Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (for now; I suspect he may be back in some capacity at some point, as such artists never truly retire) is also his furthest away from fantasy, based instead in the real world, a loose biopic of Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed fighter planes for the Japanese army in the WWII. There are flaws here—after an entire career of strong female protagonists, it’s a shame Miyazaki relegates his main female character here to a ‘sacrificial wife’ role—but The Wind Rises is also his most personally revealing film. Critics who accuse the film of airbrushing Japan’s military history are slightly missing the point (are we that stupid as audiences that a film needs to tell us for certain that fascism sucks?); what we have instead is the work of an artist musing on the destructive capabilities of creation, when such desires overtake almost all other considerations.
I’ve long found myself bored by period costume dramas of the Jane Austen-type. It’s extremely difficult to care about extremely rich aristocrats in England and their romantic troubles, and the stuffy, polite, obfuscating dialogue that forms a major part of such films often sounds dead, an empty exercise for not-untalented actors to practice their Received Pronunciation skills. In short, the entire genre often seems to exist because the BBC needs to justify their costumes department budget and because Julian Fellowes needs a steady source of aristocrats to remind commoners how much better the old days were when cuddly benign rich people could help out illiterate peasants at their own leisure, with none of this state-sanctioned “welfare” hokey-pokey.
So it was quite a surprise for me when I found Belle to be wholly engaging. This is largely because director Amma Asante has told a story which is actually relevant to the modern day, unlike the majority of the genre. The factual basis of the film is rooted on Dido Elizabeth Belle, who was born into slavery in the 18th century by a black mother and a British naval officer father. After the death of her mother, she was taken to her uncle, the 1st Earl of Mansfield (who as Lord Justice in British courts would rule on two cases crucial to ending the slave trade), and entrusted into his care. She grew up therefore as a mixed-race noblewoman, possibly the only occasion of this happening in colonial-era Britain. Belle focuses on her eligibility for marriage and her role in society, with the court cases providing background context.
Asante, herself a woman of colour, pays special attention to Dido’s self-realisation of her place in society. Growing up in a privileged country home, she is shielded from the uglier realities of her racial background by the protective care of her surrogate family, despite questioning why, for example, she is not allowed to sit at the dinner table with the rest of the family when guests are around. Her father dies, leaving her with an impressive inheritance and without the need to marry a man of substantial wealth (noblewomen were not allowed to work, so a well-chosen marriage was crucial to sustaining a livelihood).
This burst of financial independence coincides, or rather fuels, her coming to terms with the fact of her race and outsider place in the upper classes of the English landed gentry, both as a person of colour and as a woman: her anxieties about her place in society are symbolised by her worries over having her portrait painted alongside her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), with Dido aware of most painters habitually portraying black figures as servants or lower-orders in their work. The real-life painting does indeed show Dido and Elizabeth as equals, both given equal prominence in the frame.
Hovering in the background of all this is the fact that in some respects, not all that much has changed since Dido’s time. Slavery may be long-gone, but institutional inequality is still heavily entrenched, and the upper echelons of our TV and cinema are still dominated by white British men despite the increasingly multiethnic nature of British society. There’s nothing inherently wrong of course with telling stories about white straight males, the problem is when all the stories are about white straight males, and any corrective to that is often a welcome antidote, as this film is.
Belle achieves what so few historical dramas do by having something valuable to say about the modern world, and it does so by filtering it through history, taking the past and moulding it to see what it can tell us about today. Even the mildest bit of research about the film will tell you plenty about historical inaccuracies depicted that pedants would pontificate over, but Assante is not interested in pure fact. The central drive of the film remains true, and Assante shifts the elements of the story around to reinforce the film’s thematic focus on the intersection between class, race, and gender: too much focus on historical exactness often suffocates the life out of such films.
There are flaws in Belle’s construction however, mostly of the kind often found in costume drama films. The film is perhaps overly polite and pleasant aesthetically. The costumes are nice to look at and the film is handsomely shot, but Amma Asante is not a particularly imaginative visual director; most scenes don’t develop beyond the standard visual grammar of establishing-shot-mid-shot-close-up-two-people-talking rhythm, relying instead on the uniqueness of her source material to hold the audience’s interest.
Additionally, there is more than a little schmaltz added to the film, in which characters give moving motivational speeches about how slavery is bad and love is good (you don’t say?). The performances in the film are wholly excellent; especially Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s nuanced and intelligent performance in the leading role, so the speechifying is at least often well-delivered, but it does render entire scenes redundant, with Belle being at its best when it’s dissecting Dido’s identity and self-realisation in more subtler, nuanced ways. It’s still a highly entertaining and interesting film, a solid work to seek out for anyone interested in films about identity, history, and inequality.
Or: We Need to Talk About Fascism. Brady Corbet’s debut feature film is a finely-constructed work, rooted deeply in the annals of intellectually challenging European arthouse cinema, though it is hampered by not attaining quite the same level of intellectual clarity as its best peers. Corbet, who has been acting since his teenage years—his first leading role was in Gregg Araki’s masterpiece Mysterious Skin (2004)—has recently moved towards scriptwriting with Simon Killer (2012) and Sleepwalkers (2014). Now with The Childhood of a Leader he finally takes charge behind the camera as well. The results are interesting, even if the film is at times patchy and overly oblique for its own good.
Set in the immediate aftermath of World War One in a country home near Paris, we are introduced to a pre-adolescent boy (Tom Sweet), whose father is an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) in France to start negotiations for the Versailles treaty and whose mother (Bérénice Bejo) is a German-born missionary’s daughter, world-travelled but deeply religious. The action is broken up by title cards announcing three ever-increasingly aggressive tantrums by the boy, as well as an overture and an epilogue, set in some unclear future by which time a fascist leader has taken charge (Robert Pattinson, although he also has a role earlier in the film as a young friend of the boy’s father, leading to questions over whose childhood exactly we are seeing).
As the boy’s tantrums get ever more violent, moving from minor childhood transgressions, such as throwing rocks, to pseudo-sexual ones to full-on violence, the film muses throughout upon the psychological background of extremist leaders. This is confirmed as much by the film’s end credits, which includes a list of intellectual influences, including Jean Paul Sartre, whose short story of the same name this film is loosely based on, certainly in intention if not entirely form and structure.
Cinematically, the film’s closest cousin is probably the work of Michael Haneke (unsurprising as Corbet acted in Haneke’s 2007 remake of his legendary Funny Games). The Austrian auteur’s preoccupation with the origins of evil are very present here, especially his Palme d’or-winning The White Ribbon (2009). Both films are set in a similar time period, Haneke’s work dealing with increasingly bizarre and darkening circumstances in a German village, whilst Corbet focuses similarly on a French country house. Corbet especially seems to have picked up Haneke’s long-take focus, in which the exacting lens of his camera zeroes in on his characters, trapping them, following them, suffocating them.
In Tom Sweet’s brilliant performance, with angelic, androgynous appearance—his long locks lead to him frequently being mistaken for a girl, much to his anger—contrasting with an undercurrent of manipulation and coldness, one could also draw a parallel with the classic horror The Omen (1976), in which a demon child wreaks havoc upon those around him. Hell, even his adopted father there is an American diplomat.
Indeed, The Childhood of a Leader often plays like a horror without any of the horror, preying on the sense of foreboding and darkness engendered by its title, setting, and mood: the dark shadows of the musty French country manor in which the family lives are pierced only occasionally by the cold winter sunshine. There are some incredible images here, courtesy of the excellent work by cinematographer Lol Crawley, and they are aided by the film’s greatest asset, its soundtrack. A furious, thunderous string-based orchestral score by Scott Walker, one of the greatest composers/songwriters/singers/maniacs of the past fifty years, the score arguably threatens to overtake the film, but as far as the film’s throbbingly dark mood goes, the score sets the atmosphere with such a forceful sense of purpose that it’s hard to complain.
The problem is that, despite all these strong elements (the supporting performances too are excellent), The Childhood of a Leader ultimately feels a too stiflingly academic to truly work. It comes across more as a thesis than as a film, with layers of metaphor and analogy, in debt to Europe’s intellectual history, but little to say of its own. Perhaps a second viewing will open up the film, so dense is it with allegory and suggestive implication, but it may well be a case of a young filmmaker making things oblique as a result of a lack of confidence in his ideas rather than as a way of challenging audiences to come to their own conclusions.
What results is an exquisitely-constructed film that is less than the sum of its parts. This is after all, the work of a first-time feature director, and an admirably ambitious one at that. For that, Corbet ought to be applauded, barely 28 and attempting a work of complex intellectual promise, even if that promise remains unfulfilled. The Childhood of a Leader isn’t quite a success, but it is an interesting and worthwhile work.
Embrace of the Serpent presents itself as the inverse of all the Heart of Darkness-type films we’ve seen over the years, of white men journeying into the jungle and losing their minds—Apocalypse Now, half of Werner Herzog’s filmography—following instead the life of Kamarakate, the last of his tribe, in two interweaving time periods set decades apart as he takes Western explorers deep into the Amazon in search of a flower with mythical healing properties. Directed by Colombian Ciro Guerra, Embrace of the Serpent is an absolutely sumptuous-looking film, shimmering with 35mm black-and-white grain. However, whilst the execution of the film is incredible, its purpose seems slightly confused: it can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be an acidic dream-trip, or an intellectual thesis on the nature of colonialism in South America. In the end, it struggles to make a genuinely forceful account of either. A fine film, but perhaps too overstuffed.
Andrei Rublev is Andrei Tarkovsky at his most elemental. His later works would find themselves soaring higher into the skies, both physically (in Solaris) and spiritually (Mirror), but here he is at his most earth-bound, muddy, and avowedly religious. The ugliness of 15th century Russian life, with blood and murder aplenty—I had forgotten just how brutally violent this film is, even by today’s standards—is set against the need to create, the need to describe harmony and beauty so that insanity does not rule over us. It’s not a stretch to imagine Tarkovsky saw aspects of himself in the little-known historical figure that is Andrei Rublev the icon-painter. Along with the rest of Tarkovsky’s Russian oeuvre, Andrei Rublev stands at the very peak of cinema.
One of cinema’s greatest aesthetes, Zhang Yimou’s first feature film showcases the director’s eye as fully-formed from the start. Red Sorghum begins as a sumptuously-shot fable, with Yimou’s muse and leading lady, Gong Li, being married off to a leprous winery-owner by her poverty-stricken parents in 1920s China. As she is carried along in her sedan, she falls in love with one of the carriers, played by Jiang Wen. Told by a narrator, the couple’s grandson, the film has a fable-like feel, as if part of a memory partially obscured by the dust of the Chinese countryside. The winery-owner mysteriously disappears (we never even see him onscreen), and Red Sorghum begins to focus on the tale of Gong Li, taking control of the winery, and her elemental, charged relationship with Jiang Wen, who fluctuates between alcoholic despondency and romantic fervour.
Unfortunately, Yimou’s skills as a painter of gorgeous cinematic images have always been limited by his rather conservative storytelling abilities. He would go on to make equally sumptuous and grandly ambitious wuxia films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, again two gorgeously-shot films which suffer from a thematic conservatism. Here too, Red Sorghum begins to disintegrate towards the end, dovetailing into a war film where Japanese forces occupy and brutally oppress the area. The high-wire balance of gorgeous imagery and melodrama that Yimou achieves in the first two-thirds of the film is thrown away in favour of a simplistically manipulative third act set against the backdrop of war. It’s a shame, because although the sheer poetry of the film’s images are never less than breathtaking, the thematic conservatism and simplicity with which Red Sorghum finishes is wholly dissatisfying.
The story of the production of Zulu is arguably more interesting than the film itself. Screenwriter John Pebble and director Cy Endfield were both blacklisted from Hollywood for Communist sympathies, and leading man Stanley Baker was himself staunchly left-wing. Filming in apartheid South Africa, the cast and crew were legally unable to pay their mostly black extras fair wages, so they devised other methods of fair compensation, whilst also risking jail-time if caught fraternising with other races. The film itself has dated badly. Although it’s not outright racist, it does betray some slightly patronising attitudes towards the Zulu nation that are endemic to the way left-wingers saw the developing world fifty years ago: well-meaning in its intentions, but still somewhat muddled in its representation. Looking past that, both Baker and Michael Caine put in fine leading performances and the location cinematography is frankly outstanding, but the film is still derailed by awkward pacing, stodgy editing, and dull battle scenes.
As an act of filmmaking there is very little to fault Saving Private Ryan for. The detail, the staging, the sheer visceral nature of its battle scenes: every single element is perfectly in place here, from that famous Omaha Beach opening, to the last heaving breath in the final battle (we’ll ignore the godawful framing device used to bookend the film). However, this technical perfection is itself the problem. As so often, Spielberg finds himself concerned with details instead of a larger truth, and when he does attempt to latch onto a larger truth within the film, it is entirely incoherent or ham-fisted, delivered in big monologues that say “this is the point of the film”. These monologues have no great impact; they are just big speeches. Some say war is bad. Some say war is unnecessary. Some say war is valiant. None of them say it well, and for all its blood and guts and horror, Saving Private Ryan has absolutely nothing to say about World War II, thus rendering its visceral nature one of pure entertainment and spectacle rather than giving it a probing moral edge, the kind of edge that characterises the best war films.
As far as Steven Spielberg’s historical works go, Lincoln is less preachy or schmaltzy than normal. Indeed it appears in his latter days, along with Bridge of Spies, Spielberg has taken to repeatedly filming men sitting around in dusty rooms talking dry politics. Given that Spielberg is such an astoundingly talented filmmaker and is able to make even this eminently watchable, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but often one finds that his weak thinking and inability to strongly challenge or dissect facts that weakens his historical work, giving it the air of hagiography. And Lincoln is hagiography, but it is fine hagiography. Daniel Day-Lewis is as he usually is, excellent, and the cinematography and fine storytelling is easily apparent. Ultimately however, Lincoln is a little bit too far in awe of its subject to really come to life, as Spielberg’s films very often are.