A wildly inconsistent director even in his heyday when he followed up Point Blank and Deliverance with The Exorcist II and Zardoz, John Boorman’s Hope and Glory remains something of an outlier in his filmography, a personal coming-of-age film sitting amongst a variety of thrillers and fantasies. Telling the story of a boy growing up in the UK during WW2, the film is imbued with a wonderful sense of bittersweet nostalgia—Boorman evidently remembers this time of his life as a never-ending Boy’s Own adventure, a time of exploring bombed-out ruins with chums and playground fighting, before moving to his grandfather’s country home with its rivers and fields and summertime wistfulness. The realities of war are, for the most, distant, a faraway concern for adults, something that Hope and Glory subtly acknowledges. There’s a constant undercurrent of danger, of the potential for the idyll to be smashed by bearers of bad news or by a German plane. Boorman strikes just the right balance between the two tones, in the process acknowledging where his own taste for adventure cinema arose from.
Peter Mullan’s tale of gang youths in Glasgow embodies much of British kitchen-sink melodrama’s visceral power, as well as some of its flaws and clichés. Telling the story of John McGill’s (Conor McCarron) journey from bookish pre-teen to rampaging teenager beset by his raging alcoholic father and criminal older brother, Neds is certainly littered with powerful performances and perceptive details; unsurprising as the film is partly autobiographical for Mullan. The main revelation here is McCarron, who resembles a young Ray Winstone in the hard-hitting Scum, another film that dealt harshly with youth violence in ‘70s Britain. However, despite these considerable strengths, Neds is hamstrung by a certain predictability and a certain degree of misery-wallowing, where dramatic strength is sacrificed for blunt violence and gruesomeness. No doubt it is a realistic and engaging portrayal, but to what end?
Peter Greenaway’s love of symmetry, visual games, and ironic distance is on full display in The Belly of an Architect. In his best work, such as The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover or Drowning by Numbers, these traits are integrated into a wider piece, brimming with intelligence, wit, even anger or tragedy. At its worst however, it leads to a lot of formal huffing and puffing over not much at all. And The Belly of an Architect is very guilty of that. We follow Stourley Kracklite (Brian Dennehy), a famous American architect arriving in Rome to set up an architectural exhibition. Surrounded by stories of the gruesome demise of many a Roman Emperor, his wife’s infidelities, and his own ill health, he becomes an paranoid, paunch, monster of a man. Whilst there is potential in a premise dealing with male hubris and desperation to leave posthumous legacy, Greenaway never allows us near enough to his protagonist for us to truly emphasise with him, instead content to make numerous references to art, architecture, and history without ever emphasising a new idea of his own. It’s majestically pretty (with a great soundtrack), but ultimately rather thin.
Of the litany of post-Tarantino, post-Guy Ritchie British gangster flicks in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, featuring Kray-derived cockneys, plentiful swearing, and healthy doses of black comedy, Sexy Beast remains one of the freshest and most inventive, undercutting all the showy machismo such films love to wallow in. Though the plot is little more than your standard ‘one last job’ schema, it is brought to life by three pitch-perfect performances; a tender, relaxed Ray Winstone, a gloweringly slimy Ian McShane, and of course, an utterly unhinged Ben Kingsley. Though Sexy Beast isn’t nearly as endearing after Kingsley takes his bow, the first two thirds of the film are brilliantly funny. It’s difficult to believe it took Jonathan Glazer fourteen years to make the fantastic Under the Skin after such an entertaining first feature.
Let no money-spinning franchise go underused, so say the benevolent executives of Hollywood, and thus as the inevitable as the death of capitalism arrives the Harry Potter-universe-set prequels, beginning with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Eddie Redmayne is likeable and charming enough as Newt Scamander, a British wizard in the US carrying around a caseful of beasties in his Tardis-like suitcase. Whilst a lot of imagination and visual appeal has been injected into this magical recreation of mid-20s New York—one particular scene where Newt takes an audience-surrogate muggle on a tour of his suitcase zoo is outstanding in its sense of visual grandstanding and awe—but unfortunately, an excellent supporting cast (Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell) is wasted on shallow characters written by JK Rowling, whose script prioritises whip-bang plot machinations above world-building and characterisation. There’s enough craft in here, with solid direction from Harry Potter regular David Yates to make it worth the while of long-term fans, but it’s difficult to find oneself being won over by it.
A non-Ealing studios film featuring a number of regular Ealing comedy alumni, Battle of the Sexes is only really of interest to people interested in the more historical aspects of film (me, basically). Like many of the classic Ealing Studios comedies from the late-40s/50s, there’s a lot that this film can tell you about attitudes and sensibilities at the time. Unfortunately, it lacks the sharpness and humour of the best Ealing Comedies; there’s none of the acerbic wit of Kind Hearts and Coronets; none of the satirical bite of The Man in the White Suit; no generous belly-laughs to hold a candle to The Ladykillers.
With two big names leading the film, one behind the camera and one in front (Charles Crichton and Peter Sellers respectively), it’s something of a disappointment. The basic plot is that Peter Sellers is an aging manager at an old Scottish textile firm, whose dusty life is turned upside down by the death of the firm’s owner and the arrival of his garrulous son, Robert (Robert Morely), who brings with him *gasp* an American woman, Angela (Constance Cummings), who also happens to be one of those newfangled business advisors so popular across the pond. Her modern advice shakes up the office just a tad too much, breaking apart tried-and-tested methods, until the otherwise meek and passive Peter Sellers decides to do something about it.
The tone of the film is heavily parochial, with a gentle, condescending tone taken against the figure of the American working woman, as if it’s an amusing passing fad: “well done my darling, you are quite a talented woman aren’t you, now back to the kitchen where you belong dear, yes?” Granted, the film makes a point of the fact that Angela is a well-respected professional in the US, whose methods don’t translate to the Old World of small-scale, handmade production—whilst Sellers’ character is presented as an out-of-touch old man clinging to the old ways— but her presence in the textile firm is frequently treated as a humorous yet shrill disruption of tradition, which worked just fine until she came along!
Its gender politics may be highly dated, but at the very least there is interest here historically from such a perspective; the professional working woman is a common and less derided figure these days, and strong female voices in the arts, media, and politics are more frequent, yet it was only five years ago that David Cameron said “calm down dear” to a female MP in Parliament. This bland, condescending sexism is still highly prevalent in our society, alongside a small but virulent, reactionary, and regressive faction that’s bitterly vocal on any below-the-line internet comments that seems to have sprung up in reaction to progress in gender equality. It seems that these factions once scoffed at the notion of equality, but now they feel they have to fight it directly. For every step forward, two steps back.
Of course, I could forgive certain regressive elements of The Battle of the Sexes if the film were entertaining or funny, which it isn’t, and it’s hard to imagine it being all that hilarious back in the day either. Jokes are few and far between, although Peter Sellers does make the most of it: such a talent is capable of at least dragging relative dullness like this up half a step. Charles Crichton, for his part, was a fine director, one of the more undervalued voices of post-war British cinema. Whilst not exactly a unique authorial voice in the vein of David Lean or Powell/Pressburger, his work does have a pleasing ease and exacting sense of comic timing to it (he began in the film industry as an editor). When paired with an excellent script, Crichton was superb; his final film, A Fish Called Wanda, written by John Cleese, is a case example of supreme comic timing, but his work here does little more than move the film along, shuffling slowly to its end. Mediocrity for film history geekery (me).
Shame has the same problem that all of Steve McQueen’s films thus far have had; they are all distinctly less than the sum of their parts. For all the excellence of the performances and the craft of Shame—Fassbender’s performance here may be his career best thus far—there still remains something ultimately hollow about the overall impact of the film. I don’t mean hollowness in terms of theme; I understand that’s part of the point, that Fassbender’s Brandon is an empty, emotionless shell of a human being (and great films have been made about such characters), but hollowness in terms of the film’s intellectual takeaway. On closer analysis, all of McQueen’s films, for all their art-house stylisation and intellectually weighty preoccupations, come down to being fairly obvious ‘message’ films: “addiction is shit”, “British government is shit”, “slavery is shit”. That doesn’t take away from their successes, but it probably explains why I’ve never felt personally moved by his work.