In the end, we were actually a little sad that more people hadn’t come to see The Divine Order, because it’s certainly not a film that deserves to languish unwatched.

The movie opens with a reminder of the seismic social and cultural upheavals gripping much of the world in 1971, before making it quite clear that at the time Switzerland remained resolutely ungripped by anything of the sort: life is going on much as it has for decades, which basically means the men going out to work (farming, banking, and making cuckoo clocks, I guess) and the women staying at home, doing the housework, and taking care of the children. In just this situation as the story starts is Nora (Marie Leuenberger), a young housewife who is just beginning to recognise her dissatisfaction and frustration with her lot in life.

She’d quite like to go back to work, but her husband (Maximilian Simonischek) needs to give his permission, and he refuses on the grounds this will disrupt their home and make him look bad at his own workplace. This is bad, but others have it much worse: Nora’s niece is sent to a women’s prison, simply for being a bit wayward, mainly because her father has sole legal authority over the family. Another friend loses her home, a pub, due to her husband’s death and the fact that women are not allowed to run businesses (I think; the subtitles were not entirely clear on this). A vote on possibly allowing women the vote is coming up, and simply refusing to support those campaigning for the status quo marks Nora out as a dangerous iconoclast in her village.

Quite unexpectedly, she finds herself the focal point of activism in her area, even its leader, and other women join her in beginning to organise. Needless to say, this causes ructions in the deeply conservative village, where many inhabitants believe the subordinate role of women is the will of God (the divine order referred to in the title). Even members of her own family are violently opposed to the stand she is taking. As the stakes get higher, the pressure becomes immense – can Nora and the others find the strength to stand up for what they believe in?

It’s not that unusual for the Phoenix to be showing a certain type of socially-motivated movie depicting the struggle of women for self-determination in deeply traditionalist societies – back in January they showed In Between, for instance, and in recent years there have also been movies like Wadjda, Mustang, and Sonita. What does make The Divine Order somewhat distinctive is the fact that it is the same kind of story, but set in a recognisably modern European country. On paper it may look like a semi-remake of Suffragette with added fondue, but without that film’s period trappings, it has a bit more punch – even though the overall arc of the story is never in doubt, there are moments which are genuinely shocking.

As I say, you go into this kind of film knowing almost exactly what to expect, and there are no startling surprises in terms of the actual plot. That said, The Divine Order benefits from a very solid screenplay that takes care to work as a genuine piece of drama rather than fierce agitprop – the focus throughout is on Nora and the others as characters, rather than participants in a particular movement. There are some lighter moments, as well, and Volpe orchestrates proceedings with a subtle touch – at one point there’s a slightly odd moment when Nora seems to be equating oppressed women with the fish that live in deep ocean trenches (I’m not sure this metaphor really works, if you follow it through), but the rest of it is admirably understated. The male characters are not quite all caricatured brutes, and in a slightly unexpected choice, one of the main opponents of universal suffrage in the village is a woman herself – a well-judged performance from Therese Affolter.

This is a well-played movie throughout, with Leuenberger well-supported by Rachel Braunschweig, Sibylle Brunner, and Marta Zoffoli. Turning up for a scene-stealing cameo is the wonderful Swedish actress Sofia Helin, who has a whale of a time as a visiting advocate of ‘Yoni Power’ (and if you’re really curious what that is, you can google it for yourself, as no matter how sympathetic I am to the cause of equality, there are some places I’m just not going in a comedy film-review blog).

The Divine Order does a very good job of balancing its different imperatives as both a genuine piece of entertainment, and a film with a particular message to deliver. It’s engaging and ultimately very rewarding, and ultimately the only criticism we could make of the print we saw was that some of the subtitling was rather substandard – ‘I worked in this pub for 0 years’ is the rather unlikely claim made by one of the women at one point, while a later caption announces that following the limited suffrage introduced in 1971, full equality was ‘written into the Swiss constitution in 981’. Maybe the bit of the subtitler’s keyboard with the numbers on it was a bit sticky, or something. I suppose if nothing else this sort of thing only reminds us of what a good job subtitlers usually do.

I expect there are good commercial reasons why The Divine Order has received such a limited release in the UK, but even so, given the Unique Post-Weinstein Moment (not to mention International Women’s Day), I would have thought it was worth at least a little bit of a push. It’s not blazingly original or breathtakingly accomplished, but it tells its story sincerely and well, and we both felt we had benefited from watching it. Worth tracking down if you get the chance.

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