Defiant Requiem, Durham Cathedral

UK Premiere, brought to Durham by The Forge arts organisation.

28 January 2017, a day of cold bleakness in the North East of England, was a good day to see the Defiant Requiem. Defiance was in the air. A little earlier that day, Donald Trump, newly sworn-in President of the United States, had signed a decree banning citizens of certain Middle Eastern countries, and refugees, from entering his country. Earlier, with unseemly haste, our Prime Minister Theresa May had become the first head of government to visit him after his inauguration, and had joined him at an amicable press conference at the White House where she stressed their shared highly principled backgrounds, and invited him on a State Visit to the UK. Later she was to refuse to condemn his action, citing the ‘None of Our Business’ plea. But the audience at the Requiem were having none of it, and a reference to Trump’s action by the Dean introducing the work was met with a long outburst of spontaneous applause.   Minds can rarely have been more concentrated than ours that night on the UK premiere of this work of art.

The Defiant Requiem, Verdi at Terezin, is a concert drama created by conductor Murry Sidlin, to honour of the occupants of Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp just north of Prague, who under the leadership of one of their number, the charismatic young musician Rafael Schächter, formed a choir which performed the Requiem 16 times between 1943 and 1944, with the accompaniment of a single piano and using only one, smuggled, score. Singers all had to be taught the music and commit it to memory. The drama presents the entire Requiem, punctuated by film of survivors of the choir, testimonies read out by actors, and excerpts from a Nazi propaganda film made in the camp showing it as a benign sanctuary for children, the old, and the ill. It fooled the Red Cross, invited into the Camp to see its conditions for themselves, and also to hear the Requiem. Tragically the message in every note failed to be picked up by the visitors. That proved to be its final performance. Four months afterwards Schächter , and most of the choir, were deported to Auschwitz, hardly any surviving to see the liberation of Czechoslovakia where they had dreamed of performing the work in freedom in Prague. Schächter survived Auschwitz but died on a ‘death march’ in 1945, aged 39.

The Verdi Requiem, while based on Christian liturgy, proved to be a perfect universal work for the occasion. His muscular music conveys all the facets of being human, love, anger, sorrow, terror, solace, and the sheer thrilling voluptuousness of living. Echoes of all the passions of his operas are there. In the Dies Irae we feel the anger of the prisoners against their oppressors ‘Nothing shall remain unavenged’, which gave them the courage to hold on. The Lacrimosa has never sounded so poignant. And the Libera Me, shown accompanying the Nazi propaganda film, is an almost unbearable experience, remembering that it was sung as an unrecognised plea to the well-meaning visitors, the tragedy, I suppose, being that it must have been impossible to believe that so much beauty could be created by people living unimaginably terrible lives.

The performance was immaculate, by Durham Choral Society and their Orchestra, Durham University Chamber Choir and Durham University Orchestral Society, with soloists Gweneth-Ann Rand, Alison Kettlewell, Philip Sheffield and Keel Watson, the latter a particularly mellifluous voice, all doing great justice both to the occasion and to Verdi’s soaring music. At the end we were requested not to applaud but to observe a minute’s silence before leaving. As we left into the cold night outside, the lights illuminating the cathedral momentarily cast a great black shadow of each passing figure against the ancient walls. A reminder of the darkness that can so quickly flare up.

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Margaret

If you enjoyed Manchester by the Sea, it’s definitely well worth seeking out this, Lonergan’s superb previous film, which had brief  and limited general release late in 2011.

It’s a minor miracle that this film ever saw the light of day anywhere, after a chequered 5-year history of fallings out, changing personnel, costs, and a huge wrangle over its final length. It took a last-ditch move from Scorsese, getting his editor involved, to get the thing down to a length acceptable to the distributors Fox, and even then a swift week in London just before Christmas looked like all it was going to get, until a limited distribution to art house cinemas brought it, thankfully, to the Tyneside.  Though with a flavour of vintage Woody Allen, Altman, and Cassavetes, Margaret has a feel all its own that grabs you with its spiky, comic and tragic intensity, and what’s more, New York has rarely looked so beautiful.

Lisa (Anna Paquin) a well-heeled, bright, cocky teenager, finds herself, quite inadvertently, partly responsible for a fatal road accident. That it’s through her own self-centred joie de vivre is part of the tragedy. Just plain nasty to her lacking-in-confidence mother, a bullying motormouth at school, she’s at once unlikeable and sympathetic, tedious and fascinating, as she takes up with relish the cause of finding someone responsible for the death. Is she really penitent for whatever part she might have played, or is it another instance of her putting herself at the centre of things yet again? And yet her moral intensity shines through, in the end, the pragmatic, accommodating adult world. It’s this ambiguity both in Lisa’s character and the intentions of everyone else that’s the delight of the film, as it roams through themes of guilt, sadness, responsibility , and the ownership of grief, with some of the most terrific arguments you’re likely to see on screen. A grieving friend becomes a shrieking harridan (‘Strident? Did you call me strident??’), people talk over each other, fail to listen, eagerly seize wrong ends of sticks and make foolish decisions until you want to leap into the screen and join in yourself to sort them out. It’s bad for the blood pressure. But between the fury comes the quiet. Sometimes the camera soars up above it all to gently track the New York skyline, not that of the tourist or even Woody Allen’s iconic streets, but the real New York that is just a city where people live. Sometimes it goes back to street level to wander among the crowds about their business, reminding us this is just one story among so many unknown ones.

There are moments of quiet and kindness, like the oasis of calm that is Jean Reno’s suitor (or is he just a stage door johnny, we wonder) to Lisa’s diffident mother, and most of all the central scene where Matthew Broderick’s teacher reads out to his class the Victorian poem Spring and Falladdressed to ‘Margaret’ (just at a time when you’ve forgotten to wonder what the title referred to). It speaks of the innocent tears of a young girl who allows herself to be upset about sadness in nature, when as she grows older and wiser she will become inured to such things. And that weeping is always at root a mourning for oneself and the human condition. For perhaps the first time we see Lisa as a young innocent girl.

Anna Paquin’s Lisa is stunningly good, and must rate as one of the best ever portraits on screen of a teenager. She’s supported by a positive galaxy of acting talent, including Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon as teachers, Jean Reno, Mark Ruffalo doing cocky unsympathetic as only he does, and the lesser known J Smith Cameron as her mother and the wonderful Jeannie Berlin as Emily the ‘strident’ bereaved friend, a multi-layered, abrasive and exasperatingly funny portrait of a woman you really feel you know.   Her paraphrasing of the ‘Margaret’ sentiments is like a harsh patriarchal god’s version of Hopkins’ gentle and understanding poem.

The real surprise comes at the end in an epiphanic scene that shows the heart of the film is on Hopkins’ side rather than Jehovah’s, as, unexpectedly as ever, sheer beauty brings a kind of healing resolution.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, 20 December 2011

Spring and Fall

Margaret, are you grieving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leaves, like the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! as the heart grows older

It will come to such sights colder

By and by, nor spare a sigh

Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;

And yet you will weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sorrow’s springs are the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Manchester by the Sea

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

January is the time to see a film like Manchester by the Sea, whose very name, to an English rather than American viewer, holds within it the concept of damp, cold colourlessness. Manchester-by-the-Sea is however a pleasant little seaside town in New England used very much as a holiday bolthole by Bostonians, something more like St Ives perhaps than the great northern metropolis we English might need to expunge from our sensibility. And yet – it’s not an inappropriate mindset to set off in for this sorrowful wintry tale of human frailty in the face of the random bloody awfulness of life.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor with the unresponsive reactions and starved faced and mien of one who has little stake in any kind of happiness. The news that his beloved brother is dangerously ill sends him dashing back to his hometown Manchester by the Sea where he finds himself in charge of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), something he is unprepared for and feels ill-equipped to manage. As the two work through their grief in very different ways we gradually learn in flashbacks the devastating history that has made Lee what he is.

It’s hard at the moment to think of any American director who can match Lonergan’s ability to portray blue-collar life – neither hard-scrabble nor upwardly aspirational, just ordinary people who live in small houses and do important but unnoticed jobs like Lee or Mark Ruffalo’s bus driver in Lonergan’s previous masterpiece Margaret. Few others can quite manage, either, the awkwardnesses of ordinary conversations, the sudden random over-boilings of emotions into raging arguments, personified here in a cameo by Lonergan himself as an irascible passer-by, whose intervention in an argument warns us all to be careful how we judge other people’s actions. Lee’s buttoned-up mild manner occasionally erupts into these hugely disproportionate bursts of aggression, and it’s down to Affleck’s amazing performance that we see these, as well as his floundering in his new responsibilities, with empathetic eyes. Excellent too is Lucas Hedges, totally credible as a normal jack-the-lad teenager trying to cope with sudden bereavement and changing circumstances.

Between them, it’s an affecting and authentic portrait of grief and its sometimes unexpected effects (the first thing we see bringing out the misery in Patrick is some frozen chicken fillets). And it’s also about the common decency of people, from friends to hospital staff to the police dealing with the huge catastrophe of Lee’s earlier life (the most moving scene – because it’s so full of what you yourself want the reaction to be). And for this reason it’s a film that offers in spite of everything a sense of solace, of everything passing and easing, even the bad things, and life being in the end, kind of OK.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle, January 2017

 

Silence

Directed by Martin Scorsese

In 1640 two young Portuguese Jesuits, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) make a journey into hostile Japan in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira, a missionary who is rumoured to have apostatised – renounced his faith – and gone native. They want to prove the rumour wrong. Bright-eyed and (in the case of Garfield) bushy-haired they set off, but soon become separated, and the story settles on Rodrigues, who along with his Judas-like guide Kichijiro (Kobazuka Yosote) enters the lives of secretly-Catholic peasants. But Kichijiro is a serial apostate, and has soon betrayed Rodrigues and his pious followers. Following long marches and imprisonments and hideous tortures and deaths, the priest’s ultimate dilemma is that the authorities demand his apostacy to save the peasants from more suffering. His faith becomes a bargaining tool.

The Japanese are slickly efficient at their putting down of Christianity. But we shouldn’t feel too superior – during much of the previous 100-year period Englishmen had been burning people alive and dragging their guts out because their version of Christianity differed marginally from their own. And the Japanese rulers had a political point too – either intuition or knowledge of the wider world may have taught them that hastening along just behind that message of Christian Love came its ugly brother, Imperialism. They preferred to take their trade pure, on their own terms, as we see at the end of the film.

But it’s Rodrigues we’re centred on, and Scorsese’s attempt to make the priest one of his tortured heroes gets woefully (and literally) bogged down in the long marches and enforced imprisonments during which he is forced to see his people so mistreated. While clearly enjoying the opportunity to pay homage to the landscape of his beloved Japanese classics, Scorsese seems to have lost his narrative knack, and however much pain there is, however much anguish Andrew Garfield can twist his face into, it becomes a bit – dare I say it? – repetitive and, well, boring. Not helped by the regular popping back of Kichijiro asking forgiveness for yet one more betrayal. What we are interested in with Rodrigues, and presumably this is the theme of the film, is the nature of faith, what exactly is the impulse that sends a man into such danger, and what makes a martyr. This issue is raised when, calling on his god to help, he sees in his own reflection a vision of Christ’s face. Is this a miracle, showing Christ’s support, or is it a kind of narcissism that makes the priest feel he himself is Christ?

This is a question reiterated by Father Ferreiro (Liam Neeson) when the film actually gets interesting again. Because Ferreiro has indeed renounced his faith, and it’s his confrontation with Rodrigues that actually verbalises the dilemma, questioning whether, in a religion where symbols and objects and rituals are so laden with importance, outward profession of the love of God should always override love for his creations.

Rodrigues makes his decision, and is forever afterwards diminished, like Goodfellas’ sparky Henry Hill living in suburban witness protection. But it seems despite the anguish and the pain, we have never truly done the journey with him. Scorsese had this film project in mind for 23 years, and maybe that was too long, too thought-about, to convey its potential power as fresh as you expect from such a director.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema January 2017

 

La La Land

Directed by Damien Chazelle

It’s Friday 13th, there are tide-surge flood alerts all down the east coast, much of Scotland lies under a blanket of snow, Trump’s about to move into the White House, our hospitals are in a state of near collapse, we’re cutting ourselves off from Europe, I have a hacking cough, and Newcastle’s pavements are splashy and covered with half-melted snow as I arrive at The Gate. I need to choose between two highly acclaimed films – La La Land, the escapist musical millions are drooling over, and Manchester by the Sea, a painful human drama that seems to leave folk very glum. Well, which would you choose? There’s a considerable streak of masochism in me, but under the circumstances even I hardly hesitate.

You’ll have heard all the hype – well don’t entirely believe it. This is a charming, entertaining, decorative and life-affirming film, a musical in the old Hollywood style – but it’s not quite as good as I hoped. That said, it is very good, and I recommend anyone to give it a try for 2 hours of escape from real life, maybe the chief function of film musicals down the ages.

From the delightful opening sequence – an extravert, non-mournful version of the old Everybody Hurts video – with drivers climbing out of their cars during a traffic jam to sing and dance together, it handles the segue from speaking, acting, ‘real’ life into music perfectly, and this continues to be an impressive feature – whenever emotions get big the action takes flight into music, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. That neither Emma Stone nor Ryan Gosling has a trained voice makes it all the more seamless. They’re ordinary, good looking but pretty unglamorous, in the way that Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler were. Gosling in particular is a revelation – as well as tuneful singing he plays a decent jazz piano – learned specifically for the film, unbelievably. And he dances – my how he dances. Nothing flashy or spectacular, he’s more of the Fred Astaire school, effortlessly sliding into step so it seems like a natural extension of walking, rather than the muscular fireworks of the Gene Kelly persuasion. (For this see Channing Tatum’s splendid sailors’ dance in the other recent ‘loveletter to Hollywood’ Hail Caesar.)

Like many of the best musicals the plot is unimportant. It’s about love, the romance between Seb (Gosling), a purist jazz pianist, unwilling to taint his art with more popular music, and Mia (Stone) an actress and would-be playwright, both talented but neither especially so in the great fevered rolling boil of Hollywood, where all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas. They meet, spar a little, become besotted with each other, make compromises, then find their ambitions take them apart. All the tropes of the old fashioned musical are here, including a lovely extended dream sequence towards the end. Realism about Hollywood, à la Day of the Locust, isn’t what you’re looking for, here the unlucky ones still manage to live in stylish flats and get invited to glam, extravagant parties.

It’s all so pretty and colourful. What’s missing, though, despite great chemistry between the two leads, is that indefinable sense of utter infectious joy breaking through the fourth wall. Though pleasant enough it never grabs you by the heart and takes you along with it. So the world was still the same outside as when I left it, although nature herself had cleaned up her act a bit and the streets were dry. Escapism isn’t that easy these days. And Manchester by the Sea still glowers on the horizon.

Seen at  Empire, Newcastle, January 2017

 

Top films of 2016

Lists, lists… so invidious when it comes down to it, but there were three films on general release in the UK in 2016 that really stood out for me.

Hard to believe it’s only a year ago since SPOTLIGHT (Tom McCarthy), which was to go on to win Best picture and Best Screenplay Oscars. It’s the sober and engrossing story of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of decades of abuse by priests in that most catholic of American cities. Performances are stunning throughout (Stanley Tucci and Liev Schreiber in particular) and an intelligent screenplay by the director and Josh Singer couldn’t be more different from the thriller-style excitement of All the President’s Men, previously seen as a benchmark of this genre. The pursuit is just as all-consuming to watch, but these are truly real, ordinary people, grafters, determined and inspired by the increasing enormity of what they are finding, with emotional costs and no triumphalism.

As Spotlight opened the year, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve brought it to a conclusion with ARRIVAL, a sci-fi story with a difference, with the peerless Amy Adams as an academic brought in to communicate with aliens whose intentions are opaque. Despite, to be honest, bamboozling us with science, in this case linguistics, as shamelessly as any 50s sci-fi, its intelligence and spirituality and the sheer credibility of its protagonists combine to make it a potent reflection on time and humanity.

And perhaps the film I enjoyed most all year was HELL OR HIGH WATER (David Mackenzie). Subtle, melancholy use of the Western form gives us a bleak critique of American society, and it holds your attention from start to devastating finish, as involving as any thriller, with unexpectedly comic moments. A rebirth for an old-timer of a genre. Stellar performances throughout from Chris Pine, Ben Foster and, naturally, Jeff Bridges, right down to veteran Margaret Bowman’s 2 minutes of uppity waitress.

As for documentaries, the stand-out was NOTES ON BLINDNESS (Peter Middleton, James Spinney), a totally original, moving and exciting adaptation of theologian John Hull’s increasing then total blindness, using his own recorded diaries and conversations lip-synched by actors. Images and sounds are often stunning, and as well as giving a unique glimpse (you might say) of quite what it might feel like to be blind, it also has a lot to say about quite what it feels like to be human, too.

Highlights included:

Most joyous – Channing Tatum leading the 50s-style pastiche Hollywood sailors’ dance in HAIL CAESAR (Coens), which otherwise didn’t quite hit the mark.

Most excruciatingly enjoyable – Ralph Fiennes’ gob-smacking poolside capering in A BIGGER SPLASH (Luca Guadagnino), an entertaining film with more seriousness than it generally got credit for.

Most adrenaline-stoking – VICTORIA (Sebastian Schipper), 138 miraculous minutes of one hand-held continuous shot of young people over a night that went horribly wrong.

Best comic turn – Tom Bennett’s hilarious, graceful, innocent daffiness in LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP (Whit Stillman), a brilliant recreation of Jane Austen which is also totally contemporary.

Scariest – UNDER THE SHADOW (Babak Anvari), Iranian ghost story (directed by a woman) where mother and daughter protagonists are assailed by bombs from above; one of the creepiest spirits since Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You from within; and fundamentalism from all around. A true feminist fable. And one of the few sub-titled films to appear at many multiplexes around the country.

Most moving performance – Hayley Squires‘ shame in the food bank scene in I DANIEL BLAKE, a film that tops many people’s lists. While I honestly can’t place it there in mine – some aspects of plot and dialogue just didn’t ring true for me – it is a truly powerful and moving film, a grim picture of today’s Britain, and it must be applauded for its enormous social effect. It’s a small point, but the fact that a film’s influence can be visible at the most ground-roots level – in the appearance of sanitary towels at Tesco’s food bank donation points – shows just how potent its effect has been.

Unexpected pleasure – STEVE JOBS – Danny Boyle’s unashamedly theatrical stylised portrait of megalomaniac /geek Jobs was much more impressive than I expected, with its taut construction and crackling dialogue, and great playing by Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, absolutely engrossing.

Things to come…

Two films seen at festivals which should be coming to UK screens this year are a treat worth looking out for. Cristi Puiu’s SIERANEVADA, at nearly 3 hours long and mostly set inside a small flat, is a masterpiece of cinematography that never loses its fascination as it tracks the bumpy progress of a family wake. Funny and melancholy, despairing and life-affirming, it’s an amazing marriage of Chekhov and Bunuel.

Quite a different kettle of fish is Olivier Assayas’ PERSONAL SHOPPER, with Kristen Stewart as the eponymous American in Paris, mourning the death of her twin brother while acting as dogsbody shopper for a self-centred celebrity. The supernatural, questions of identity, danger and gorgeous cinematography join together for a film that is as delightful and troubling to watch as anything out of France for some time.

Others of interest include SCARRED HEARTS by Romanian director Radu Jude, who directed one of the best films screened in the UK last year, Aferim! This is very different, as enclosed as that film was expansive, as we follow the truth-based story from late-30s Romania of a young writer confined to bed in a sanatorium, where youthful spirits simmer under a claustrophobic sense of doom, as the young die and the world outside descends into chaos. It’s demanding and maybe overlong but a truly interesting film from this always surprising director.

Oh, and La La Land looks delicious! Watch this space.

But don’t forget, ‘In the end it’s just a matter of opinion…   ‘     Mark Kermode