Vita & Virginia review – a hothouse of patrician passion

The affair between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf is winningly recreated by Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki

Two stars have been known before now for portraying the complex figure of Virginia Woolf: Eileen Atkins and Nicole Kidman, the latter getting an Oscar for The Hours in 2002, despite being forced to wear an extraordinary false nose for the role. Atkins had no need of a prosthesis in her televised 1991 one-woman show A Room of One’s Own and in her 1992 stage play Vita & Virginia. This movie is based on that theatre piece, and Atkins has co-written the screenplay with its director Chanya Button.

Now Elizabeth Debicki takes on Woolf (nasally unassisted) and confidently tackles all her imperious, eccentric, tortured patrician-bohemianism in this diverting hothouse flower of a movie. She carries it off with some style. The drama – featuring the kind of flat, chirruping upper-middle-class English accents that aren’t usually voiced on screen – is intriguing and uncompromisingly high-minded, right on the laugh-with/laugh-at borderline, but interestingly unafraid of mockery.

Gemma Arterton plays Vita Sackville-West, the woman who had a passionate affair with Woolf and inspired her experimental novel Orlando in 1928, in doing so testing to near-destruction her own marriage with Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) along with Virginia’s relationship with stolid Leonard Woolf (Peter Ferdinando).

Vita’s disapproving mother Lady Sackville is played by Isabella Rossellini. Arterton conjures up demure mischief as Vita, but Debicki has the more difficult task of showing how falling in love could either plunge this fragile soul further into depression, or cure her.

It is a good, honest performance and, for all that the movie itself is brittle, self-conscious and perhaps a little absurd at times (“I really am exhausted by this Sapphic pageant!” is one of the lines), there is a vehement, urgent idealism.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/04/vita-virginia-review-gemma-arterton-elizabeth-debicki-isabella-rossellini

Carry On films weren’t all bad; they celebrated the working class in its heyday

Reports of a revival are hopefully wide of the mark. But for all their many flaws, the films carry a positive message, too

When I was growing up in the 1980s, grey Sunday afternoons were invariably spent in front of a Carry On film, while the adults snoozed in armchairs. Despite the homophobic jibes, the fat gags and the relentless groping of female characters, the films were seen as the ultimate in family entertainment. They didn’t seem so bad at the time. At the very least, we can credit Carry On Cleo, which starred Kenneth Williams as a neurotic Caesar, with giving us one of the great comic lines: “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.”

Nowadays we might reasonably look upon the worst of the Carry On franchise as we do an elderly relative whose generous distribution of Werther’s Originals is accompanied by a stream of low-level bigotry. Certainly, primitive sight gags around bursting cleavages, and scripts that did somersaults in order to get Williams to utter the word “queer”, are more likely to make us cringe than cackle. As for the “browning up” of Bernard Bresslaw in Carry On Up the Khyber, let’s not even go there. And yet, Carry On nostalgia endures both in the national consciousness and in the intermittent efforts of film producers to reanimate the brand.

This week has brought news that a comeback is on the horizon courtesy of the producer Brian Baker, who has been engaged in a lengthy legal battle with ITV, which owns the franchise, and who has finally been granted permission to fund a new movie. It’s by no means the first time a reboot has been proposed.

In the early 1980s there was talk of Carry On Dallas, inspired by the American soap, a project that seemed surplus to requirements given the original’s capacity for self-parody. Happily, it never got off the ground. In 1992 the threat of a revival was carried through in the execrable Carry On Columbus. Not for nothing was it later designated the worst British film ever made, thus sealing the franchise’s latter-day reputation as a peddler of smirking, lowest-common-denominator tat.

Why, then, do we persist in celebrating it? Would it be better simply to draw a veil over this apparently unedifying chapter in our cultural history? Viewed from a distance, the prejudice on display certainly isn’t pretty. Study the films more closely, however, and they also highlight much of what we have lost.

When the first film, Carry On Sergeant, hit cinemas in 1958, expectations weren’t high. An attempt to cash in on the popularity of The Army Game, a Granada sitcom about postwar army life, it saw a soon-to-be-retired sergeant trying to turn a hopeless bunch of recruits into functioning soldiers. Shot in just a few weeks on a microscopic budget, it was nonetheless a hit, and a British institution was born. The series peaked commercially in the 1960s with Carry On Cleo, Carry On Doctor and Carry On Up the Khyber. It’s no coincidence that these titles arrived at a time of low unemployment and improved living standards, and when Harold Wilson, a former grammar school boy from Yorkshire, was prime minister. Carry On films were by no means radical social documents, but they nonetheless reflected the collapse of the age of deference and the strides made towards social equality. Compare that to where we are now, marooned in an era of stagnating wages, rising homelessness and record food-bank usage, with a bunch of public schoolboys gambling with Britain’s political future.

These shallow, knockabout comedies had at their heart a distrust of authority, and never missed an opportunity to skewer the pomposity of supposed superiors. In the first film, it’s army sergeants that are deemed ripe for ribbing; later it’s teachers, doctors, police constables and the grand poobahs of the British Raj. Putting aside the grim racist tropes in Carry On Up the Khyber, we see a film at once nostalgic for the empire while lampooning the vulgarity and arrogance of the British upper classes and their fabled stiff upper lip. Meanwhile, Carry On Nurse, the highest-grossing film of 1959, cast an unlikely spotlight on Britain’s new National Health Service.

More broadly, in catering to a working-class audience, the Carry On films offered cinemagoers a chance to see versions of themselves on screen – a novelty however much they were caricatured. Look at the casting, too, and you see a film industry opening its doors to those who might previously have been consigned to below-stairs roles, or overlooked entirely. The franchise made stars of Kenneth Williams (son of a barber), Barbara Windsor (daughter of a fruit and veg seller), Sid James (a Jewish hairdresser) and Joan Sims (daughter of an Essex stationmaster). It’s hard not to compare this to today’s actors, increasingly the product of expensive educations and cushioned by family money. In a recent interview, the actor Vicky McClure spoke furiously of the advantages enjoyed by actors who have never encountered financial hardship – “if you haven’t got the funds, you haven’t got the same opportunities”.

The Carry On films undoubtedly outstayed their welcome. With each striving to be bawdier and more outrageous than the last, they lost the daft humour that flourished in the era of censorship and struggled to find an identity in an increasingly permissive society. The final two pictures before the 1992 comeback – Carry On England (1976) and the odious Carry On Emmanuelle (1978) – bombed. Do we need a reboot? Of course not. The films were the product of a time and place and any efforts to make them palatable for today’s audiences will surely end in disaster. But to write them off entirely on account of their flaws would seem similarly ill-judged. Such hoary old relics are worthy of our reflection, showing us how far we have come, while reminding us what is yet to be done.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/04/carry-on-films-working-class-heyday

Prisoners of the Moon review – the dark side of the Apollo 11 story

This unsettling documentary focuses on an engineer from Nazi Germany who was a key player in America’s lunar programme

This considered documentary blends archive, original interviews and reconstruction to track down an ugly, sticky thread from the great tapestry of self-congratulation that is forming around the 50-year anniversary of the first moon landing. Where a number of recent documentaries and dramatic features celebrate, however justly, the bravery, vision and scientific achievement of the Apollo 11 mission, writer-director Johnny Gogan’s collaboration with co-writer Nick Snow is a reminder that it was thanks to contributions from scientists smuggled out of Nazi Germany after the second world war that the Americans beat the Russians to the moon.

In particular, this zeroes in on the story of Arthur Rudolph, who is played in flashbacks with enticing ambiguity by Jim Norton. Rudolph, an engineer, joined the Nazi party in 1931 and worked directly under the pioneering rocket scientist Wernher von Braun on the V-2, which was constructed using slave labour drawn from the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Along with Von Braun and others, Rudolph ended up in the US, playing a major role at Nasa in its early days.

All this gives the film a timely charge, but the emphasis is much more on Rudolph’s later years, particularly 1990 when he tried to enter Canada and ended up facing an immigration hearing, big chunks of which are re-enacted here, with Cathy Belton playing Rudolph’s sinister barrister Barbara Kulaszka. Meanwhile, actor Marty Rea, dressed in concentration-camp striped pyjamas, recites passages from the memoir of survivor Jean Michel to chilling effect, appearing like Banquo’s ghost during the trial scene to see justice done.

As a package, this isn’t terribly subtle cinematically, and it remains a story that’s been told before in print, but this rendition has a heft that’s given an eerie quality by fine performances, thoughtful direction and a creepy music soundtrack by Steve Wickham.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/04/prisoners-of-the-moon-review-nasa-apollo-11-arthur-rudolph-wernher-von-braun

The Cure: Anniversary 1978-2018 Live in Hyde Park London review – communal celebration

Robert Smith revives all the old goth bangers with muscular, life-affirming brio in Tim Pope’s sedate concert film

The Crawley institution are in understandably fine fettle for this concert celebrating the anniversary of their first ever gig, under the name Easy Cure, in the West Sussex town’s Rocket pub in July 1978. Dwarfed by the boughs of two giant trees framing the Hyde Park stage, Robert Smith and the current lineup shake every goth banger out of their back catalogue for the occasion; 29 songs that are chapter and verse on disquiet, loneliness and yearning, but played here with muscular, life-affirming, almost Springsteen-esque brio. Smith can’t stop beaming.

But this concert film – directed by longtime Cure collaborator Tim Pope, who also shot The Cure in Orange, much prized back in the day on VHS – settles for being merely adequate. Far from the ripe theatricality of his early-80s promo work with the band, it adheres firmly to the gig-for-TV handbook that has become as visually codified as Wimbledon coverage. Other than the odd prismatic filter and an outbreak of juddery camerawork for Shake Dog Shake, it’s the standard sedate carousel through fretboard closeups, wide shot of the band, serene crowd pans.

It’s left to the Hyde Park VJs to supply most of the eye candy on the monumental backing screens. Sundown enhances the spectacle. In plain daylight, the band increasingly resemble a pack of flyblown hedgerow-dwellers who have emerged by accident; under cover of night, the shadows gather, and Smith can fully manifest as ambassador of the eldritch realm. Given the communal celebration, though, it’s a pity Pope doesn’t turn the cameras on the crowd more often. His film is a decent enough keepsake, but Cure acolytes will surely be already waiting for the scrapbook-style documentary he reportedly has in the works with the singer.

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/03/the-cure-anniversary-1978-2018-live-in-hyde-park-london-review-robert-smith-tim-pope

Midsommar review – outrageous black-comic carnival of agony

Florence Pugh is plunged into a terrifying pagan bacchanal in a magnificent folk-horror tale from Hereditary director Ari Aster

There’s nothing cosy about these midsummer murders, and Midsommar could turn out to be folk-horror for the Fyre festival ageAri Aster is the film-maker who made his feature debut just last year with the chiller Hereditary, and now presents us with this fantastically sinister and self-aware Euro-bacchanal, clearly inspired by the 1973 classic The Wicker Man. And that is not the only riff. When Hereditary came out, I guessed (correctly, as it turned out) that the director was thinking about Bergman’s Cries and Whispers. I’m now going to bet 20p that before shooting Midsommar, Aster took another look at Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.

Midsommar is an outrageous black-comic carnival of agony, starring charismatic Florence Pugh in a comely robe and floral headdress. It features funny-tasting pies and chorally assisted ritual sex, with pagan celebrants gazing into the middle distance and warbling as solemnly as the young dudes in the Coca-Cola TV ad about teaching the world to sing. It’s all set in an eerily beautiful sunlit plain, bounded by forests and lakes. This is supposed to be somewhere in northern Sweden, but was filmed in Hungary, and Aster, cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and production designer Henrik Svensson have collaborated on what are surely digitally assisted images: the sky and fields becoming a bouquet of vivid and beautiful blues and greens. The music from British composer Bobby Krlic (AKA the Haxan Cloak) is sensually creepy.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable film, a crescendo of paranoid trippiness building to an uproarious grossout in its final moments – of which the poster image, incidentally, gives you no clue. Once we are in that weirdly unreal Swedish clearing, the narrative turbulence clears and things appear initially as calm as a millpond. Yet there is a point to that becalmedness. It helps create the ambient disquiet.

Solstice of savagery … Midsommar.
 Solstice of savagery … Midsommar. Photograph: Allstar/A24

Pugh is very good as Dani, a young woman in a failing, clingy relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), and when a family tragedy plunges her into a terrible depression, Christian realises that he can hardly now take the course that some of his friends had been urging: that is – dump her. So, with a heavy heart, and to his friends’ dismay, Christian asks her along on the summer trip he and the guys had been planning: a visit to a remote rural Swedish community for the “Midsommar” festival that happens only every 90 years and is a huge secret from the rest of the world.

They only know about it because Christian’s sweet-faced friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) comes from this community and they all are to be his guests. He is very attentive to Dani and is the model of gentlemanly graciousness. This is in contrast to Christian and his boorish buddies, some of whom are would-be graduate students, planning to write doctoral theses on pagan rituals and hoping that the “midsommar” event will provide gloriously undiscovered primary research material. And in a way it will.

When they all arrive, Dani’s mood miraculously begins to lift: the strange traditions and quaint white robes are enchanting. It seems like a heaven-sent cure. But wait. The shrooms she is invited to take induce weird feelings and the village elders are a bit evasive about what precise form the ceremonies will take. It’s kind of strange that, as she dances round the maypole with the other womenfolk, Dani discovers that she can speak Swedish. And the central plain is dominated by what looks like a florally decorated crucifix with wrist-sized loops on either side of the crossbeam. Uh oh.

Midsommar combines mischief with a sensual surrender to fear and a dreamlike loosening of your grasp on reality. The Scandinavian setting gives hints of the various sacrificial moments in Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor (2000) or maybe even Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath(1943).

The juxtaposition of the bright sunshine of the film’s main event with the dreary winter snow of its opening scenes is nicely managed. It’s a clever cut when Dani runs sobbing to the bathroom, the door slams shut and you realise you’re not where you thought you were. This solstice of savagery is its own reward. It would be great if the trailer gave us some hints of the yuckiest moments, together with a booming bass voiceover: “This sommar…”

 Watch the trailer for Midsommar – video

References:
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/03/midsommar-review-ari-aster-florence-pugh