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Happy Birthday Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart

Happy Birthday Jeff! Here’s a review from 2010 of the film that brought him his first, long-deserved Oscar .

Crazy Heart

Directed by Scott Cooper

Is Jeff Bridges the best actor in Hollywood? The apparent ease with which he inhabits the bones of every role he plays has earned him, at last, an Oscar, and it’s about time. After 4 nominations over nearly 40 years (for the Last Picture Show, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Starman, and The Contender) it’s finally come, for this entertaining, gently moving film, transmuted by his performance from what on paper looks a pretty average tale, of a self-destructive man finding redemption in the love of a good woman, with country music as a sound track. 

He plays, or rather is, Bad Blake (‘call me Bad’), ageing, amiable, rootless country musician, drunk, serially divorced, absent father, and writer of sorrowful songs. We meet Bad, now coming to the end of the line, performing on the edge of things, in bowling halls and small bars in dusty towns across the country, where his name still means a lot to some of the old faithful. His days are spent in dingy motel rooms, half-heartedly watching porn movies, eating fast food and drinking. A horrible parody, you might say, of the carefree slacker life of The Dude, and with echoes , though it is nowhere near so great a film, of last year’s The Wrestler.

He’s so seldom more than an arm’s length away from  a glass of bourbon (except when the money runs out) that one’s liver shudders at the sight of all that brown liquid disappearing inside him. Yet he’s still, for the most part, a gentleman, courteous, amiable and with a sense of humour at his own failings. And great with kids, when he strikes up an unlikely relationship with the ‘good woman’, Maggie Gyllenhaal, bright single mother journalist.  But in the shape these movies always take, his happiness isn’t so easy to nail down. Great, unflashy performances from all around him – Gyllenhaal, Colin Farrell as his once young disciple, now a star who eclipses his mentor but still has time and respect for him, and a lovely cameo from Robert Duvall (looking, thank goodness, a deal better than when last seen in The Road) as an old buddy. The surprise is, or maybe not, what a great performer Bridges is, and what poetry he makes out of those so nearly sentimental songs. 

The best songs, says Bad, are those you feel like you’ve heard before, and maybe that’s part of his secret: always with a Bridges character you feel like you recognise as familiar something inside him, a common humanity, a lust for life. Here’s to you, Dude!

Seen at Empire Cinema Newcastle, March 9 2010, originally reviewed in floatationsuite.com

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Mariam

Directed by Sharipa Urazbayeva

Mariam lives on a tiny farm on the Kazakh steppe, many miles away from a town, some distance down a path from a dirt road. There are few rooms, little heating, and the only electricity, sufficient for a couple of hours a day, comes from a rudimentary solar generator. When her husband rides off and doesn’t return, she’s left with only her young son to help with the farm business, looking after cattle for the landowner. When a smaller girl and a baby emerge from the bedroom and we learn there is also an older brother in boarding school in the town, we realise the enormity of her situation, especially when the landowners take away their cattle, her only source of income.

This stunning debut feature from young Kazakh director Urazbayeva is all the more impressive when you know the background. Meruert Sabbusinova, who plays Mariam, inspired the whole thing after Urazbayeva came across her during the making of a TV documentary, and the basis of the plot is her own predicament when her husband disappeared and she was left without help to rear her children alone. Urazbayeva made the film with her own money, using non-professional actors.

For Mariam a trip to the police station in town brings the shattering news that she is not entitled to any help unless her husband is proved to be dead. Officialdom is not unfriendly but the already evident patriarchal nature of Kazakh society makes an ugly appearance in the policeman’s jokey supposition that her husband’s left her for another woman.

Sabbusinova’s situation, shockingly displayed like the documentary it actually is, is then developed into a plot which throws up moral dilemmas when an old school friend attempts to help, and Mariam, cheating the rotten system, gains something of a life for herself. For the first time we see her smile, and confidence and signs of a rather more liberated lifestyle follow. But the husband returns…

Shot in realist documentary fashion, we feel every physical effort of mother and son – even the sheep-killing scene is real (the meat subsequently providing a meal for the film cast and crew). The wind blows comfortlessly over the grassland, the cold is palpable, and there are many moments of sheer poetry, bleak though it is, by superb cinematographer Samat Sharipov. Opening shots smack you in the face with wind-lashed yellow grass across a monochrome landscape and the disturbing sound of Mariam’s despairing cries for her husband. And in the final shot the whiteness of snowflakes has joined the palette. It’s winter, even more bleak than before.

Mariam was among a week-long series of films streamed free in late October by The Calvert 22 Foundation, which via the online Calvert Journal showcases contemporary culture in the ‘New East’, the area of Eastern Europe, Balkans and Central Asia.

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Saint Maud

Directed by Rose Glass

The absence of a functioning Arts Cinema in my vicinity has meant that I hadn’t managed to get to a live screening of a film I actually wanted to see until a few days before Lockdown No.2 began. And this highly impressive, unnerving debut was as fitting as I could have hoped. If ever the engulfment in the action and moods of a film added another dimension, it does here, maybe enhanced by the new unfamiliarity of going out to a cinema. An adventure in itself after so long. The luscious dark, the unaccustomed quiet, the smells… And overriding the usual aroma of popcorn were the whiffs of cleaning materials and a curiously strong hand cleanser which immediately brought a potent nasal flashback to the homemade poteen which I once enthusiastically necked in Hull over 40 years ago, in a flat not far from Larkin’s High Windows. Senses well-primed, I entered Screen 7 of The Empire, Sunderland…

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is a palliative care nurse, whose latest patient is famous avant garde American choreographer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) now immobilised and dying in the kind of large, dimly lit and mysterious old house we know well from the horror genre. Maud is revealed as a troubling mixture of modern efficiency and old-fashioned piety, decking her cheap bedsit with all manner of religious items and holding conversations with her god as if he’s a valued and admired friend.

Maud is in fact not her real name, as we learn when she runs into an acquaintance from her former life, where she was Kate, to whom, we gather via murky flashbacks, something VERY BAD happened at her previous job in a care home. We never find out what exactly, or even whether she was responsible or just a horrified witness. She’s adopted the new name, presumably after the Saint (aka Mathilda), a C10th queen of Germany known for her work among the poor and sick.  It gradually becomes clear that the ecstatic St Teresa would have been a more appropriate choice, considering the increasingly queasy and quasi orgasmic effects of her joy in God. We’re inside her perceptions, as she seems to undergo many of the reputed experiences of the holy – the levitating, the visions, the ecstasy.

Her approach to Amanda is at first kindly-professional but increasingly more intimately friendly, as she begins to share her belief and her delight in her god’s manifestations with her. Amanda is sympathetic, and rather fascinated.  But the relationship unravels when a load of bohemian friends arrive at Amanda’s house, including her lover, who is not just female, but black, and scornful of Maud and her attachment to Amanda. This prompts Maud’s embittered fervour to go into overdrive, turning to increasingly manic self-damaging ‘saint-like’ actions, mortifications of the flesh, which again, like the more joyful manifestations, we are sufficiently in Maud’s sensibilities to shudder at. This all culminates in a more shocking conversation with a god who this time responds, in an extremely creepy and malignly slo-mo version of … Welsh? Culminating in horror.

Scarborough is an uncannily good backdrop to all this. It’s terrifically photogenic, as seen in last year’s SCARBOROUGH by Barnaby Southcombe. Cheek by jowl with the bright, loud sleaziness of its amusement-arcaded front, the  grubby alleyways and seamy pubs, is the pureness of its wide beaches and views over the sea, and on that nicer side of the bay that still harks back to the resort’s days of being a superior holiday and retirement area for the wealthier of Yorkshire’s people, the mystery and subliminal threat of the path up among shadowy trees that Maud takes to Amanda’s creepy, ill-lit old house.  

While rife with tropes of the horror genre, this film has many other things going on. The complex relations between nurse and nursed is opened up – the  interface between emotionally detached intimate physical caring and intimacy of a deeper kind, which is one of the triggers to Maud’s cracking up;  sensual desire and a religion which purportedly frowns on it; loneliness – Maud’s grimy bedsit is one of the most depressing I’ve seen for a while, and her foray back into the world of ‘Kate’, when in charmless pubs she attempts to latch on to other’s friendships, is desperate. Intimacy of all kinds is under the microscope here, and friendship’s limits – Maud’s fervour is fascinating to Amanda, who on one level seems to be taken up by it, but as soon as the cosmopolitan pals arrive and she’s back in her real world again we see it for what it was – nothing but fascination and curiosity in another kind of life. The nurse, close to her employer as she may need to be, is still ultimately an under-stairs character, like the governess in Victorian fiction. To Amanda’s friends, Maud is a nobody. No wonder her damaged psyche seeks out a god.

Seen at Empire Cinema, Sunderland, October 28 2020

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The Levelling

Directed by Hope Dickson Leach

In her very impressive feature debut Hope Dickson Leach uses the background of the devastating floods which hit the fertile pastoral area known as the Somerset Levels 3 years ago, to weave a story of unease that leaves a feeling as cold and claggy as the mud which is a constant feature.

After a beginning that contains just about the only brightness and warmth in the film – menacing too, though, the manic dancing to the flickering light of a bonfire – the screen is perpetually suffused with the dull light of an early winter afternoon or extreme darkness in a house that has no feeling of home.  We see Clover (Ellie Kendrick) returning to her family farm, feeling no relish to make contact with her estranged father Aubrey (David Troughton, a world away from his kindly BBC radio farmer Tony Archer – or is he?) for the funeral of her brother Harry who has killed himself.

Aubrey is living in a chaotic caravan in the farmyard, the house having been devastated by the floods and still uninhabitable. Despite his cheery fatherly greeting (‘You came!’), it’s soon obvious that the strife between them, from which Clover has escaped to train as a vet, is still very much alive. Her wellies stand ready by the door for her to immediately help with the cows, and sure enough she’s sucked, helplessly, into her old life just as the boots are into the ubiquitous mud.

Over all this hangs the mystery of Harry’s death. Suicide or accident? Aubrey is in denial about what all the signs point to, and shows a fierce grief that is in the most part anger at his son, a heady brew when combined with his continued resentment at his daughter’s disloyalty in choosing not to stay and eventually take over responsibility for the family farm, and his unacknowledged realisation that it cannot in any case survive.

Despite Aubrey’s posh tones, this is not a pretty, prosperous farm, but one of dampness, leaks,  cowshit, and tumbledown buildings, chipped formica and stained concrete, in a palette of grey, dull greens and browns. Like God’s Own Country, it portrays an undesirable, unspectacular livelihood, under the control of an old order that is damaged and hopeless, contaminating  its offspring unless they can find liberation outside. This is the reality of early twenty-first century England. It also put me in mind of Radiator (2015), where a similarly damaged patriarch  (the last screen performance of Richard Johnson) in similarly unkempt surroundings,  holds sway over his brow-beaten wife. Clover has tried to physically escape, as in a way did her brother, but we suspect she will never be able to emotionally get out from under the deadweight of  unsympathetic family obligation that this farm represents.

Seen on BBC iPlayer

Lynn + Lucy

Directed by Fyzal Boulifa

Lynn and Lucy have been best mates since school, they live across the road from each other, and we meet them on the occasion of the baptism of Lucy’s baby. For Lynn (Roxanne Scrimshaw), this is the happy culmination of their friendship. She, a mother since the age of 17, is delighted that her more vivacious friend, has at last become a mother herself.  Yet back home changes and problems loom which will make this more a devastating reversal than a consummation of female togetherness. For Lucy (Nichola Burley), with her disengaged younger partner, motherhood is turning out to be difficult, though there’s always Lynn popping over to smooth things down a bit.  For Lynn, with a moody teenager and an unhappy husband invalided out of the army after a training ground accident – not even the grand heroism of combat – it’s time to get a job, for the first time in her life. The local hairdresser, the glamorous Jannette (brilliant hair-flicking, pouting, scene-stealing performance by Jennifer Lee Moon), has a vacancy. She’s another old school colleague, though her memories of their schooldays are of Lucy, with Lynn in tow, bullying her. It certainly doesn’t seem to have lowered her self-esteem, but it’s clear from the outset that there are scores to be settled, and giving Lynn a job she can boss her in, sweeping up hair and making coffee, is a satisfactory beginning. We think we know these women, in particular the sympathetic Lynn, which is what makes what subsequently happens equally distressing and disturbing.  Disturbing, because all your thoughts about friendship and loyalty are horribly turned upside down.

They’re constrained and to some extent defined by their circumstances, yes, but this is far more than a politically-angled view of working class women. It’s a sharp study of the nature of friendship, the need to belong, and power play, a complex and universal view of what makes people behave the way they do in the situations life throws at them. In this her first role Roxanne Scrimshaw is superb, at first madonna-like then increasingly inscrutable as all the lives around her become altered by an awful tragedy.

This happened to be one of the first new films I’ve seen since pre-Covid, and even, as it reluctantly had to be, on the small screen, it took over my emotions. You care about these women because you think you really know them, and at certain points I was holding my breath, wishing something not to be so.  A triumphant feature debut from this young director.

Me Too

Yet more Balabanov…

(Written at the Bradford Film Festival in 2013) After the battering I had suffered watching A Stoker and Cargo 200, I approached this most recent (and, as it proved, last  ever) Balabanov with considerable trepidation.  I needn’t have feared.  While it’s as sardonic and nihilistic as his earlier film, it’s also very funny, even in its bleakest moments, and far less graphic.

Three friends: a hitman, ’The Bandit’ (Aleksandr Mosin), just back from his latest job (performed with laughable nonchalance ), a mild-mannered musician Oleg (Oleg Garkusha, an elderly David Warner look-alike), and a large drunk (Yuriy Matveev). The latter is violently rescued by the other two from his rehab clinic, and off they set on a wild-goose chase that could be straight out of some dark North European fairy tale.

All the rage in the media is the news that an ancient bell tower outside the city that has been the epicentre of some kind of Chernobyl incident now lies in an area of perpetual deep winter, where miracles are happening – those who travel there and are lucky are instantly transported up to the ultimate ‘happiness’; the rest will die. Accumulating the drunk’s almost immobile father and a woebegone prostitute along with several bottles of vodka along the way, they embark on a booze-sodden journey by car to the boundary of this place, a killing wintry landscape just outside a relatively summery St Petersburg. It’s littered with the frozen bodies of those who have made the trip and failed, everyone lured out of their no-hope lives by the tenuous promise of happiness, ‘Me too!’ being the cry with which they all join the pilgrimage. There amid the bodies and grim damaged industrial landscape they encounter a young man famous for 15 minutes for knowing the future, and a gloomy film director – none other than Balbanov himself. Some are taken, beamed up to the promised paradise, some die, while Bandit sits at last with the director in phlegmatic mood discussing their desires for happiness in the dying light, somewhere between Chekhov and Beckett.

As a parable about Russia it sardonically hits the mark, while still having the mythic quality to relate to every human condition. As ever Balabanov presents this all wonderfully well, sometimes distancing us from the characters as knowing observers, sometimes going right in so we’re their companions – you can almost taste the cheap drink fumes in this desperate journey.

No other director I know has so many accidentals going on – people slip and slide, drop things, objects have a life of their own , all contributing to the feel of a world out of the control of its inhabitants, as they chirpily skid their bungling ways to the inevitable end. Life is cheap, pain is inevitable, human folly is infinite. A year after making this film, Alexei Balabanov was dead. What a swansong.

More Balabanov… Brother

A Stoker & Cargo 200 

 

A Stoker;Cargo 200

More Balabanov...

A Stoker (Kochegar), 2010 was my introduction to Balabanov, at the Bradford Film Festival in 2013. Brain-damaged Afghan war veteran Skryabin ‘The Major’ (veteran stage actor Mykhail Skryabin) works as the eponymous stoker in a murky old industrial basement where he also lives. He divides his day between shovelling coal into the great glowing maws of his furnace and painstakingly composing on an ancient typewriter a moralistic tale inspired by his war experiences and his ethnic minority status as a Yakut. But coal isn’t the only fuel keeping the fires going – his younger ex-army mate ‘the Sergeant’ (Alexander Moisin) often drops by with the odd well-wrapped corpse, the fruit, he tells his simple-minded friend, of his constant fight to keep the streets of St Petersburg clean. Into the fire and they’re gone and forgotten in an instant. In fact we soon learn that together with his totally silent, scarily massive sidekick ‘Bison’ (Yuri Matveev) he is in fact a paid hitman.

A complicated set of relationships, including both Major’s and Sergeant’s daughters, is revealed as the characters interact against a bleak St Petersburg landscape and in and out of the claustrophobic interiors which often lie behind the doors of grimy apartment blocks with their menacing creaky lifts, all to the accompaniment of outrageously inappropriate chirpy and banal music by a contemporary favourite as these people go blindly on their merry ways in their little bubbles of self. Balabanov doesn’t care what he shows us – hideous murders, horrible sex – shocking because so casual, at once cartoonish and cheerfully cynical yet with a frighteningly intense feel of the real degraded physicality of life. It’s shudderingly funny, a damning look at the mess that post-communist Russia is, that can hardly have endeared him to the ruling class. I looked forward to my next Balabanov with some guilty glee and some trepidation.

As it happened CARGO 200 screened on the first really lovely spring day of 2013, a day when Bradford was looking its finest, Saturday morning  crowds  gathering in the sun around the pools in its Victorian central square, kids splashing, bikes riding through making huge screens of spray, saris, optimistic summer dresses and bright-haired punks all blending into a splash of colour, and a smiley group of young people offered ‘free hugs’. Life is good. Isn’t it? Up the hill outside the Media Museum which was the festival’s home J B Priestley, Bradford’s most famous son, looked out proudly over his city, coat tails flying, and cheerful families crowded in through the wide revolving doors for a morning of activity.

Softened up by all this innocence, I approached the film, which still remains the grimmest of all I’ve seen by a Siberian mile. Made in 2007 and set squarely in the full-pomp of Soviet 1984 gloom, it’s said by one critic that the outrages are ‘so many and constant that they stop being appalling and become grimly amusing’. Not for me they didn’t. When I finally staggered out into the sunny day outside that it was now hard to believe could really be existing, I was trying in vain to scrape certain images off the backs of my eyes.

It’s like an old tale out of your nightmares – the rash and dangerous trip in the dark, the little cottage in the wood, the holy innocent (Mykhail Skryabin again), the cold-eyed lurking stranger, the virgin… The story, darkened further by its background of the Afghan war and its bloody heritage – Cargo 200 is the code name for the regular cargo of war dead arriving back from the front – bounds along on its devilish energy to places where you really don’t want to go, to images you wish you hadn’t seen, to the very end of the tunnel where there’s nothing but darkness. What’s the worst that can happen? Well, it’s even worse than you think. Staggering images of physical and spiritual cruelty convey Balabanov’s blazing anger at the state of his country and the people in it, lazy, vicious, misguided, bound up in themselves. And it’s not just the obviously gruesome images – there are the casually yet breathtakingly shocking ones, like the procession of fit new recruits into the belly of the aircraft from which the injured and the coffins of the dead are still being unloaded, reminiscent of Joan Littlewood’s Oh what a Lovely War ironies. Baroque and grimy images of decay and end-of-the line corruption jostle, while all the time Balabanov’s impish sense of the ridiculous and the tragic pushes our noses into the dirt.

More Balabanov…

Me Too

Brother

 

Brother

Directed by Alexei Balabanov

Thanks to @Bohemia Stable for putting me in mind of the stunning films of Alexei Balabanov, a shamefully little-known Russian director who died aged 54 in 2013. My introduction to his work came at the now sadly defunct Bradford Film Festival in 2014, when I wrote about his 1997 film here.

Alexei Balabanov first exploded to great acclaim and many a delicious shudder onto Bradford screens last year, only about a month before his sudden death. All the more reason to cherish his back catalogue, and sure enough Bradford was the place to give new-found fans like me a chance to see the film that cemented his popularity in Russia and his greatest box office hit there. Brother, made in 1997, shows many of the hallmark Balabanov traits that so delight and appal – extreme violence, whirlwind action, quirky humour, and an uncompromising head-on look at the hardships of life.

While it lacks the breathtakingly jaundiced disillusion with the corrupt state he lived in that so characterised the later films seen here last year, it’s a pretty perfect gangster film with a stellar performance from Sergey Bodrov Jnr (who was to die 5 years later in an avalanche accident while film making), delivering a pitch perfect performance as young Danila, just back from national service, whose mother sends him off to St Petersburg to work with the older son she adores. Up there, having taken in the city’s touristy charms, he soon sees big brother’s success for what it is, as a hitman known as Tatar, and he’s soon initiated into the criminal world and finding himself rather more adept at it than his brother.

There’s a kind of gracious innocence about him as his almost comforting figure, bulked up by his big jumper, walks the markets and desolate streets and apartment stairwells of the other side of the city – shooting those he has to, doing his best to protect the innocent, looking after women in distress, all the time on his earphones listening to his beloved punk band Nautilus Pompilius whose jagged sounds provide much of the soundtrack. And unlike most Balabanov characters he holds to a moral code, proving in the end not just better at killing than big brother but more honourable. And next year please, Bradford, treat us to the sequel Brother 2, where Danila goes to the States to right more wrongs…

More Balabanov…

A Stoker & Cargo 

Me Too

Locke

Directed by Steven Knight

Who’d have thought concrete could be so exciting! In the uneventful suburbs where I’m currently confined for the duration while cinemas feel as irrecoverably dark as Milton’s eyesight, any activity might spark off a cinematic memory. Our enterprising neighbour is currently widening his drive (He’s learned what to do off YouTube), and today is the day of the pouring of the concrete. Cue the sweet Welsh tones of Tom Hardy, ‘You don’t trust God when it comes to concrete’, in Locke, a film where the (unseen) pouring of concrete achieves Platonic perfection while the rest of his enviably ordered life falls apart. If you haven’t seen this uniquely affecting and satisfying film, and especially if you have nothing much to do for the next 12 weeks, seek it out.

A man drives away from his job and his home late one night, his life disintegrating with every mile and every hand-free phone conversation. Tom Hardy as construction engineer Ivan Locke is the only character on screen, mostly in full face close-up. He’s a man who has ‘always run a tight ship’ in his professional life, has a close, sound, family life, and clearly rarely does anything unconsidered, as his deliberate and thoughtful delivery indicates. But one wrong act – and that indeed done out of a generous motive – is unravelling his life.

Any thoughts you might have had coming into this film of it’s being some kind of radio play with ideas above its station are immediately cast aside – despite Tom Hardy’s mellifluous Welsh tones being strongly reminiscent of, and equally seductive as, Dylan Thomas’s in the big daddy of all radio plays Under Milk Wood. Its whole essence is filmic. It’s not just that Hardy’s face is infinitely interesting in its nuances as the damage that he knows will come unfurls from his actions, it’s the surprisingly mesmeric effect of night time driving as lights blur and meld and shadowy doubles and triples of his face swim around reflected in windscreen and side windows.

At the mercy of long-distance communication, he’s good at telling people everything will be alright, they will cope, he will be where he says he will, but aspects of life are beyond his control, as the waiting, demanding, woeful calls pile up on his screen. ‘I’ll explain when I get there’, ‘wait till I am with you’ are his constant mantra, but emotions won’t wait, and unlike ‘his’ concrete waiting to be poured in the ‘biggest operation of its kind in Europe’ in the morning, that can be checked and perfected, it’s hard to get the shoring up of close relationships fixed at a distance.

The dilapidation of his life is always seen as a moral conundrum as well as emotionally moving, and it can be no coincidence that his name recalls not just that other dislocated wanderer, Jack Nicholson’s David Locke in Antonioni’s The Passenger, but John Locke the philosopher who was the first to describe man as ‘that conscious thinking thing’. Locke is a thinking man, whose painful consciousness of his moral dilemma and the un-mendability of his actions we’re acutely aware of as the tiniest tightenings of his expression undercut his calm and authoritative delivery. Stuck as he is in a situation where there is no clearly right thing to do, he juggles his responsibilities at a distance in a suspenseful way that’s just as thrilling as many a murder or adventure romp. We hold our breath as he instructs an increasingly punch-drunk subordinate (Andrew Scott) to check concrete shuttering (although it’s at the other end of a phone, I feel I’ve actually watched that desperate sprint down through the dark to fetch the Polish road-mending gang from their lamplit work). Who’d have thought concrete could be so exciting! Success on one operation means you almost forget about the bad stuff. But meanwhile the agony of his very recognisably normal family life slowly disintegrating is almost unbearable to witness, especially with two marvellous performances from Tom Holland and Bill Milner (of Son of Rambow) as his two young sons on what will be their last night of untainted family happiness.

That Steven Knight has previously been a screen writer shows in the perfectly judged script. But that he has triumphantly gone that further step into directing is revealed in the look of the thing, the sudden moments of magic in a banal night drive, where oncoming headlamps can suddenly acquire the look of floating pairs of angels, and coloured lights dappling Locke’s face mirror the light and dark of the moral complexity of his situation. It’s engrossing from start to finish, and a terrifically powerful performance from Hardy, showing once again that he’s one of our very best film actors.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, 29 April 2014 (originally appearing in Floatation Suite)

 

Cinema Made in Italy, Ciné Lumière, March 4-10 Part 1 Flesh Out (Il corpo della sposa)

Directed by Michela Occhipinti

If, due to the fast-approaching Corona virus, slightly fewer people than usual gathered at Kensington’s French Institute in early March for this year’s 10th edition of Cinema Made in Italy, this film was one of London filmgoers’ major losses. Possibly the best film of the seven-day- long screenings, it’s both a disturbing portrait of a specific traditional practice and the personal tragedy of a young woman forced to undergo it. And more widely it’s a studied and distressing view of one of the ways women distort themselves, willingly or unwillingly, for men’s gaze.

The practice in Mauretania of gavage, a ‘fattening up’ of a bride preliminary to her marriage, seems both horrific and almost impossible to believe, particularly as these young women are otherwise relatively liberated – they move more or less freely around their world, have jobs, use social media, and have girls’ nights out, like their western counterparts. Yet the old tradition has them awakened by their mothers in the small hours of the night to drink quantities of milk – a reversal of the traditional comfort of mother’s milk – regularly weighed, and badgered to eat huge portions of unappetising food at meal times. Because here being fat, as in the West being fashionably slim, is a sign of wealth. And as all a mother wants for her child is the security of a socially upward marriage, with wealthy dowry, it follows that a bride’s family must itself appear socially and economically acceptable. And yet this beautiful, contemplative film is never polemical, never apportioning blame, never commenting – all it does is show.

Central figure Verida is played by first-time actress Verida Beitta Ahmed Deiche, echoing some of her own experiences, and goodness what a screen presence she is. From the moment we meet her eyes over a bowl of milk in the opening shot, we travel through the film with her, seeing the world through her shy and increasingly despairing eyes. The superb cinematography (by Daria Antonio, who also shot the beautiful Stolen Days also seen this weekend, as well as last year’s rave Ricordi) moves slowly through Verida’s world. There’s beauty in the banal – the slow pouring of milk, the gorgeous fabrics of the young women’s garments – and horror in the hanging meat in the butcher’s shop which we see with Verida’s nauseous eyes. And most horrific of all, a nightmare-like sequence where she’s led into the desert to a tent where an old crone force-feeds other young women, under restraint, with the milk they have vomited. Does this happen, or are we looking into her worst imaginings?

Her friends, chattering of their jobs abroad, magazines, soap operas, clothes, are sympathetic, most of them have been through gavage themselves, but, perhaps most shockingly, now see it as less a means of becoming married than a means of escape, a necessary rite of passage. Because once married under this harsh tradition, they become wealthy women in their own right, and amazingly are allowed freedom to divorce and remarry some one of their own choosing. But still for Verida this seemingly never-ending low-grade torture preoccupies every thought. And in the bedroom her lively little sister looks curiously on, as we’re uncomfortably aware that this will also be her fate in a few years time.

This is documentary-maker Occhipinti ‘s first foray into full-length feature-making, long in the planning since she first became aware of the practice and met Verida some years ago. Her slow and absorbing style is reminiscent of Iranian cinema, with painstaking concentration on faces, fabrics, household items and other minutiae of life, the dark spaces of home and the bustling life of a modern city. Never more so than the exquisitely shot scene where a modest but lower class young man who is attracted to Verida drives her home through the night-time streets, and against the profile of her face as they progress we see the blazing streetlights, cafes, busy food shops and young people, mostly male, walking and larking about in their freedom. Hopefully this film will get its due screenings in festivals later in the year. See it if you can.