Leave No Trace

Directed by Debra Granik

It’s the green that stays with you after this film, the comforting green of the forests which are such a contrast to the monotone, barren badlands of Granik’s previous film Winter’s Bone (made, amazingly, 8 years ago). So from the beginning there’s always a sense of promise of new growth beneath the melancholy of this father/daughter relationship.

Will (Ben Foster) and his young-teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) live camping out wild in the forests of North Western America, under the radar of officialdom. From the beginning we’re ill at ease about their situation – Is Will a survivalist? A member of a religious cult? An eco-warrior? On the run? – but we can also see that in many ways, though hard, it’s a good life, the relationship between the two is close, unfraught and undamaging, at one with nature, and whatever else Will’s life choice has done, it’s produced a caring, well-balanced and strong individual in Tom.

But even the deep woods are not so far from civilisation, and it’s not long before they are spotted and taken under the wing of society. A kindly and well-meaning wing, but one which Will cannot bear, as it emerges that he is a widowed veteran suffering from some kind of post traumatic stress, and is unable to settle among other people.

Tom, on the other hand, responds happily to life among others, and it’s a wrench when she’s persuaded to escape back to the uncomfortable and basic woodland life Will craves. You find that you’ve invested so much in the relationship between this pair that you want to shake this father, who really can’t help himself, into sense. It’s another thoughtful and rounded portrayal from Foster, and newcomer McKenzie is marvellously alive and sympathetic, as she grows into maturity and stands on the edge of a new more fulfilling life.

But it’s inevitable their previous closed-off life together can’t last. This close, loving and in so many ways beneficial relationship is at the same time inadequate and doomed. Yet the kindness of strangers, both sympathetic misfits and professionals trying to make the best of things, as well as the benevolence of the forests, offers a way out that leaves you with a feeling of the goodness of the world, despite everything, and a positive, safe feeling for the future. It’s spring, at the beginning of a life, rather than the winter that must be survived by the un-parented girl Ree in Winter’s Bone. As in that film, folk music plays its part, harking back to a simpler world, yet for once it’s a pleasure to come out of a film feeling maybe the world isn’t so bad a place, even now, despite the sadness and inevitable separations that break in on most human lives. We can look after each other.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, July 2018

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Wanda

Directed by Barbara Loden

Despite winning the International Critics’ Prize at Venice in 1970, Wanda, independently and cheaply made on 16mm, bombed in the States and survived through pure chance, when in 2010 it was discovered at a West Coast film laboratory which was clearing out old stock before closing down. Restored at the UCLA TV and film archive, it was screened at various festivals around the world (I was lucky enough to see it at the 2011 London Film Festival). Now acclaimed by many both as an early feminist masterpiece and, in the circumstances of its making and subsequent history, an object lesson in the woeful position of women film-makers in Hollywood, it’s now receiving a re-release in the US.

Barbara Loden was an intriguing figure in mid-20th century Hollywood. As a young woman she worked as a magazine model, before getting small acting roles on stage and then in films, where she was ‘discovered’ by the method director Elia Kazan (whom she later married), who gave her the part of Warren Beatty’s sister in Splendour in the Grass.

Her experience was not dissimilar to Marilyn Monroe’s, whom she played in 1964 in Arthur Miller’s All That Fall. Acting to some acclaim, more on stage than screen, she was turned down for the part of Bonny in Bonny and Clyde, and in 1970 directed this, her only film, and one of the few directed by women during that period. It’s a film that hardly fits into any ‘type’ of the time, grittily realistic, character-led, bathetic, slow burning and unsensational, and giving us a central female figure who is passive and inarticulate yet somehow heroic. Wanda, played by Loden herself, is a rootless, depressed working class woman who begins by offending the American pie sensibilities by granting her ex- husband custody of her two children for their own good. Her shiftless journeyings around a fly-blown, scruffy American landscape and ends in her half-heartedly hitching up with a desperate loser obsessed with robbing a bank.

There may have been women as abused and bereft of self-esteem as Wanda in films, but rarely so lacking in self-awareness, so undramatically ground down that they scarcely care what happens to them, so innocent. It couldn’t be more remote from the romance and self regard of Bonny and Clyde, the stylish antithesis of this film. Loden paints the landscape as undramatic and hopeless as her characters. Wanda’s slow walk across the pit spoil-heaps of Pennsylvania as she leaves home looks far more European than any US film ever looked, then or now.

Despite the acclaim at Venice, Loden never got to direct another film. How far this was because Kazan her husband belittled her role in the making of it is anyone’s guess, an ironically Wanda-like situation but very much of its time, and she died of cancer ten years later.

 

Offside

Directed by Jafar Panahi

For anyone experiencing the cold turkey brought about by football’s momentary absence from our screens, it’s worth seeking out a film that, despite not showing a single kick of the ball, this is one of the best films about the experience of watching football that you’ll see. And so much more. Iranian director Panahi uses women’s exclusion from football as a metaphor for their wider repression of women in his society and its effects. But though that sounds grimly serious, don’t expect a depressing or dour film. Deeply serious it is, but despite all that not only is it very funny, but a terrific sense of sheer joy and optimism flood the final scenes. Long takes, non-professional actors and documentary-feel filming in real situations give it a Ken Loach style immediacy, but it’s also full of the beautifully composed shots we expect of Iranian cinema.

In Iran women are not allowed into football matches, ostensibly because they would be offended by the language, and would have to sit alongside men who aren’t family members. However, some women try their luck at getting in. It’s the day of the World Cup 2006 decider between Iran and Bahrain, and an elderly man is being driven along the city streets (a favourite Iranian cinema device), desperately seeking his daughter, whom he fears has made off to the football stadium.

Buses full of loud excited fans stream past, and in one sits a girl dressed, not very convincingly, as a boy. It’s her first time going to a match, she’s very nervous, and bottles out at the stadium entrance when faced with a pat-down search. She’s taken off to a pen just outside the concourse where she, along with five other young women, is guarded by a comical group of reluctant young soldiers, their leader just seeing out his time in the military while pining for his home back in the country. They’re a mixed bunch of women, fearful, streetwise, resigned, playful, and one, to the amazement of the soldiers, is actually a footballer herself.

The characters are subtly developed as they protest at the rules excluding them, and prevail upon one of their guards to commentate on the game which he can see a confined view of through a narrow gap in the wall (an echo of the traditional Islamic woman’s view of the world from purdah). It’s both funny and terribly sad. A young generation having to go through the motions of rules that they know there is no rationale for. It’s not just a football match that’s being withheld, but the possibility of self-expression and freewill.

The absurdity climaxes in a bravura comic scene as a young, not too bright soldier solemnly conducts one of the prisoners, absurdly made to wear a huge poster of a player’s face as a disguise, to the Gents’ (there is, naturally, no Ladies’) and struggles to keep bursting-bladdered men out while she’s in there. But the absolute magic comes in the final sequence as the army van takes the girls to the police station through a teeming, rejoicing Tehran (shot on the actual night of victory), guards and prisoners united at last in anxiety for the result then in heady celebration.

It’s one of those rare times when football really does, against all the odds, seem to show possibilities for true liberation, and the feeling of optimism is overwhelming. Dangerous stuff – in Iran the film was banned.

Transilvania International Film Festival – Part 4: Romanian Shorts; One Step behind the Seraphim; The Secret of Happiness; The Guilty

The 341 minutes of Romanian Short films in competition this year were as ever a rewarding watch, the usual mixed bunch, but with one clear winner. THE CHRISTMAS GIFT (Cadoul de Craciun) by Bogdan Mureşanu was a near-perfect, genuinely funny yet deeply affecting tale very reminiscent in mood of the best of the ‘Romanian New Wave’ of several years ago. It’s the evening of 20 December 1989, a date that will be very meaningful to Romanian audiences as the day before the fall of Nicolae Ceauşescu, and a father and his little son are returning home to their flat with their Christmas tree. The family are hunkering down for an austere but pleasant run up to Christmas, until the boy reveals what he’s put on the Christmas wish-list he just posted off. And it’s not exactly Ceauşescu-friendly. Panic. The strength of the film – as well as the lovely humanistic feel of ordinary life it gives – is the tension between our knowledge of what tomorrow will bring, and the father’s genuine terror at what might happen to him. His imaginings may now seem absurd, and we can laugh, but such absurdity was a fact of life in 1989. The film ends, as it began, with a Christmas tree, but this one celebrating more than just Christmas. This is a director with tremendous promise.

Among other excellent films was SUNDAY (Dorian Boguța), set in a care home run by frazzled workers where a few moments of tenderness are a catalyst for passion of a very different kind. The fine actress Ioana Flora appears in both this and the previous film. It received a special mention from the judges, along with MICHELANGELO, a sometimes comical but always delicate look at a parent’s coming to grips with telling their child about death (and thereby dealing with their own feelings about it), the directorial debut from actor Anghel Damian. And another actor making a similar debut with aplomb is Maria Popistaşu, whose SEAGULL also takes a sideways look at dealing with death as a daughter (played by the director) and her ageing father cope with an injured bird which has crashed in their garden. Meanwhile brooding tension was finely captured both by Andrei Crețulescu in PARABELLUM, with an ex-husband revisiting his former wife in her new home, that despite first appearances is never going to end well, and in Radu Potcoava’s increasingly menacing MISS SUEÑO where naïve Roxana awaits a trip to start a new life in Spain in the flat of the charming couple who have arranged it for her. And EVERYTHING IS FAR AWAY is a moving, superbly concentrated 15 minutes of a surprise birthday visit from a mother (Mirela Gorea) from the Danube Delta to her son in Bucharest, taking her disabled son along with her, that succeeds in expressing more of social anxieties, small kindnesses and the hurt of motherly love than a full length film might strive to do.

Two more Romanian films on my last full day: ONE STEP BEHIND THE SERAPHIM (Un pas in urma serafimilor) by Daniel Sandu is an engrossing coming of age story set in an orthodox seminary, where we see the young and idealistic Gabriel (Stefan Iancu) dealing with his own emergence into adulthood and coming up against the corruption of the real world. Sandu knows of what he speaks – he spent years in a seminary himself. Charismatic head of the seminary Father Ivan is the wonderful Vlad Ivanov, with that uncanny knack of his of turning on a sixpence from charm to icy malice. Ivan is expert at winning confidence, which he uses for his own ends, encouraging the young men to ‘snitch’ on one another, delighting in his power games. That schoolboy word covers real moral outrage, and it’s not hard to see the seminary as a metaphor for the society both specifically of the time, and in general. Gabriel is also discovering sex, and ditching his glasses and ruffling up his hair he’s soon down the local bar and into his surprisingly forward girlfriend’s bed. In contrast is the simple life of a village priest whom Gabriel visits in a vacation placement, a glance at a pure and holy life, but is this what he really wants for himself? Although the film gets a bit bogged down with too much of the same in the middle sections and, to the hard-bitten cineaste at least, the Zero de Conduite-borrowed pillow fight as symbol of innocence doesn’t quite work, it’s an entertaining film impressively acted. It’s message is less revolutionary than many such ‘school’ films – If springs to mind. Once purged, the school will continue, many of the boys, including, probably, Gabriel, will go on to become priests. It has a less radical message – that life is complicated, perhaps, that right does sometimes come out on top, and that there is hope and a future for the church if it moves with the times and is true to its own messages.

THE SECRET OF HAPPINESS (Secretul fericirii) by Vlad Zamfirescu, with its single scene setting, real-time action and   three-hander cast, may look like a screen version of a play, reminiscent of Polanski’s Carnage. But this is not to belittle it, and quite the opposite is true, a successful stage version having been devised soon after the film. It is very much an actors’ film, the three performances always under the spotlight, feelings and motives constantly evolving. But the increasingly claustrophobic feel of the affluent flat where Tom (director Zamfirescu) and Ana his wife (Irina Felcescu) have invited old friend David (Theo Marton) for dinner owes much to the camera’s framing of their conventional-seeming smart lives. And as the banter that begins jokily with the host’s rather flakey suggestion they might try swapping wives moves inexorably on to reveal the ugliness underneath their perfect lives, the camera homes in to linger pitilessly on faces that begin to drop their friendly smiles as truths emerge. Although the set-up takes a little too long to get going, the downhill slide to a nightmare finale is gripping.

My last morning in Cluj gave me chance to pick up on the film that won the Audience Prize. Gustav Möller’s THE GUILTY (Den skyldige) comes already garlanded with Audience Prizes from Sundance and Amsterdam, and you can see why. Jakob Cedergren is on camera throughout as Asger, a policeman who has for some at first unknown reason been demoted from normal duties for a while to the unloved job of answering emergency calls, and it’s on him that the entire film is centred, stuck on a police station switchboard dealing with an increasingly fraught apparent hostage situation. Like Tom Hardy in Locke, Cedergren’s performance is a masterclass in minimalist expression of emotion, as the camera scarcely moves from his face. As in the classy Danish TV thrillers we’ve all become addicted to in the UK, nothing is a simple as it seems, and the personal life and emotional state of the protagonist seeps subtly in. The sell-out audience in Cluj’s biggest cinema on a late Sunday morning were enthralled and utterly silent throughout.

So another TIFF ends. And I haven’t even mentioned the special Bergman retrospective to mark his centenary, showing seven of his key films, as well as Bergman Island, a documentary made in 2004 at his home where he talks candidly about his life, his work, his regrets, his fears… I also missed my chance to see any of the films of Fanny Ardant, this year’s Lifetime Achievement Winner, looking as youthful and vibrant and unconventional as she ever did. There’s always too much to get round to seeing in Cluj, and one inevitably comes away regretting what has been missed, what didn’t fit in your schedule. But it’s hard to find a dud among the delicious fare on offer, and this year that’s probably been more true than ever. Even the less satisfactory films at Cluj are almost always worth a look, and it’s still great to see a festival that’s as much for the public as for the professionals, many of whom can get to see what they want at another festival if it passes them by at this one. For residents of Romania, non-mainstream and foreign cinema is harder to come by, and the local residents and students pile into the cinemas, even at 10 in the morning, and there are many sell-outs. Then for the guest there are the other distractions- a stroll in the shady park or up to the Botanical Gardens, the market with its aroma of lavender and dill, the architectural delights of Cluj’s varied streets, the sweaty climb up to the Citadel for its views over the mixed roof-scape of the city… And oh the food… a lemonade along the Bulevard, a leisurely Cabbage a la Cluj at the Varzarie, the Goulash party, hastily grabbed street food between screenings, the cherries and the strawberries, the local cheeses and meats (including the one that is practically all fat, reminiscent of north country pork butchers offerings beloved of my grandma from my childhood), the unpretentious ciorbas at the Agape cafeteria surrounded by students and office workers on their lunch break, Doamna T’s restful and civilised retro tearooms. And the people – renewing acquaintances and making new ones at buffet lunches and parties, and falling into conversations with total strangers with no connection to TIFF who give you an insight into life in Romania. Festival’s the word!

PART ONE

PART TWO

PART THREE

 

Hereditary

Directed by Ari Aster

Hereditary unnerved me, for sure. But I wish it had absolutely terrified me more. Most effective in the first half, before the demons are thoroughly unleashed, as a portrait of a grim family not at ease with itself, once the climactic catastrophic event and its immediate consequences have happened, I found my boring old rationality kicking in so strong that I hardly even jumped as things got decidedly nasty.

A wonderfully disturbing beginning, where the camera roams around a studio of dolls-house-sized room set-ups, resting finally on a bedroom and closing in to reveal it as real, sets the scene of Annie’s (Toni Collette) workspace in the traditional, gloomy, family house, claustrophic even though it’s set in beautiful countryside. She’s an artist who recreates scenes of her own family life with painstaking verisimilitude. Currently she’s working on the deathbed scene of her mother, who died recently after many years of dementia, pretty well unmourned by anyone. A difficult, unpleasant woman, estranged from her family for years, even Annie’s funeral eulogy for her turns out to be more of an apology for a lack of affection. But then Annie herself is not that lovable. She takes control over her family by miniaturising it into art, routinely scrapping viciously with her teenage son (Alex Wolff), and showing love only for her daughter Charlie, a girl of an undetermined oddness, and apparently the only darling of her deceased grandmother. Steve the father (Gabriel Byrne) is a somewhat ineffectual family member, smoothing relations where he can, to some extent a reprise of his floundering inadequate dad in Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs.

The first half hour of watching this dysfunctional family is riveting and very   unnerving – something very nasty is going to happen… And at the centre of this is Milly Shapiro’s amazingly troubling performance as Charlie. Once she’s no longer there the gnawing fear steps down a notch. Toni Collette’s performance is admirably complex – and that’s even before the real funny business starts – in fact I found the family far more interestingly doomed without the arrival of the supernatural, and to be honest it’s a bit of a downer that it’s the old occult favourites that appear: a book of evil incantations in an unknown language, séances, flying through the air, elderly demons…

And it was at this point that my rational self took over. Don’t people with serious allergies carry an Epipen these days? Surely a control freak like Annie would have seen to that. And can we really believe that a teenager known to have suffered recent psychological trauma and then a psychotic episode of violent self-harm at school is patched up and merely goes home to be put to bed without professional intervention? I know I shouldn’t have been thinking about these things, but doesn’t the fact that I did mean the horror wasn’t working? Unlike most people, I didn’t find this the most frightened I’ve been in the cinema lately – It Comes at Night, Get Out, and A Quiet Place all had me juddering in my seat and wishing it would all stop in a way that this film didn’t. Maybe the good old occult has lost out to post-apocalyptic scenarios in this very unstable world – we don’t believe in hell or demons any more, but we do believe in our lives going easily out of control. That said, this is a very impressive debut feature from Ari Aster who shows great mastery of technique and imagination in a genre that can easily fall flat.

I must just mention the absolute delight of the closing credits music – what it had to do with the film I can’t say, but, inappropriately, it sent me out with a smile on my face, to the confusion of the queue for the next screening.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema June 2018

 

 

 

Transilvanian International Film Festival 2018 – Part 3: Winter Brothers; Free Dacians; Infinite Football

Best Directing Award Winner WINTER BROTHERS (Vinterbrødre) by Danish director Hlynur Palmáson is a mysterious, brooding, visually striking mood piece set around a limestone mine, where the workers are coated with pale chalky residue like participants in some mythic ritual, and the graunching boom of the huge digging and processing machines obliterates human communication. We can’t properly see them, we can’t hear them. In the mine, darkness covers all but the dancing lights on the men’s helmets, but coming out into the light after a shift is hardly into any kind of brightness. Its powerful moments of documentary-like images call to mind Glawogger’s huge man-consuming industries, and it’s as if out of one of those a drama of awkward brotherhood is bred. Johan (Simon Sears) is straightforward and liked. Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove) disaffected, intense and depressed, like a dark mischievous northern sprite, who steals chemicals from the mine to make a lethal (maybe literally) spirit which he sells to his fellow workers and village members. When one of his customers fails to pay up he takes a shotgun for payment, which hangs as a threat over the rest of the film, as he enthusiastically follows an instruction video on his living room floor to the amusement of his brother. It’s a very male, comfortless, cold, in all ways, environment, grimy interiors and empty lives, the nearest the brothers come to anything resembling affection being when they have a desultory fight across their living area. Though presumably some kind of family life goes on in the village, the only woman to be seen brings divisiveness. In the normal way of narrative little happens, but in this dire environment anything could, it’s all menace, sorrow, and a huge lack of humanity. A very strange, remarkable film, and a director to watch.

The Last Jedi’s ‘Let the past die. Kill it if you have to’ might well be a sensible message to bring away from the excellent documentary FREE DACIANS (Dacii liberi) by Monica Lǎzurean-Gorgan and Andrei Gorgan. They look at the current enthusiasm for the ancient inhabitants of what is mostly now Romania, about whom little is known other than via Roman and Greek historians. Conquered by Rome under Trajan – the building of Trajan’s Column in Rome commemorates this – there’s little remaining of their civilisation. No written language has survived and substantial archaeological remains are few, other than at the ancient capital, a UNESCO site, run by a pro-Dacian enthusiast with authoritarian tendencies. A model Dacian village blessed by the Romanian Orthodox Church and peopled by a small idealistic group eager to live the simple old-style agrarian life seems charming, but already when revisited a year later it’s almost abandoned. Muddled thinking abounds, as is wearily pointed out by an academic specialising in the early history of the area, and the Dacians are lauded as being both a mighty invincible people and victims of Rome, and alarm bells ring when ideas of a racial superiority creep in. At a conference one speaker claims the words Dacian and Deutsch are closely related, with all the baggage that brings from a fascist past in both countries, and there’s an explosion of derision in the audience when notorious former mayor of Cluj, Gheorghe Funar, who tried to impose a de-Hungarianisation of the city, appears at the same conference spouting unpalatable claims. (He later appears on stage at the Q&A and seems to hold his own – the speed, robustness and passion of the exchanges understandably defeated the interpreter’s powers.) Ask any ethnic Hungarian in Cluj about life in those years and you’ll realise how pernicious these dreamy ideas of Dacian ‘purity’ can turn. It’s brave and even-handed view of how a dewy-eyed nostalgia for an idealised past can be marshalled into something monstrous.

As a great admirer of Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game, I’m very keen to see his documentary INFINITE FOOTBALL (Fotbal infinit). His sense of the absurd is a perfect match for the tragicomedy that is football, and here he goes again. Central figure, if not hero, is Laurențiu, brother of a friend, a man with a passion. As a teenager he suffered a broken leg while being tackled in a school football match. It was never properly mended, leading to a second break, and the athletic future he planned for was not to be. Porumboiu’s films are always talky, and here we have a real person like one of his characters come to life, his eloquent descriptions of the events forming what is practically a monologue, moving on to setting out his ambition to devise a version of football where such a situation – many players tackling one individual – cannot happen. This means, and it’s all meticulously drawn out on a grid, players having to stay in their own areas of the field – alas no more tricky wingers galloping the length of the pitch, no more of those delicious goals headed in by a forward-dashing defender… and as time has passed this has been refined down, by logical steps, to more and more restriction and complication, a reductio ad absurdum of the game, all told with shiny-eyed eagerness that while laughing – and it is funny – at the man you feel for him in his earnestness. We witness how his day job – he’s a council official – goes by the board while he’s too busy describing his latest refinement to deal with old lady come to enquire about a property problem, especially when it falls to Porumboiu to ask the 92-year old to take a seat and make conversation with her. As time passes we realise that what Laurențiu is striving for is a philosophical impossibility, a game, a world where everything is safe, but which has thereby had the life taken out if it. We know he’ll go pegging on to find his perfection, and never be satisfied, and if we found him funny, the tone changes with the masterly final sequence, up there with Porumboiu’s street lights gradually lighting up at the end of 12.08 East of Bucharest. The camera tracks in silence at limping pace along the mundane road that was part of the route of Laurențiu’s painful walk home all those years ago after his second injury, and the man, flawed though he is, becomes after all, through his dogged persistence, somehow, a hero.

Part 1

Part 2

PART 4

Happy Birthday Malcolm McDowell!

One of our best screen actors turned 75 today. I was lucky enough to interview him 12 years ago at the Bradford Film Festival – a delight from start to finish!

A substantial layer of snow lies over Yorkshire in early March, a chilly welcome for one of its returning sons, Malcolm McDowell, in Bradford all the way from his lemon grove in California for a retrospective of his work at the 12th Bradford Film Festival. He’s gone AWOL, slipping out for a lunchtime curry, on the Saturday morning I hope to interview him, but is back in time to introduce what for those of us of a certain generation remains his finest film, If…. He’s witty, full of panache and soon has the audience in the palm of his hand. Now in his early sixties, full of energy, he’s surprisingly small with spiky white hair, that rather raddled face impish and still attractive in the dangerous way it always was, the blue eyes piercing and fearsomely intelligent as ever. Just after the film begins I’m granted ‘5 minutes’, with him, which effortlessly expands into more than 20 before a taxi arrives to whisk him off to a short rest before watching the Liverpool match (his team) on TV. We sit knee to knee in the comfy chairs of the bar at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, and I begin by asking him how it feels to be back, and whether he still looks on the north of England as home.

‘When I come here I sort of feel at home, but I’m a Californian, because I live there, my children are there… my son’s with me, he’s definitely a American, but he feels at home here too, he’s furious that I sold my house in London. It’s just a case of location, really, if my wife said let’s go and live in England I’d be quite happy. I feel comfortable, but do I feel “English”, do I have a sense of national pride? I’m sort of past all that. I come over at least once a year, if there’s something happening in British film or something, but that’s rare, there’s slim pickings!’

He tells me about a project he’s pursuing at the moment over here, a role as a Yorkshireman, in fact, in a film based on an early C S Forrester novel, Payment Deferred, about a man who is hanged for the wrong murder. I suggest it sounds like a Patricia Highsmith scenario.

It is! Forrester was only 23 when he wrote it, a friend of mine wrote the script, it’s a great script, and the director is going to be Eduardo Ponti , son of course of Carlo and Sophia Loren. I did another film with him and I think he’s an immense talent. But it’s all a question of whether we get the money… blah di blah di blah, all that stuff!’ He waves his hand in the air and flashes those eyes, dismissing the wheeler-dealing that has to go on in the world of films, when all he wants is to get down to the nitty gritty of acting.

We talk about his tendency to play nasties, in fact his latest role in the film Evilenko is one of his worst yet, a Russian child killer. Of all the roles he has played, he says, he found this one so unremittingly bad that he uniquely approached it ‘from the outside in’, keeping himself detached from the character. ‘I’m very proud of it, it was a very difficult part, daunting. But usually I think there’s something redeeming about the characters, even if it’s just a sense of humour or something, or a redeeming action, some human element – the things they do might be horrible, but the people themselves …’

Does he ever see himself mellowing into a gentler, elegiac role, like for example Anthony Hopkins in The World’s Fastest Indian?

‘Oh that was lovely wasn’t it – I’m so full of admiration, it’s a great performance. What’s so great about it is it’s very understated, it’s really from the inside out, you look into his eyes and there’s so much more behind them. A great actor at his peak. I love him, though it’s maybe rather sentimental…’ The eyes take on that look again, and you know for sure ‘sentimental’ will never be a criticism of anything he does.

‘You’ve worked continually haven’t you, you’ve never stopped really?’

‘One thing that can be said about me, is that I’m a survivor – a working actor, that’s me really, thank god! I don’t sit around waiting for the right script, or the right director or something like that – you’d never work!’

I ask him what is it that keeps him wanting to do more – is it the acting itself, is it the company, the life on set? He seems to do far more film acting than theatre.

‘I’ve done a fair bit and I love theatre, it’s just that it’s so difficult with a young child, I can’t, I can’t afford the time – filming is great, you go away for a month then go home, you can take your family… but to go for a minimum 6 or 9 months in New York or London… and it takes up your whole time, you start thinking about it straight after lunch and preparing so it’s actually twice the work really…it’s just circumstances, this is the life I’ve chosen – though of course if I found something that I really want to do on stage… but it would have to be something extraordinary.’

 I’d earlier met his elder son, a less abrasive-looking version of his younger self, who has just trained as a director, son of McDowell’s second marriage to the actress Mary Steenburgen, with whom he remains on friendly terms. There’s now another son, Beckett, a two-year-old, from his third marriage… I was curious about the name. Was it after Samuel Beckett?

Actually it’s not, but it could be – Sam Beckett – I met him once at Jocelyn Herbert’s [stage and film designer and great friend of Lindsay Anderson] house in Portland Place. He was a great friend of hers and she’d done a lot of work with him – he’s quite shy. But no, my grandfather was named Beckett, and my wife said if we ever have a boy, it’s got to be Beckett.’

‘I mentioned it because it made me wonder if you’d ever thought of doing Beckett, because I thought how good you could be, I think you’ve got the sort of stillness, menace, he needs…’

McDowell looks transfixed for a moment‘Yeah, I’ve never thought about that – the thing is no-one’s ever asked me, and, you can only do things that you’re asked, I’m not the sort of one that goes out and pushes … people will say, Malcolm why on earth did you do this, and I’ll say – well because they offered it to me.’

 One film he did push for was his first, If…, and it was during that audition that he has described his ‘Zen moment’, when at the receiving end of an unexpected slap from co-star Christine Noonan, unexpected because he hadn’t read the script through, he felt a great spiritual lucidity and knew what it was to’ live in the moment’. I tell him how much I’m enjoying watching the film, how fresh it still seems.

‘What an entrance, eh!’ he beams. His first appearance in the film, and in fact on screen ever, as a subversive sixth former at a public school, is mysteriously muffled up in scarf and hat, only those eyes showing, promising all sorts of danger. ‘You know I was stopped on the King’s Road by Anouk Aimée, who was a goddess to me – she said [French accent] “Malcurm, (she was going out with Albert Finney at the time, who was one of the producers of If, in fact they married,) she said “I ’ave nevair seen a more staggereeng entrance into a movee”…I went – Really! “- aah, with zee scarf and zee hat and you take eet off, ah, so romantic…”, and she was like going on about it, and I’d never even thought about it!’

I tell him how much the film meant at the time to people like me, first generation university students having their first encounters with public school boys, and how it helped us realise what made them the way they were. ‘You were at public school weren’t you? Not quite that kind, presumably, not quite as rigid …’

‘Not as posh, no, but actually the minor ones were worse, trying to be something they’re not. Actually the one I went to I loved– it made me – I was, er (he hunts for the appropriate word!)… mischievous, as a child, and I loved the discipline, and I had a great headmaster, a fantastic educator, and I really got on well there, after a year or two, I was rebelling all the time and getting beaten, and then I figured it out, and loved it.’

‘So at the end of the film you’re not putting your soul into gunning down the parents and everything!’

‘No!’

We laugh. ‘Because you look as if you are! – but I suppose that’s acting, isn’t it!’

‘The thing about that film, nowadays watching it people go oh my god, Columbine, but it’s not that at all, it’s a poetic statement by the director, he wrote a fantasy, a Bunuelish side of him.’

 I agree that it is certainly that, but also very much of its time, and say how much it’s taking me back to how it was, how we thought we could change the world then.

Yes, it’s maybe what we were thinking – blow away all the bloody lot! Everyone was protesting about something, I couldn’t take my dog to the park without bumping into someone like Harold Pinter – “Oh come and join us!” Of course he’s still doing it!’

Probably McDowell’s most famous, or infamous film, is A Clockwork Orange. Full of shocking violence, led by the ruthless and amoral free spirit Alex played by McDowell, and with a few so called ‘copycat’ crimes in its wake, the film was withdrawn after about a year by its director Stanley Kubrick, adding, of course to its cult status. I asked him about how he felt about this, and whether he had any misgivings about how it affected people.

‘I didn’t realise it was withdrawn at the time – I was out of the country – it opened, it ran for a year – well, it had really run its course, it wasn’t till the 10th anniversary I was aware of it, wondered why they weren’t showing it – and then this whole myth that came out about it – it made it even more desireable. I had no particular feelings – it was Stanley’s decision. But after he died his wife told me how the family had had death threats, and Stanley had withdrawn it on the advice of Scotland Yard. As I see it people really do weird things, and anything could trigger it – could be a film, could be missing a bus… you don’t know.’

 At this point I realise Malcolm’s entourage are hovering around, keen to be off, so I begin to wind up, asking if he’s thinking of retiring to his lemon grove soon.

Well, not until they carry me out! – until then I’ll keep it going. You asked what is it that makes me love acting, it’s, yes, it’s doing the part, the camaraderie of it, but the nice thing is I’ve been doing it so long there seems a wonderful freedom comes with it – I don’t take it too seriously, just enjoy what comes. It’s what I love to do. I did two plays a year at school, one musical, one Shakespeare, and really, I wasn’t trained at all, just had to do it – you were cast and told to do it, and that was it. In a weird way I suppose that was my training. The first play I did on the professional stage was a play called Woman in a Dressing Gown, by Ted Willis, very kitchen sink! I played the son, and it just happened to be a perfect part for me, and so I was very good, but the next week was something quite different where I had to stretch, and I was very bad. So I had to work out through weekly rep how to act, I hadn’t got as clue.’

Nowadays repertory theatre has all but gone, and I wonder if he thinks that’s a big loss for young actors not to have that experience.

‘That’s right, you have to go to drama school now really. I think I was lucky that I wasn’t trained, to tell you the truth, the technique that I came up with from listening to people like Lindsay you know, is as good as any training, in fact a lot better.’

Lindsay Anderson, one of the most influential British directors of the sixties and director of If… and its sequels O Lucky Man and later Britannia Hospital, became Malcolm’s mentor and great great friend. Their mutual affection is palpable and very affecting in the final sequence of O Lucky Man. Malcolm has written extensively about him and the inspiration he brought to him as an actor.

He really took you under his wing, didn’t he?’

‘Oh yes he did. He was a celibate homosexual. That was far too sophisticated a thing for me to understand at the time, I used to say to David Sherwin, our writing partner – did Lindsay never have a lover, and he used to say no – I think he’s neuter. I thought – wow you may be right – because we didn’t know, and it was only when we subsequently read his diaries, how lonely he was – it broke my heart. He loved the people he couldn’t have, Richard Harris and myself, and various other people through his life, he only fell in love with the ones that weren’t attainable, who were heterosexual He hated camp, hated it, you’d better not be camp around Lindsay, he hated it, so he was an amazing mixture, he was truly one of the great great English directors.

I remember just going around with him after If…, he insisted, “No, Malcolm’s coming, the star of the film.” But I wasn’t really the star, there were three of us, but he sort of picked me out. Lindsay would be erudite, funny, provocative, and I’d sit there in total awe while we were making the films, thinking – this man is describing it perfectly, he can see it, how it will be, I was amazed at that – and now I find myself in his position – I was watching then, now I’m doing the same thing, now I know what he knew…’

So was Lindsay, I ask, the greatest director he ever worked with, better than Altman, Kubrick…?

‘Oh yes – though I love Altman.’ Malcolm was recently in The Company by Altman, a film about a ballet company, that had mixed reviews. ‘It’s a lovely film – not the full orchestra, but a chamber work, I’d say. I love Bob dearly. I’ve known him since about 1970 – we partied together, yes we were mates. I told him – it’s not good to be a friend of yours if you’re an actor cos you’ll never get cast! We laughed – every major city we found ourselves in we’d call, have dinner, the laughs, the fun – I tell you he and his wife, they loved a party, they were fifties children, they thought if you go out to a good party all your troubles were over. I just love that about him.’

‘He’s in this country as well isn’t he, just been directing the new Arthur Miller play in London? Will you be getting together?’

‘Ah well, the joke is we petitioned to get him the special Oscar this year, and now the Oscars are on and I’m here and he’s gone back to receive the award…’

The entourage are here again and insistent that the cab is waiting, so that’s it. I thank him for his time, and off he goes. It’s been a delight. Later tonight he’ll hold the floor in the Q&A, slipping into anecdotes about the great names of British and US film, playing H G Wells and Gangster No 1, the comically awful experience of making Caligula, a Roman epic unexpectedly taken over by a porn director (my dear, have you ever seen so much cock!?, asked a shell-shocked Gielgud), and Lindsay, always Lindsay, overrunning by a whole hour because he’s so full of life and the audience love him. For now I go back into the screening of If… and am straightaway confronted up large on the screen by those same uncompromising blue eyes from 30 years ago…

First published May 2006