Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

if you just can’t face crying over It’s a Wonderful Life one more time, if you’ve had it up to here with Scrooges and Elves and Muppets, here’s the film that will give a frisson of that delicious existential dread lurking behind the ho-ho-happiness…

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Jelmari Helander

If the standard Christmas films are boring you silly, if you just can’t face crying over It’s a Wonderful Life one more time, if you’ve had it up to here with Scrooges and Elves and Muppets and you’re sick of the chestnuts roasting and Yuletide carols, here’s the a film to seek out that will give a frisson of that delicious existential dread lurking behind the ho-ho-happiness and good cheer. From the beginning this is North European Yule as it once was, dark dark things in the heart of a winter that’s quite likely to kill you, with nothing to feel cosy about. From the moment your heart threatens to warm at the sight of little children cheering as reindeer trot into view, only to be deliciously chilled when you realize their delight is at the idea the beasts can be killed and their carcasses sold, you know you’re in for something different from standard seasonal fare.

Somewhere in northern Finland multi- national company Subzero Inc have discovered an interesting phenomenon under a huge man-made hill, and they’re digging it out. They obviously haven’t watched The Thing From Another World – something frozen in the ice? – leave it alone! Meanwhile at the local butcher’s run-down homestead, complete with none too health-and-safety conscious abattoir outbuilding, oddball small boy Pietari (Onni Tommila), who’s been watching developments at the excavation site, decides to research the whole Santa business in an old book of folklore, and discovers the truth about the kindly old chap. It’s not like the Coke advert, advises his more worldly friend. It certainly isn’t.

The Thing they have awakened has huge horns for a start, and his elves are not exactly kindly helpers in bobble hats. Boiled child, anyone? Like a story from Grimm, it’s a ruthless battle against the cruelty of life. Helander has coaxed a fantastic performance out of Onni Tommila, a paradoxical little lad, both stoical and emotional, who carries a real shotgun and a favourite soft toy of indeterminate species along with him. It’s an all-male world (you almost fear the women have been carried off on some previous evil visitation on the land) of downbeat scruffy houses and a landscape of austere and frozen bleakness, and the dark is never very far away, nor is blood, on half-eaten carcasses, on smeared aprons, or dripped across dirty floors. But it’s a darkness shot through with a sharp, often surprising, utterly delicious black humour, which leaves you, in this season to be merry, with a rare smile of evil glee. An amalgam of the Terries Pratchett and Gilliam, laced with the creepiness of tales told beside the fire in Northern winters, and hard-headed wit about commercialization, one of the cleverest things about this film is that it plays with the underlying fears many children have about the Santa figure; the tricky thing is that with its menace and graphic bloodiness its 15 certificate means it’s not one for the younger members of the family. But as we’ve all got that scared child somewhere inside still, don’t let it stop you.

First seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, December 2010

 

Arrival

Denis Villeneuve

This is a dream of a film, like the best are, that leaves you grasping at ideas and emotionally wobbly and, despite everything, feeling, insanely, good about life. It deals with the big subjects of language and time, as well as giving us possibly the best female sci-fi hero since Ripley in Alien. Some agenda, and it shapes up brilliantly in all those fields. That our natural perception of time is not always linear, that language may be very different from anything we have experienced – these may sound daunting subjects, but the best sci-fi has always challenged and dealt with big ideas, though not often in such human terms as here.

Louise is a linguistics expert brought in by the state to attempt to communicate with the aliens who’ve suddenly made a simultaneous appearance in many places around the world in their huge curious concave ships. Amy Adams’  Louise isn’t so conventionally heroic as Ripley. Her strengths are her mind and her emotional intelligence, and her heroism comes from facing fear and struggling with extreme discomfort and pain. She huffs and sweats in those great orange protection suits, she’s often afraid and physically weak, but her wits are indomitable. The film is austerely shot with mystery and menace, with its weird shapes emerging out of the mist, its reversal of gravity, its echoing sounds, its darknesses. There are no nudges as to what these huge knuckles set on seven dangly legs might intend, we just don’t know what to expect. Villeneuve seems to have a thing about many-legged creatures, but these heptopods, related though they may look to the menacing octopods of his terrifying and underrated Enemy in 2015, are more awe-inspiring than scary and, in the mode of Close Encounters, are benevolent.

It turns out that their language is not conventionally aural but visual, conveyed through their tentacles like smoke rings that fix into circles of great complexity. The human encounters with them are mesmerising, spiritual, but then there’s much boffinish working out of and measuring what a hook here or a space there may mean (no sci-fi is complete without this kind of bafflement of the audience, bear with it) and painstakingly Louise, along with her physicist colleague Ian (Jeremy Renner) unpicks the meaning to an extent that she can manage basic communication. The revelations might turn out only be a version of the kind of bamboozlement we’re often served up in Sci-fi films, but they strike home.

There’s suspense with the tension between the cool, scientific trust in the creatures’ intents and the fears of the world leaders, who are itching to appease their frightened populations by blasting the space ships off the earth. But in addition to all this there’s the personal back-story of Louise, which in fact becomes the front story too, as the close contact with the heptopods has opened up her perceptions, and the film itself teases us with its presentation of time. What we understood we were seeing may not have been as we thought. If there are unanswered puzzles at the end, it’s like trying to hold onto a dream you’ve just come out of, something that doesn’t make logical sense in the living world, but still has a stunning emotional truth.

Seen at Empire Cinema, Newcastle, December 2016

A United Kingdom

Amma Assante

From the grey drizzly streets of postwar London to the red clay roads and grand vistas of what is now Botswana, then Bechuanaland, the poorest country in Africa, this film blends an against-the-odds love story with real colonial politics. It’s the true story  (barring a little tweaking) of the love affair and marriage of the young King of Bechuanaland, Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), in England to study law,and Englishwoman Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), at a time before even the Windrush arrivals when mixed marriage in the UK was verging on the scandalous. Black faces were not often seen here, nor, more importantly for the story perhaps, were white wives seen with black husbands in Africa, particularly when that African was king of his country. Taking his bride back to the villages of his homeland where he is about to take up the reins of kingship, Seretse incurs all-out opposition from his uncle, the regent, resulting in a dangerous split among the population.

What’s more, Westminster doesn’t like it. Jack Davenport (clearly the new Tim Piggott Smith) excels as the Colonial Office Bastard, the ‘what is that bad smell?’ sneer ever-present when spelling out the impossible-to-countenance fallout of such a marriage and such a queen. Enforced exile for the new king follows, when the – ouch – Labour government turns a blind eye to morality, with a South Africa freshly decked out in its new Apartheid clothes needing to be kept sweet (‘It’s the uranium, you see’). But the Tories, voted in at the 1951 election, prove even more deplorable when Churchill, having fought the election declaring he will end the exile, totally reneges on his promise. Remind you of anything? Plus ça change. At least the now opposition has young Tony Benn to set things aright.

Oyelowo and Pike have excellent chemistry, making their emotional journey affectingly powerful, as they accept that their personal lives are less important than the future of their country. And the well-crafted telling of the wider, quite complicated, story is a pleasure, and seems to keep the spirit of the real happenings, despite maybe downplaying the extent of the unrest caused in Bechuanaland by Seretse’s split with tradition. It’s straightforwardly, plainly made, with no cinematic tricks, but packs a punch through its unknown and, yes, inspiring tale.

Seen at Empire Cinema Newcastle, December