Review: THE LUNCHBOX (2013) [Bradford International Film Festival 2014]

As the Media Museum doors opened last night for the 20th Bradford International Film Festival once more, film fans and media types (I think GIRL ON FILM can count as one of them now, right?) bustled in from the rain to be greeted by a glass of wine and a cheery band. It was these many little touches that made the evening a special one and launched the programme so delightfully. Speeches from the Museum director Jo Quinton-Tulloch and the festival co-directors Tom Vincent and Neil Young made the appropriate thanks to the right people and reminded us just how much hard work goes into creating the festival year after year.

The opening film itself The Lunchbox (2013), was a triumphant choice to kick start the festival. Staring Irrfan Khan (who, we learnt as we sat down, had just won another award for his performance in this film) and Nimrat Kaur as two equally lonely inhabitants of Mumbai who begin a touching correspondence after Saajan (Khan) accidentally receives the lunchbox intended for Ila’s (Kaur) husband at work. Saajan is so thrilled with his unexpected meal that he sends a note of thanks back and so begins a journey of self-discovery for two unassuming and world-weary characters.

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The film is full of charm (and as the audience demonstrated last night, full of laughs) and filmed with such vibrancy that the smells and colours of Mumbai exude from the screen and awaken your senses. Watching Saajan consume Ila’s food is both mouth-watering and compelling. Ila and Saajan’s days are transformed by the ritual of preparing food and sharing it with love. Lured by her cooking skills and her unique letters accounting her daily life, Saajan is brought back to life, leaving his stale existence as simply a ‘widower’ behind. Without giving too much away, Ila too, is transformed.

The film is filled with journeys both literal and personal. Saajan’s journey to and from work act as a marker for his blossoming familiarisation with life once again. Ila watches the Dabbawalla man who distributes her home-cooked food from her window. She oversees her daughter’s journey to school from her apartment and receives care-packages from her Aunt who lives upstairs via pulley (the interactions between these two characters are also a joy to behold). Though her journeys are more confined, the impact of her food magnifies the significance of the importance of food to engage. Whereas before her culinary efforts where ignored by her inattentive husband, Saajan’s appreciation brings Ila’s world to life and allows Ila to venture literally and emotionally beyond the street where her lunchbox is attached to the delivery man’s bicycle for transportation.

The Lunchbox is a wonderful film and it is easy to see why Neil Young personally selected it for the opening night after first seeing the film in Cannes. A joyful, heart-rendering drama and plenty of belly-laughs to boot, The Lunchbox is a perfect example of the sophisticated and crowd-pleasing cinema which is coming out of India outside of the Bollywood machine. Director Ritesh Batra brings out fantastic performances from his leads and a special mention has to go to actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui (who looks curiously like an Indian Tony Curtis) in a brilliant supporting role as Shaikh, Saajan’s bumbling yet well-meaning work colleague.

There’s another chance to see The Lunchbox during the festival on Monday 31st March and it is certainly a must-see addition to the programme.

The festival is now underway, here’s to more wonderful discoveries!

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Review: Kyss Mig (2011)

We have the Scandinavians a lot to thank for in recent years in regards to TV and movies. If you’re looking for intriguing stories, beautiful scenery and people who look even better, then the Scandi-wave which has tsunami-ed our shores is as exciting as ever. Of course, while the quality of Scandinavian filmmaking has never been doubted, the success of series such as The Killing, Borgen and silver screen adaptations of the Millennium trilogy and Headhunters to name a few, chances to see our European neighbours work has certainly increased.

With this in mind then, GIRL ON FILM has chosen to review a film which while not a nail-biting detective thriller, does have many cosy-looking jumpers in the style of Sofie Gråbøl. Kyss Mig (Kiss Me) is a 2011 Swedish romance film directed by Alexandra-Therese Keining and stars Ruth Vega Fernandez and Liv Mjönes as well as Lena Endre and Wallander‘s Krister Henriksson.

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The film tells the story of Mia (Ruth Vega Fernandez), an up-and-coming architect about to marry Tim (Joakim Nätterqvist), her business partner. At the engagement party for her also newly-engaged Father, Lasse (Krister Henriksson), she meets Frida (Liv Mjönes), daughter of her Lasse’s fiancee, Elisabeth (Lena Endre). Mia and Frida exchange many glances, portending mutual attraction. Mia and Frida both visit the remote island home Elisabeth and Lasse plan to share. Frida continues to be intrigued by Mia whose feelings are mutual but conflicted by her relationship with Tim. Mia and Frida’s feelings for one another blossom becoming increasingly urgent, until finally, Mia is left to decide whether to suppress her love for Frida or go on with her wedding plans or break off her engagement to Tim.

On the surface, this is a ‘coming out’ story, but underlying the drama and romance is a tale of two families attempting to unite as Lasse and Elisabeth become engaged. The actions of their children forces the older couple to discover more about one another in the wake of their daughter’s revelations and at times, though we are primarily focusing on the awakenings of Mia and Frida, the film contains scenes which superbly utilises its ensemble cast. A film which it could be most likened to is the recent Love is All You Need (2012), a Danish film starring Pierce Brosnan which has just been released this month in the UK.

As well as being an engaging family drama, Kyss Mig is a film which is GORGEOUS to look at. Concerning characters who sip glasses of red wine in attractive gardens in private holiday homes, you could be mistaken for thinking this was a film approved by the Swedish tourism board (though that’s probably because our home-grown Brit flicks sometimes waver between Nil by Mouth and Billy Elliot in comparison). The upper-middle-class-ness of it all shouldn’t put you off however, as it all adds to the escapism which makes the love story and setting feel like a fairytale on film.

Paired with the raw emotion the Swedish do so well, the film also boasts a soundtrack which elevates the film in its key scenes, letting the likes of José Gonzalez and Robyn replace what could be superfluous dialogue and allow the characters to flourish against a backdrop of stunning cinematography and sparkling chemistry.

If you’re looking for a film that’s heart-warming, thought-provoking as well as some dazzling romance, heartache and some beautifully sexy scenes, then this is the perfect film. If you like to suspend your cynicism, believe in true love and trust the power of family- Kyss Mig will be the film for you.

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“Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff!”: Reflections on Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

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In Norman Kagan’s book ‘The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick’ (1997) Kagan compares the Kubrick’s seminal war film’s subject matter with Joseph Heller’s influential novel ‘Catch-22’ (1961) which in part is a critique of absurd bureaucracy and Cold War attitudes. Kagan explains how they “can be seen as products of the stifling anti-intellectualism, smugness and paranoia of the Eisenhower-McCarthy years. Both are full of brutalization, absurd and arbitrary power and smothering conformity.”.

Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) is an unfolding satirical comedy about the dangers of accidental nuclear warfare. An unhinged US air general triggers an impending nuclear attack on Russian states (Soviet Union), and much of the film is set in the ‘War Room’ where the numerous absurd characters (three played by Peter Sellers) attempt to stop the bombers. Originally intended as a straight adaptation of the novel ‘Red Alert’ (1958) by Peter George, Kubrick instantly discovered the subject and plot suited a more satirical approach. In ‘Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze’ (2000) by Thomas Allen Nelson, he was said to be fascinated by “’people’s virtually listless acquiescence in the possibility- in fact, the increasing probability- of nuclear war.’”. Upon hiring comic writer Terry Southern, it is clear that the humorous results of Dr Strangelove are entirely intended. Cold War films released at a similar time, On the Beach (1959) and Fail Safe (1964) imply nuclear war is a serious problem for which we all should be accountable. However, Dr Strangelove takes a playfully accusatory tone and is not afraid to point the finger at an illogical world leadership. Nelson explains this further, saying:

[On the Beach and Fail Safe] would rather be on the ‘right’ side of a morally complex issue than transform or unsettle an audience’s perception by showing how such a problem, more often than not, originates from deep inside the structures of social mythology and the paradoxes of human nature.”

From the very beginning of the film, we can notice the preoccupation with dialogue and character which reinforce the presentation of pompously, out-of-touch politicians and army men playing havoc with the world’s safety. Therefore “because the film defines character satirically…Kubrick was free to play with the forms of his medium in ways that earlier scripts made impossible.” For example in Dr Strangelove, the setting is a vision, accurate in the filmmaker’s mind though not necessarily in tune with reality. The ‘War Room’ was based on speculation and the imagination of Kubrick which permeated the set designs of each of his films. For instance, the settings in A Clockwork Orange (1971) appear to be 1970s England but contains highly stylised and fantastical mise-en-scene which can be pinpointed as truly ‘Kubrickan’. Furthermore, in response to the film, many critics were opinionated about the warped form the film had taken. Robert Bernstein of The New York Review of Books succinctly summarises, “The consequence of the [comedy film] spectacle is…a temporary purgation; to witness the end of the world as a comic event is, indeed, to stop worrying and love the bomb.” (1970)

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Much like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957) most of the action takes place either in the confines of hierarchy safety or in the immediate danger of battle and conflict. Designed by Ken Adam, the large conference room known as the ‘War Room’ is intimidating, angular and cold. High angle camera shots of the conference table suggest the room is in the bowels of government building and holds powers akin to a villain’s lair.  Other interior shots such as the B-52 bomber planes seem too small for the pilots who occupy them. The listing of the survival kit contents e.g., “One miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible;” (Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong) emphasise how efficiently compacted they are into confinement and the limitation of any escape from the decisions of leaders down below.

Made in England, Kubrick’s film was able to freely tackle issues which were affecting his homeland of the United States of America. In terms of the American war film genre, Dr Strangelove was a unique piece of film artistry. It challenged the popularity of American propaganda war films throughout the World War II period, and openly commented on issues such as the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War which haunted the American social psyche at the time. Noted journalist Paul Lashmar in the documentary film Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001) concluded that “People remember the film because it deals with one of the most dark things of the war period- the idea that hanging over us there’s nuclear oblivion. This is the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis…this piece of satire just hit it right on the button and it was frightening. Very, very frightening.”

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Into The Blue: Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colours: Blue’

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‘Three Colours: Blue’ is the first film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s celebrated ‘Three Colours Trilogy’ produced in 1993 and starring Juliette Binoche in the role of ‘Julie’. The collected: ‘Three Colours: Blue’, ‘Three Colours: White’ and ‘Three Colours: Red are all said to represent the three colours of the French flag and the ideals they represent: ‘liberty’ (blue), ‘equality’ (white), and ‘friendship’ (red). ‘Three Colours: Blue’ is perhaps the most well-known of the three films and both boosted the popularity of French New Wave cinema, the career of Juliette Binoche and the work of Krzysztof Kieslowski outside of Europe. This article will begin to analyse the film in greater detail, particularly focusing in on its successes.

The plot is set in Paris, and centres on Julie’s struggle to recover from a horrific accident she was involved in that resulted in the death of her husband and a beloved young daughter. After suffering such a terrible trauma, she begins to devote the rest of her life trying to completely erase her past from her memory: from moving to Paris, to selling all the furniture and belongings that inhabited her former life with her family. At the time of his death, her husband, a famous and respected composer, was in the middle of a new musical composition written for a newly united Europe to celebrate the end of the Cold War. Consumed with grief she destroys the musical sheets on which he was working.

It is a film that is rich in textures, which is fairly typical of French cinema. It is atmospheric, multi-layered and more meaningful with every viewing. As expected from the title, the colour blue features predominantly – a significant use of mise-en-scene throughout the piece. The use of the colour in, for example, a blue chandelier or a blue-lit swimming pool, allows the director to permeate the colour’s meaning in the film, blue being a colour that connotes great sadness as well as liberty. The title also prepares the viewer to look out for the colour, which heightens its effect.

Julie’s struggle for freedom from her grief and former life is the main strand of plot. In one particular, seemingly stand-alone scene, Julie sits in a cafe and the camera shoots a tight close-up of a sugar cube absorbing coffee from her cup. It may seem insignificant, but Kieslowski’s decision to focus on this moment infers how Julie has begun to take notice of the mundane in exchange for the more pressing matters of her life such as her burgeoning grief for the loss of her family.  Kieslowski expanded on this in a master class saying,

“Quite simply, we are trying to show how the heroine perceives the world…We show a close-up of a sugar cube soaking up coffee to show she is not interested in anything outside…in other people, their business, in the man who loves her and has found her after a long search. She’s not interested in anything at all- just the sugar. She concentrates on it in order to be able to discard other things.”

At four key moments in the film, Kieslowski includes moments of a fade out and a fade in back to the scene. They appear to occur when Julie experiences a breakthrough in her recovery or at a significant turning point in the plot, for example when she meets her husband’s pregnant mistress and decides to give her family home to her. Here, Julie accepts her husband’s infidelity and chooses to do good in order to learn from her past. Another fade in occurs earlier on the film whilst Julie is still in hospital recovering after the accident. A journalist comes to speak to her, wishing to talk about her husband. She refuses, unwilling to face her past. These pivotal moments in Julie’s life are pinpointed in the editing of these scenes – the viewer is shown her emotional state explicitly in this way. The editor of ‘Three Colours: Blue’ Jacques Witta elaborated by saying:

“…punctuating the film with fades in order to gives the music more space and highlight the emotions… Traditionally the fade-to-black is not used for this; traditionally it is used to show time. With a cross fade we show a short time between two moments, for a longer time we use the fade-to-black….we used the fade-to-back in the middle of a scene, to quickly create a space, a suspense…to quickly create a pause with significance.”

Music also plays an important part in the plot, as well as in the director’s creative vision. At various parts of the film, Julie’s husband’s unfinished composition plays, and it appears that despite destroying much of it herself, the memorable tune still plays on her mind. There is a particular scene where Julie is in the blue-lit swimming pool (a returning example of mise-en-scene), and she goes under water presumably to drown out the music she continues to hear, but it is no use. Another example of this is in an early sequence when Julie is stood by a piano. She hears her husband’s composition, and yet no one is sat playing the piano. She slams the piano down and the music stops, which challenges the idea of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. The final composition, completed by Julie’s husband’s business partner (who also incidentally is in love with her) is played in full at the end of the film over a montage of all the different people Julie has encountered over the course of the film, despite her attempts to isolate herself from the rest of the world. It is a touching and fitting moment in the film. As Annette Insdorf in her book ‘Double Lives’ explains:

“Since the sequence begins and ends with Julie, it seems as if all these people are now part of her. There is genuine closure as the film ends: she has completed the concerto and fulfilled the mourning…Having tried to live in “liberty” – without memory, desire, work, or commitment – she is ironically returning to love.” (p.51).

Though it is often said that this film must be watched along with the other two films in the trilogy, ‘White’ and ‘Red’ (as one Amazon reviewer joked “why buy the trousers and not the whole suit?”), I believe that ‘Three Colours: Blue’ can stand alone in its own right. If viewed solely as an interesting tale of one woman and her coping with grief, then the film is entirely satisfying and is one that can be universally appreciated. By the end of the film as we see a hint of a smile on Juliette Binoche’s face and we believe as a viewer that her character has made a turning point in her development. ‘Blue’ is a visual and arousing cinematic experience, one that deserves repeated and in-depth viewings. It is a film that people return to again and again and continues to be celebrated and talked about nearly 18 years after it was first made.

  • Annette Insdorff, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieslowski, New York: Miramax Books, 1999

Review: Rear Window (1954)

After another long break (blame university) Girl on Film is back with the movie that graces the header of our beloved site…Rear Window (1954).

It tells the story of a magazine photographer, L.B. Jeffries (played by James Stewart) whom after breaking his leg in a reckless and dangerous photographing accident, is bound to a wheelchair in his two-room apartment in New York for several weeks. Whilst confined for this period of time, his boredom leads to a peculiar interest in his neighbours who occupy the courtyard of city apartments which can all be seen from his window. In particular, he becomes intrigued by the suspicious behaviour of the occupants of the apartment directly opposite, whose mysterious activities lead Jeffries to believe that a husband has brutally murdered his wife. Along with his beautiful socialite girlfriend, Lisa (played by the stunning Grace Kelly), his wise visiting insurance company nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his cynical ex-army friend now police investigator, Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) they begin to investigate what really happened. Through this we delve into the private lives of the strangers who live alongside him, inviting us to question the legitimacy of being a voyeur and the enduring fascination with other people’s business.

The film was generally very well-received by critics and Hitchcock fans, and is often regarded as the perfect example of Hitchcock’s technical genius and ability to craft an effective suspense thriller. However, after attending the premiere in August 1954, The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther noted: “Mr. Hitchcock’s film is not “significant.” What it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib. But it does expose many facets of the loneliness of city life and it tacitly demonstrates the impulse of morbid curiosity. The purpose of it is sensation, and that it generally provides in the colorfulness of its detail and in the flood of menace toward the end.” In the end, Crowther still gave it a 4 out of 5 rating and the film continued to impress critics even thirty years later. Roger Ebert reviewed the film after its re-issue in 1983 and said that the film:  “develops such a clean, uncluttered line from beginning to end that we’re drawn through it (and into it) effortlessly. The experience is not so much like watching a movie, as like… well, like spying on your neighbours. Hitchcock traps us right from the first… And because Hitchcock makes us accomplices in Stewart’s voyeurism, we’re along for the ride. When an enraged man comes bursting through the door to kill Stewart, we can’t detach ourselves, because we looked too, and so we share the guilt and in a way we deserve what’s coming to him.”

It is this instant affinity with the characters of Jeffries, Lisa and even the killer Thorwald which makes Rear Window one of the more perfectly realised of Hitchcock’s films. The film features a cast that share just as much screen time as the main speaking cast and prove integral to the film’s atmospheric, even claustrophobic feeling which the audience experiences just as much as the wheelchair-bound Jeffries. The sophisticated screenplay by John Michael Hayes (a young writer who wrote four of some of Hitchcock’s most celebrated and distinctive films) is a huge part of this; a true team effort in terms of real technical ingenuity and artistic creativity. As Steven DeRosa describes in his book “Writing with Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes” (2001): “Hayes loaded the script with crisp, witty dialogue that included some typically Hitchcockian black humour during a meal. As Stella serves Jeff breakfast, she thinks aloud: ‘Now just where do you suppose he cut her up? Oh- of course, in the bathtub. That’s the only place he could wash away the blood.’”.This is a great example of how Hayes completely understood Hitchcock’s quirky sense of style and sense of dark, macabre humour from their very first collaboration. Hitchcock himself was known for his interest in real-life English crime, and it is believed that the famous case of Dr Crippen especially inspired Hitchcock with DeRosa adding: “Hitchcock was always fond of the Crippen case and enjoyed constructing Rear Window so that the chief piece of evidence incriminating Thorwald was the jewelry left behind by his wife, particularly her wedding ring.”.

Visually, Rear Window is a stunning film to watch. To be able to produce a film which is set entirely within the confines of a small apartment and yet still manage to convey the vast possibilities of the outer world from a window was an impressive feat. As a viewer we too feel imprisoned like Jeffries in his “plaster cocoon” and the sophisticated camera work manages to allow us to travel down the lens of his camera and explore the world just beyond him which at first seemed morally out of bounds. The sets were all constructed at Paramount Studios, with the entire courtyard and all the apartments fully furnished and built to the exact measurements of real apartment buildings. This attention to detail pays off as the real claustrophobia of city living is inextricably felt by everyone who encounters the film, and even more so when experienced in a darkened cinema theatre. Hitchcock’s understanding of an audience’s cinematic experience played a part in his camera shots and angles: we see ‘Miss Torso’ from Jeffries point of view which instantly implicates us in the voyeurism of the lewd and to the dangerous (‘Lars Thorwald’). As Stella explains to Jeffries, “We’ve becoming a race of peeping toms”. Writer Robin Wood in the documentary Rear Window Ethics: Remembering & Restoring a Hitchcock Classic- Making Of, explores this idea further, saying “Jeffries, and at times, other characters, use the apartment as a kind of cinema screen. And they do what I think most of us do when we watch movies, they partly identify with other people, they partly compare their lives to the other people’s lives. They use these lives to talk about their own lives in various ways.”

Over just one hour and fifty minutes, we are witness to all walks of life. ‘Miss Lonely-hearts’ is a lonely, unmarried woman prone to drinking and taking pills, the songwriter and composer struggles to make ends meet or find inspiration, the married couple who sleep on their fire-escape during heat waves and whose dog meets a fateful end and the newly married couple who spend most of their time with the blinds drawn and seemingly in bed, amongst others. Much can be said in comparison between Jeffries and his relationship with Lisa and the lives of his neighbours whom he sees daily from his window. It is clear that Jeffries is frightened of the commitment and compromise that comes with marriage, and the horrors he imagines of married life is laid out right in front of him. Of course during 1950s America in which the film was set and made, marriage was seen as the bedrock of society and an institution that all respectable people should enter at some point of their lives. But also during this time, new ideas about the right reason for marriage and true compatibility were beginning to emerge, and Jeffries’ conversation with his editor at the very beginning of the film is rather telling of the conflicting attitudes of the time.

Jeffries does not want to be tied down to the mundane of married life and can only imagine himself as the adventurer that his job has required him to become. Even his serious injury has not persuaded him to reassess his life and consider settling down. Lisa has a more traditional ideal of 1950’s marriage and respectability, saying: “I could see you looking very handsome and successful in a dark blue flannel suit.” It is clear that Lisa loves him very much, and we expect he returns this love, but is unwilling to give up a lifestyle for one that would be more conducive to married life. He views Lisa’s work as frivolous and excessive, and their inability to see eye to eye is a strain on their relationship:

Lisa: Well, if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to wear the proper clothes.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. Well try and find a raincoat in Brazil, even when it isn’t raining. Lisa. In this job, you carry one suitcase; your home is the available transportation. You don’t sleep very much, you bathe less, and sometimes the food that you eat is made from things that you couldn’t even look at when they’re alive.
Lisa: Jeff, you don’t have to be deliberately repulsive just to impress me I’m wrong.
Jeff: Deliberately repulsive! I’m just trying to make it sound good. You just have to face it, Lisa, you’re not meant for that kind of a life. Few people are.
Lisa: You’re too stubborn to argue with.
Jeff: I’m not stubborn – I’m just truthful.
Lisa: I know, a lesser man would have told me it was one long holiday – and I would have been awakened to a rude disillusionment.
Jeff: Oh, well now, wait a minute. Now wait a minute. If you want to get vicious on this, I’ll be very happy to accommodate you.
Lisa: No, I don’t particularly want that. (She rises and moves away.) So that’s it. You won’t stay here and I can’t go with you.
Jeff: It would be the wrong thing.
Lisa: You don’t think either one of us could ever change?
Jeff: Right now, it doesn’t seem so.

At this point in the film, Jeffries and Lisa seem incompatible, but during the events of the film, we see them become a formidable team, with Lisa revealing a more adventurous and valiant side, and Jeffries realising just how much Lisa means to him just as Thorwald puts her in gravest danger. Robin Wood believes that the conflict between men and women “seems to be one of the absolutely central themes of Hitchcock’s work….the terrible incompatibility of male and female positions as they’ve been defined and have evolved within our culture….I think Hitchcock’s view of romantic love is sceptical to say the least.”

As mentioned earlier, Rear Window is a crime and suspense thriller at its best which includes some of Hitchcock brilliant and best-loved actors and is truly a film that proudly belongs as part of his golden age in Hollywood. It is a perfect example of Hitchcock’s artistic ability to manipulative and thrill visually. ” This respect for true craftsmanship has continued right up to the film’s recent restoration which has seen the film being restored faithfully to the original film-maker’s wishes over 50 years later. Rear Window is a film of rare perfection, class and sophistication that many regard as a yardstick against which films of a similar genre should be measured against. It is still an exceptional film made by some of Hollywood’s greatest directors, actors and film crews. Such great talent has produced a film dealing with the terrible flaws of humanity and yet continues to conjure up such a warm fondness years later. Rear Window succeeds in this time and time again.

Review: Carve Her Name With Pride (1958)

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After an unexpected hiatus, I’m pleased to announce the next classic to grace the Girl On Film blog is Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) starring Virginia McKenna, directed by Lewis Gilbert and based on the book of the same name by R.J. Minney.

Acting as a precursor to films such as Female Agents (2008) and Charlotte Grey (2000), Carve Her Name With Pride tells the true story of Violette Szabo and her heroic achievements as a Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) in occupied France during World War Two. Having lost her French husband in battle, Violette uses her resourceful, natural aptitude for espionage and unsurpassable bravery to become the one of the first women to be awarded the George Cross.

The film is surprisingly gritty for its time, shedding the sometimes predictable and jingoistic tendencies of many post-war films. For Violette it seems, it is as much about fighting for honour of her husband’s sacrifice and memory as it is for the good of her country. Virginia McKenna is superb in the role, and has highlighted Carve Her Name With Pride as one of her most challenging performances as an actress. By the time we reach Violette’s torturous days as a prisoner, we cannot doubt McKenna’s dedication and commitment to the role. McKenna is the all-round star of the piece, shooting, parachuting and out-smarting her way through many difficult situations with both sophistication and absolute realism. The film is a testament to her acting talent and certainly surpasses A Town Like Alice (a film which always felt half-finished when matched with its original source) for her portrayal alone.

With a number of gripping set pieces, ranging from a violent machine gun shootout across the French countryside to a burning train wreck, Carve Her Name With Pride illuminates the scope of Violette’s journey in David Lean-style proportions. Away from the action, the scenes within the family home of her parents and young daughter are remarkably convincing and never appear to simply serve as an emotional trigger for the audience. Her provincial home is the setting for one of the most effective scenes: as Violette receives the telegram announcing her husband’s death, the door simply closes and the camera pans back down the hallway, leaving the heartbreaking sentiment unheard but understood.

A romance blossoms between Violette and fellow secret agent Captain Tony Fraser played by the charming Paul Scofield (whom I imagine to be a cross between Dominic West and Dougray Scott). An interesting relationship develops between the two, both encouraging the other to fight on and face their fears. Some amusing scenes which trace Violette’s development at the S.O.E. training camp provide the obligatory sexism for her to rise above and exceed all expectation. Captain Fraser however, refreshingly sees Violette as an absolute equal and soon falls in love with both the woman and the spy.

Carve Her Name With Pride has absolutely stood the test of time, owing to its true story roots and a pitch-perfect recount of the events helmed by a solid performance (which also won McKenna a BAFTA award). Its appeal lies with the compelling stories of those asked to go beyond the call of duty and forge their names among the list of extraordinary people we ought never to forget.

Finally, the poem ‘The Life That I Have’ by Leo Marks which serves as both a plot point and a motif throughout the film is especially touching:

The life that I have

Is all that I have

And the life that I have

Is yours.

The love that I have

Of the life that I have

Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have

A rest I shall have

Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years

In the long green grass

Will be yours and yours and yours.

Carve Her Name With Pride is available for a limited time to those living in the UK on BBC iPlayer.

Review: As Good As It Gets (1997)

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Who have thought that Jack Nicholson’s devilish grin would suit the smart comedic and heart-warming charm of James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets? Before 1997, Nicholson’s grin was suited to the sadistic humour of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman reboot. But as with that fine turn, the casting of Nicholson as Melvin Udall is one of genuine genius.

Indeed the evil traits of the Joker and neuroses of his former characters aren’t all that far from our memory when we meet Melvin Udall in the opening act of As Good As It Gets when he throws his neighbour’s dog down the garbage chute in an apartment building. A misanthropic, obsessive-compulsive germ-a-phobe (note: not the technical term) and novelist, Melvin Udall goes on to encounter a series of characters and forms unlikely friendships which throughout the film prove to be a catalyst for his recovery and change of personality. It all begins when Melvin is enlisted to help his gay artist neighbour (who has been brutally attack in an attempted robbery) by looking after his dog- forcing him to confront his crass homophobia and his irritation of animals.

Furthermore, one of the few stable ‘friendships’ (if at the start of the film we can dare to call them that) in his life is with the waitress at his regular eating place (with his own plastic cutlery) called Carol played by Helen Hunt. Her own story becomes clear as we learn that her young son suffers from acute asthma and is as much a debilitating victim of the illness as of a poor health insurance policy. Melvin becomes fond of Carol and her ability to kerb his grouchiness with finesse, and when events transpire that Melvin’s daily routine which has allowed him to settle into a life of cantankerous behaviour is disrupted, Melvin sets out to fix it- insulting and surprising a lot of people along the way.

Despite all the signs which indicate that Nicholson’s character is bound to be dislikeable to watch, the sharpness of the script written by Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks turn this film from two hours of the grumbles of a matured man stuck in his ways into a cinematic gem of a similar kind which made actors like Walter Matthau so enjoyable despite their character’s obvious flaws. Brooks clearly knew how to direct and write for Nicholson (having worked together previously on Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment)- every line seems to have been meant for Nicholson to utter and have all the snarling style that fits the timbre of Nicholson’s voice and technique. One also cannot forget Helen Hunt as Carol who becomes Melvin’s human element and the driving force behind the decision to change his life. Hunt and Nicholson are equal sparring partners on screen, and though some critics have seen the journey of their relationship as being overly sentimental towards the end of the film, I think it a fitting end to a film which at least to some extent alludes to optimism from the outset- the movie posters after all graces a hopeful Nicholson smiling towards to the sky. Both actors won Best Actor and Best Actress at the Academy Awards, and deservedly so. Greg Kinnear (who plays Simon, Udall’s neighbour in need) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and his character gets a significant amount of screen time in order for us as viewers to fully comprehend his character’s plight and own eventual emotional salvation during the course of the film. A scene in which Simon learns of his near-bankruptcy from his friend who has to use prompt cards in order stop herself from crying is particularly heart-breaking.

During his acceptance speech at his AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony in 1994 Nicholson ended what was already a rapturous evening with the words: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”. Three years later he would win third Academy Award for this film and go on to become the second most nominated actor of all time. As Good As It Gets is a film with a star still at the top of his game. And he knew it.

Review: Random Harvest (1942)

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We begin our classics series with Random Harvest, the 1942 Oscar-nominated black and white film starring Greer Garson and Ronald Colman. Set during the years after the end of World War One, Random Harvest is a sentimental, tear-jerker movie which delivers shocks and heartbreak aplenty.

Shellshock and amnesia victim John Smith (Ronald Colman) escapes from the asylum in which he has been recovering on the night World War One ends, after suffering terrible injuries in combat. Showgirl Paula (Greer Garson) takes pity on a disorientated and near-mute ‘Smithy’ and almost instantly falls in love with him. After a remarkable recovery, the two decide to marry and seem to live the perfect life together with their newborn son and a promising writing career ahead for ‘Smithy’. After a call to Liverpool for a permanent post at a newspaper, ‘Smithy’ travels up north and is caught in a shocking road accident which brings his life before the war hurtling back. John Smith becomes Charles Rainier, an industrial businessman with a fortune.  And that’s just the start of it.

Charles Rainier’s and Paula’s (now Margaret) lives continue to spin along and meet once again (for reasons which I shan’t reveal) and reach a conclusion which will surely have the hardest of hearts reaching for a box of tissues.

Perhaps overshadowed by Garson’s other film Mrs Miniver released the same year (which was a winner of six Academy Awards including Best Actress and Best Picture), Random Harvest still earned a healthy seven nominations including Best Director for Mervyn LeRoy. The film is an emotional spectacle with twists and shocks-aplenty, perfect for those unused to the genre of Classic Hollywood or reluctant to watch a black and white film (how very dare you!). Greer Garson’s staggering beauty and Ronald Colman’s appealing vulnerability and emotional journey throughout the piece capture the sentimentality and dogged hope of a mid-Second World War period.

Review: Shallow Grave (1994)


In the spirit of the Olympics and the spectacularly British Opening Ceremony, I thought it appropriate to revisit an oldie of the now distinguished Danny Boyle repertoire: Shallow Grave.

Shallow Grave (1994) starring Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor is a bold and dynamic first film by the man from Bury. Known for dabbling in a multitude of genres, Shallow Grave is an exercise of the Hitchcockian traits in films such as Vertigo and Psycho and the dark humoured gaze of the Coen Brothers. Shots of spiralling staircases and sweeps of blood red colour the screen throughout and though essentially a gory film with a stack of dead bodies upon reaching its conclusion, Shallow Grave can go hand in hand with Trainspotting (Boyle’s second film) as a narration of the corruptive and addictive power of living in the post-Thatcher world. Often described as a narrator of the British underworld and youth culture of the 1990s; Danny Boyle kick-started his career with a slyly powerful debut which packs a punch, right through to its gripping conclusion.

Shallow Grave is a tale of a flat, two guys, a girl and a suitcase. However it is no ordinary suitcase. This suitcase is filled with cash and has been left by the bedside of their reclusive new flatmate who has mysteriously died. The rest of the film hinges on one decision: to ring the police, report the death and hand in the money OR to keep the money, dispose of the body and any trace of his existence in the flat. A visit to the DIY store later, and a decision has been made. The three players: Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor do not present the most likeable troop of protagonists, and this film is a parable of the perils of impulsiveness and over-caution as all three portray the downfalls of those human traits. A doctor, a chartered accountant and a journalist living in an echoingly large converted flat, it soon becomes clear that their decision to keep the money is equally one of boredom as of greed. A standout performance by Christopher Eccleston and an increasingly fond portrayal by Ewan McGregor (who begins the film as simply the egotistical ring-leader); the set-up of the three flatmates is a ménage a trois of sexual tension, obsession and youthful naivety.

With 82 minutes of running time, Shallow Grave is short and bittersweet. Any longer and the tension would become grating and the character’s dilemma: un-engaging. A confident, noir thriller debut from a future British directorial icon, Shallow Grave is a masterclass in horror- a dynamite stick with an unlit fuse and Danny Boyle holds the match.