The Deadly Affair

Charles Dobbs on the phone

1966’s The Deadly Affair repeats the formula of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold – John Le Carré story, top British and European cast, London locations, great US director, ace British cinematographer, soundtrack by a big name – and if it isn’t quite up there with the 1965 film, it’s still one of the very best Le Carré adaptations.

It takes Le Carré’s first novel, A Call for the Dead, slaps a less sombre, more bums-on-seats title on it and also renames Le Carré’s masterspy George Smiley, as Charles Dobbs (Paramount, who had made The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, “owned” the Smiley name). Though in all important respects this is Smiley, an ageing, owlish penpusher with a wife called Ann (Harriet Andersson) whom he adores but who treats him like shit – she’s “a nymphomaniac slut” in her own words, and most of Dobbs’s colleagues would agree, since they’ve nearly all slept with her.

The plot hangs off the death of a ministry wonk. Suicide is the official explanation. Samuel Fennan (Robert Flemyng) was about to be outed as a former communist sympathiser, so the story goes, though Dobbs had quizzed Fennan on the very subject only that morning and Fennan had seemed happy to admit he’d been a Communist Party member in his university days – “Half the present Cabinet were Party men,” he points out. Unconvinced by the official line and suspecting murder, Dobbs sets about investigating, roping in Inspector Mendel (Harry Andrews), a cop on the verge of retirement, to help with the spade work. But first a trip to visit the dead man’s wife, Elsa. She is played by Simone Signoret, and let’s just say that you don’t hire Signoret simply to play the grieving widow.

James Mason’s mannered delivery works in his favour in The Deadly Affair. He’s a brilliant, silky Smiley (I mean Dobbs) – the silent but deadly quiet man whose unobtrusiveness is his secret weapon. The Dobbs character is of a piece with the shabby London settings captured by director Sidney Lumet. Far from the Swinging London of many mid-1960s movies, this is still the post-war world of damp rooms, electric fires and adultery, Lumet leaning in to Le Carré’s determination to present spying as a drab and morally ambiguous affair in much the same way Martin Ritt had in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.

Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel
Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel

Lumet also wanted to shoot in black and white, as Ritt did, but was prevailed upon by the studio to film The Deadly Affair in colour. Cinematographer Freddie Young gets Lumet half the way there, though, by “flashing” the film (exposing the negative to a controlled amount of light), a technique that drains out the colour, knocks back the contrast and increases shadow detail. This is a murky film that plays out in one underlit, beautifully photographed interior after another.

It’s also a superbly made film in terms of Lumet’s economical direction. From the opening shot, of Dobbs and Fennan already in mid-conversation in St James’s Park, Lumet does not hang about but drives the story forwards.

What a cast. As well as Signoret and Andersson – both greats of cinema – there’s the Austrian/Swiss actor Maximilian Schell, now amazingly almost a cinematic footnote but at the time about as big a star as a non-anglophone actor could be in Hollywood. One of Lumet’s fascinations is the way different actors work in different registers. Against the bluff, four-square Harry Andrews there’s puckish, nervous Roy Kinnear, for instance, and Lumet also stages several scenes at the theatre, where yet another different breed of actor, brother and sister Corin and Lynn Redgrave, play a camp director and his over-eager stage manager. We even get extracts from the plays they are supposedly working on – Shakespeare’s Macbeth and, particularly, Marlowe’s Edward II, where David Warner is playing the king and Timothy West is a witness to his terrible death (red hot poker where the sun don’t shine). Lumet is obviously indulging himself in a bit of “what I did on my holiday in London” postcard-writing with these scenes from Royal Shakespeare Company productions but they also provide a bit of contrast with the drabness of Dobbs’s milieu.

Quincy Jones’s lush John Barry-like score (title song sung by Astrud Gilberto) does something similiar, acting as a stark contrast to locations like semi-industrial Lots Road in West London, in the days before all of the Thames waterfront had gone upmarket. It’s where Dobbs finally unmasks his “traitor”, the dénouement playing out, grimly, quickly, in the dark and the pouring rain.

The years have been kind to this film, coating it in an allure it didn’t obviously have at the time. Mason is a superb Smiley (Dobbs, whatever) and this is a superb Le Carré adaptation.

PS: do yourself a favour and watch a restored version of the film, like the Amazon Blu-ray one listed below. It’s really worth it to see the results of the remarkable Freddie Young’s “flashing” technique. So much darkness, but so much detail.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Hombre and Angel

If you’ve ever wanted to see a Western out of Bulgaria, Hombre is your chance. It’s a fascinating film, attempting to use the familiar narratives from the West as an allegory for pan-Balkan co-operation. If we don’t all get on, the idea runs, there’ll be a lot worse to deal with than a gunfight at the OK Corral.

Whatever else it is or isn’t, it’s a very well cast film. Everyone here feels real, and also manages to exist as a character you might expect to encounter either around a camp fire in a Bulgarian forest in the 21st century or spooning up pork and beans in 19th-century Utah.

There’s not too much of a plot, though what there is has been messed about with chronologically, a Tarantino influence maybe, so we first meet Angel (good Western name) walking off into the sunset in a classic western finish, before the action snaps back to show him escaping from the clutches of a murderous bad hat by jumping into the back of a truck. This eventually disgorges him at a charcoal-makers’ encampment where most of the rest of the story plays out.

Snapping back in time a bit further, we discover Angel, pre-murderous encounter, picking up a pretty hitch-hiker. All we know is that something eventually happens between Angel, the unnamed pretty woman and the guy who wants to murder him but quite what it is writer Emil Tonev and director Zahari Paunov withhold from us for as long as they can to give the film some much-needed dramatic tug.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Angel meets the guys – an ethnically ragtag bunch of misfits including a Gypsy, a Macedonian, a Serb, a Pomak (a Bulgarian-speaking Muslim) – who spend their days logging trees and their nights drinking rakia and doing variations on the dick-measuring campfire chat you get in westerns. There is one woman in the camp, Nadya (Stefka Yanorova), a Russian, the boss is the ageing but wise and patriarchal Ioan – aka the Pastor (Lyubomir Bachvarov) – and this is where Hombre (Ivan Rankov) also enters the scene. He’s the sort of young enthusiast who in an American Western would be called Kid, and is the camp’s good-natured, slow-witted mascot, a young man who wears a holster and a cowboy hat and picked up the nickname because of all the westerns he watched when he was a child in an orphanage – Hombre (the 1967 film starring Paul Newman) being less of a mouthful as a name than The Magnificent Seven.

For a while it looks like, rather than Hombre, a variation on Shane is going to play out, with Hombre as the bright-eyed kid and Angel as a variation on Alan Ladd’s mysterious badass. But no.

Hombre goes for his gun
Hombre, not so quick on the draw

Hombre’s gun, we learn, is a relic from the 1912 Balkan War and signifies that we’re in deeply allegorical territory. This mishmash of guys rub along well enough while chopping trees or playing football, drinking and eating, but it doesn’t take much to spark off a conflict, at which point an ethnic difference rapidly upscales into an ethnic grievance. Message: stay busy, focus on the task at hand, don’t brood.

There is probably more of the sitting-around-the-old-camp-fire than the film actually needs, but Paunov takes it all at a measured pace, as if it’s no problem, and it largely isn’t, his DP Ivan Vatsov dredging everything in warm, warm filtration as if to emphasise that, relatively speaking, it’s fairly idyllic out here, and in fact at times the film feels like it wants to be that interlude in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the bicycle comes out and Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head parps away mellifluously on the soundtrack.

I enjoyed this looseness, characterised by the sonorous Spanish-guitar soundtrack (I don’t know who it’s by and I must have missed it in the Cyrillic end credits). I also enjoyed the performances, particularly by Valeri Yordanov as Angel, who’s got one of those faces that’s taken a punch or two in a bar fight, and fits the bill as the new guy stirring things up. It must be said though that this isn’t a film for people who expect a whole lot of stuff to happen. It broods.

Is there a shoot-out at the end? I can report that there is. Will someone die? Yes, but who? Will the cause of pan-Balkan co-operation have been advanced? Not sure about that at all.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

A Murder of Quality

Denholm Elliott as George Smiley

Written by John Le Carré, a master spy storyteller, and featuring a masterspy, George Smiley, you’d expect A Murder of Quality to be, well, a story about spying. In fact it’s a bare-bones whodunit with not a spook to be seen. Both Le Carré and Smiley are here essentially moonlighting.

The grisly murder of a woman at a private school is what sets it off, retired George being called in by old agency chum Ailsa Brimley to look into it as a favour for her. Strictly off the books, hush hush etc. This is a murder pure and simple. One for the police. Smiley is there as an outsider with no official involvement. Think Jessica Fletcher or any number of other amateur gumshoes.

It’s all set in a quaint 1950s Britain, of scarved vicars on bicycles, Sunday schools and cars with no synchromesh on first gear, a vastly reassuring landscape, though this sort of backdrop has been used so often in tales of gruesome murder – this victim was “bludgeoned” to death with a heavy piece of pipe – that you’ve got to wonder who’s still being reassured by scones and jam and old bookshops selling slightly foxed first editions.

Reassuring cast, though. Denholm Elliott as George Smiley, Glenda Jackson as Brimley, the Watson to Smiley’s Holmes, Joss Ackland as a pompous and over-friendly schoolmaster, Ronald Pickup as “a distinguished sexual athlete”, as local Inspector Rigby (Matthew Scurfield) puts it, Billie Whitelaw as babbling local vagrant “Mad Janie”, David Threlfall as the dead woman’s grief-stricken husband, Diane Fletcher as a hoity-toity bitch (she’s great at those – see the original British House of Cards) and… drum roll… Christian Bale as one of the pupils at the school. Four years out from Empire of the Sun, the film that introduced him, and nine years away from American Psycho making him, this is Bale solidly hacking his way through the undergrowth as a jobbing actor.

A vastly over-qualified cast, in fact, though you do need some quality when the finger of suspicion comes your character’s way – and it does tend to alight upon most of those listed above at one point or another.

Since spying is off the table, Le Carré settles instead for another of his pre-occupations, the small snobberies of the English caste system, where whose “people” you’re from matters and parvenus out themselves unwittingly by passing the port the wrong way around the dinner table. The retro setting helps, too, and the fact that the whole thing was filmed in and around Sherborne, Le Carré’s own public (ie expensive private) school, gives us an idea of the windmills he’s tilting at. For good measure, Le Carré adds in a bit of town v gown tension and high v low church friction to act as extra grist to his mill.

David Threlfall and Denholm Elliott
Guilty? The dead woman’s husband

Denholm Elliott would be dead within a year but looks full of vigour as George Smiley. He was the third actor to have been offered the role, the imdb tells us, though you’ve always got to take these “offered the role” tags with a pinch of salt. A lot of actors are sent scripts, a lot of actors are sounded out, roles are often “offered” with having been actually offered. However, Alec Guinness had apparently said no, having already been George Smiley twice on TV and Anthony Hopkins (“star” of Le Carré’s The Looking Glass War, if you believe the imdb trivia page – he actually only had a supporting role) had also turned down the role, it’s said, because he wasn’t happy with the script. But given that Hopkins was prepping Hannibal Lecter at the time… you’ve got to wonder.

However, musings to one side, Elliott is a lovely and lively Smiley, muting the darker end of Guinness’s interpretation, turning up the fruitier, lighter end. He’s as owlish as Guinness, but a lot more charming, as an amateur detective with absolutely no jurisdiction or reason for being involved would have to be.

It’s the second of Le Carré’s Smiley books, and was written in 1962, presumably before the author had worked out where his strengths lay. It’s nicely, neatly done, directed unobtrusively by Gavin Millar and is almost entirely inconsequential, a piece of primetime schedule-filler.

In fact the way to go for Smiley fans is not the movies (TV or otherwise) at all. It’s the BBC radio dramas with Simon Russell Beale in the role of Smiley (his performance nods to Alec Guinness). In the radio version of A Murder of Quality in particular much more is made of the relationship between Smiley and the decent, clever local inspector. On screen here, in a canny performance, Matthew Scurfield does what he can to suggest that relationship but it’s mostly been excised from the screenplay, by Le Carré himself. A crime. And we know whodunit.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Night of the Kings

Bakary Koné as Roman

When is a prison drama not a prison drama? When it’s Night of the Kings (La nuit des rois), a French-language drama from the Ivory Coast that starts and ends in a brutal jail and soars off in every direction in between.

Philippe Lacôte’s film opens with a shot of the jungle. The camera pans up to reveal a vast building, the Maca prison, one run by its inmates, the governor will later remark to an underling. It’s a jungle out here and it’s going to be a jungle in there too, right? Right. But also very wrong.

Into this pulullating mass of hyper-masculinity – so many shirtless male bodies, so many scowls – is delivered the hero of this story, a young thief about to begin his stay at Maca. He looks proud and tough… until he gets inside, where, by comparison, he suddenly looks like a kid.

What he doesn’t know is that the boss of this place, Barbe Noire (Blackbeard, the subtitles translate) is on his last gasp (literally, he’s on oxygen) as top dog and tradition dictates that once the “Dangoro” has been overthrown, his final duty is to die. There is no retirement plan for former kings of the heap.

As his final roll of the dice, Barbe Noire decrees that, when the next “red moon” (Saharan dust maybe?) rises, there will be a “Night of the Roman” – a storytelling night – and the new arrival, now renamed Roman (French for “story”), has been chosen to entertain his fellow inmates. Or die.

What Roman doesn’t know, but is later told by the prison’s only white inmate, an oddball who scampers around the building with a chicken on his shoulder (Denis Lavant, in another of his bizarre cameos), is that when he finishes his story he will be killed anyway. Another cute prison tradition.

Scene from the mythical past
Laetitia Ky as the Queen

The red moon rises that night, the entire prison turns out, a quaking Roman is given the floor and a modern-day Scheherazade is born. Roman tells a story, then the story of the story, digressing in first one direction, then another, in order to keep the narrative (and himself) alive.

As Roman’s imagination takes wing, so does the film. Roman shifts his story from the gangbanger ghetto back in time to an Africa of fabulous costumes, beautiful queens and magic, while writer/director Lacôte repurposes his hyper-masculine inmates as a theatrical troupe, who add emphasis to key moments of Roman’s story with moments of interpretive dance (I kid you not) and singing.

It’s as unexpected as it is beguiling and the effect is heightened by the fact that the film looks stunning throughout. Is there a single careless frame? I doubt it. Night of the Kings is beautifully colour co-ordinated in French Cinéma du Look style and shot sumptuously by Tobie Marier-Robitaille, whose brilliant work is enhanced by the fluid rhythmic editing of Aube Foglia (these two will have the phone ringing off the hook, as will production designers Tiendrebéogo Rasmané and Bill Mamadou Traoré).

It looks like Lacôte is mapping out a potential future direction for African cinema here, one that draws on the rich mythical tradition while acknowledging the here and now. It’s not exactly Black Panther territory, but in its mix of fantasy and geographic specificity, at times it’s not far off.

City of God is mentioned in passing at one point – Lavant’s chicken even gets a fluttery scene of its own to remind us of City of God’s breathtaking opening sequence – and there’s a definite visual influence from the remarkable ghetto-set Brazilian drama from 2002.

But Night of the Kings is its own beast. Well cast and well made, it’s also a good story well told. Which is entirely appropriate.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Little Drummer Girl

Charlie training with the Palestinians

Is the 1984 flop The Little Drummer Girl really a spy thriller, as it says on the tin, or an existential drama about a woman losing her mind because she believed in nothing to start with?

Diane Keaton stars in this adaptation of a semi-successful John Le Carré novel (attempts have been made to re-appraise it since the author’s death), playing an actress recruited by the Israeli secret service to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist network. Le Carré (real name David Cornwell) based “Charlie” on his half sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell, who around this time was suing a UK newspaper for suggesting her “bum is too big”. She won, on the grounds that it was a personal attack rather than fair comment. What she thought about the character of Charlie has not been recorded.

Read the Wikipedia entry if you want to understand what’s going on, because this adaptation’s lack of an authorial voice fails to make things clear. Charlie’s views on Palestine seem straight enough though – she’s against the oppression of a dispossessed people by the Zionists – which makes her rationale for accepting a gig offered by the Israeli secret-service mystifying. Instead of a solid reason, it’s suggested either that Charlie is driven by her actor’s vanity – this is a good role she’s been offered! Or driven by her desire for her darkly handsome handler, Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis). Neither seems really plausible. Both make her seem silly.

Charlie is a jobbing repertory actor touring draughty provincial theatres in the UK and yet dresses in that “Keaton style” of mannish clothes with a relaxed fit made popular by the film Annie Hall and costing way more than her character could afford. What we’re getting is Hollywood star Diane Keaton rather than struggling actress Charlie, which doesn’t help with a film that’s bewildering enough already. All that said, initially at least Charlie is a fairly known quantity. It’s only later that she gets harder to read and Keaton, perhaps floundering, starts to get shrill.

As the action moves from the UK to Palestine, where Charlie is trained in the ways of the “struggle”, doing the training, learning to disassemble rifles and make bombs, it becomes increasingly evident that The Little Drummer Girl does not work as a spy thriller. Who are the good guys? Is it the Palestinians and their struggle to regain their homeland, or the Israelis, who are also struggling – not to be pushed into the sea.

Le Carré is off his Cold War home beat, where his task was twofold: to suggest that a position that was straightforward to most people – we are the good guys and the Soviet Bloc are the bad guys – was a bit more nuanced than that. And to point out that spying isn’t glamorous. It’s not James Bond.

Klaus Kinski
Klaus Kinski as Charlie’s control

But when Le Carré makes similar points here about Middle East politics not being as cut-and-dried as the newspaper headlines and propagandists suggest, he’s likely to elicit the response, “Tell me something I don’t know”. (It does, though, explain how the notoriously cautious BBC felt able to remake this as a TV series in 2018 without fear of being attacked by either side – the show was as opaque as this film version and its star, the brilliant Florence Pugh, also got as stuck as Keaton does.)

There is no place in this story for George Smiley, though manipulative older Israeli spymaster Kurtz (Klaus Kinski) comes very close – and in his claims to be representing a more emollient branch of the Israel spy community, one that favours a two-state solution to the Palestine situation, we’re fairly sure Kurtz is just saying what Charlie wants to hear, but we can’t be sure. It’s the sort of game Smiley would play.

The film was the penultimate directorial effort by George Roy Hill, whose bizarre career went stratospheric with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 and The Sting in 1973 and then fell back to earth and stayed there. He brings a slick professionalism to proceedings, no frills, no grace notes, no idiosyncrasies, which was what he tended to do and got him critical blowback at times – in the age of the auteur director, George Roy Hill didn’t play that game. And thank god for that, here anyway, since the last thing this film needs is someone else adding curlicues.

Other little enjoyments include a few glimpses of early Bill Nighy, as one of Charlie’s fellow thespians cranking it out on stage. It’s all there – the pursed lips, the mournful fluting delivery – all pupating away nicely.

Gather ye rosebuds where ye may – The Little Drummer Girl has scant few to offer.

The Little Drummer Girl – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)

Abbie and Ellie kiss

Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) is a breezy high-school comedy about the will they/won’t they romance between two gay schoolkids. Set in the here and now but also in the there and then, it tries to square a circle and gets most of the way there.

Gay kids? Once upon a not so long ago that would have set the attack dogs of the media off on one of their jags but, though Australian writer/director Monica Zanetti struggled to raise the cash to get this adaptation of her successful play made, here it is, eventually, a testament to what the film is actually all about. Things have changed. Though battles are still to be fought, much ground has been gained.

Enough ground, in fact, that the whole film can mostly play out as a teen-crush movie, rather than a coming-out movie, kicking off with Ellie (Sophie Hawkshaw) announcing to her mother that she is gay – just like that, in the way teenagers might announce that they wish to be vegan – something her mother (Marta Dusseldorp) hadn’t seen coming, in spite of the fact that her best friend Patty (Rachel House) is an out gay woman, as was her sister Tara (Julia Billington), once Patty’s partner but now singing in the gay choir invisible.

Big breath. Two plot wheels start spinning. Can nice, well behaved school captain Ellie, having so matter-of-factly outed herself to her mother, climb a bigger hill and get cool, blunt rebel classmate Abbie (Zoe Terakes) to go to the formal with her (as Aussies call the prom, a helpful line tells us)? And, out of nowhere, enter Ellie’s dead aunt, Tara, in visible-only-to-Ellie Blithe Spirit style, to offer advice on negotiating queerdom.

Is Abbie even gay? The question seems barely worth asking but the film squeezes some comedy mileage out of Tara’s suggestion that Ellie ask Abbie who her favourite AFL player is, this having been a surefire litmus test in the 1980s.

Ellie and her dead aunt
Ellie with said dead aunt

In fact the aunt’s go-girl, affirmatory advice turns out to be mostly worthless, kd lang not having quite the cut-through she once did, Tara having no knowledge of what Facebook or a podcast is, and so on, though Julie Billington bats away gamely at a character who is introduced as a major plot component (she feature in the title, after all) only to be put on the back burner for much of the film’s running time. Ellie, in any case, prefers to get her life-coaching encouragement from YouTube.

But Tara, the dead aunt, is still a useful character, if only because she opens up a dialogue with the recent past, and allows the film a cake-and-eat-it approach.

In days of yore, films about gay people used to be about the fact of their gayness, most often expressed as the struggle to come out. Now a gay character is most often a character who is gay – sexuality is not what their personality nor the story is about, it’s just a part of the jigsaw. Tara reminds us that things are so much different now than they were 30 or 40 years ago, all the while applauding the struggle it took to make that change happen. Tara, it turns out, was no 1980s wallflower but an activist who fought to have her sexuality recognised, so her gay niece could, almost paradoxically, have hers ignored.

The film’s sweetness of tone and loose performances help to broaden the appeal, which is to a teenage audience (of whatever sexual orientation) – the getting-it-off-my-chest speeches, the tight focus on likeable leads Hawkshaw and Terakes, the fact that all older people are authority figures (parents, teachers, aunts etc).

If it sounds like this is a history lesson in the fight for LGBT acceptance, that’s because I’ve over-emphasised the messaging at the expense of the packaging – Zanetti’s skill is to write and direct a high-school rom-com that works on its own terms, love and disappointment being no respecters of borders of sexuality.

Ellie & Abbie (and Ellie’s Dead Aunt) – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Boys State

René Otero

Fascinating, sometimes grimly so, Boys State is a documentary about a Texas program designed to educate high schoolers in the intricacies and mechanisms of democracy. It’s been run by the American Legion since 1935 and claims to be a “week-long experiment in self-governance” during which young men run for office, get a team around themselves, organise into parties, committees and cabals. En route, the cream (or scum) rises to the top, and the sharp elbowed and quick-tongued win out over the more thoughtful and considered.

They’re not an entirely self-selecting group. In early interviews conducted by Legion members in full uniform, it’s obvious what sort of “boy” is being sought – one whose patriotism is unquestioned, who all but worships the flag, honours his ancestors, takes as a given the fact of America’s place in the world and mocks as “socialist” any idea that smacks of collective organisation.

A spirit of religious revivalism hangs over the whole thing. The hands on hearts as the state anthem is played, the boys’ bodies taut with fervour. To this European eye it all looks a bit much, as if by trying to duck one grand collectivising principle (socialism) another (patriotism) had been embraced too heartily.

The boys (they’re young men but I’m going to stick with boys, since a Lord of the Flies spirit seems to be afoot) are then organised into two parties, the Nationalists and Federalists, before the organising and campaigning begins in earnest.

Candidates begin to emerge. There’s Robert MacDougall, handsome, assertive, quick of thought, an organiser, a self-promoter. Steven Garza, a self-confessed progressive, a likeable, listening sort who looks like he’s going to get the tall-poppy treatment. Politically between the two of them is Ben Feinstein, a double amputee insistent that his lack of limbs doesn’t make him any different while also asserting that it does – he knows how to fight. Also somewhere in the middle is René Otero, clearly an orator, a centrist able to duck and weave. Much later we meet Eddy Proietti Conti who, when asked what his best feature is, replies, “My abs.” There’s not a lot of levity in this film, so thanks, Eddy.

The boys with hands on hearts
Plighting their troth

That’s enough of the individuals, back to the baying mob, and what a depressing indictment of the confrontational political system it is. It’s politics as a sporting event, where shouting “USA USA” counts as a political position, and any new proposal is dismissed before even being considered. A terrifying display of politics as hysteria. A jock love-in. A lynch mob.

The balls-out libertarians are in the ascendant and they’re froth mouthed at any suggested curtailment of their liberty, having missed the central fact of politics, that it is a system designed to curtail freedom – that’s what laws do, it’s what a government is.

Along the way we learn that among the light-hearted motions that this congress has managed to pass are the banning of cargo shorts and pineapple pizza. Presumably because they’re “gay” – the whiff of homophobia is ever-present.

Somehow, in this chaos of “go-team” rallies, the cameras of co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (and their heroic editors Jeff Seymann Gilbert and Michael Vollmann) start to pick out patterns. Cliques coalesce, teams assemble themselves, positions are taken, the mob is, to an extent, neutralised by notions of decorum and protocol.

By the end, no spoilers, amid the scheming and dirty tricks, a shaky sense of normality has been established, votes are taken, boys fight campaigns and win/lose, a new generation of youthful politicians get their first taste of the action. Some of these people will probably eventually turn up on the national stage.

It’s not easy to watch Boys State and come away feeling optimistic, but it is possible. There is idealism here, and ideas, and people who will stand up and insist on being heard above the rabble. Like The Overnighters, a previous McBaine and Moss collaboration, there is some optimism to be gleaned from what has been far too often a depressing display of sub-optimal humanity.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Looking Glass War

Anthony Hopkins with Christopher Jones

The third of John Le Carré’s spy thrillers to be adapted for the big screen, 1970’s The Looking Glass War is an odd and pretty much entirely unsuccessful spy thriller that’s taken a big conceptual decision only for it not to pay off at all.

The first two adaptations were the big success The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (Richard Burton starred) and the underrated The Deadly Game (a reworking of Le Carré’s novel Call for the Dead, with James Mason as a version of George Smiley).

There’s no sign of Smiley here, though he was in this film’s original novel. That said, there is some justification for removing him since the action didn’t centre on him or his chaps at the “Circus”.

Plotwise, it’s a simple one. The Soviets are up to something behind the Iron Curtain, a new missile, maybe, and London wants to know what’s going on. So they recruit a German-speaking Polish would-be defector to go behind enemy lines and report back. And that’s what he does.

A lavishly made, good-looking film is what we get as a result, shot in the UK and “Europe” (as the credits coyly tell us, hoping we’ll mistake Spain for somewhere in the Eastern bloc) in the last days of US-financed films being made in the UK before the plug was pulled in the early 1970s.

It’s a great cast – Ralph Richardson and Anthony Hopkins most notably, but full of quality names, like Anna Massey, Timothy West and Ray McAnally. Hopkins fans might be surprised at how massively underused he is. True, this was only his fourth feature film, but he was hot off The Lion in Winter and you’d have expected more than a flunkey role, which is pretty much all he’s been thrown here.

Carrying the film is Christopher Jones, a handsome leading man who was having his flash in the pan when he got cast as the lead, Preiser, the defector-turned-rookie-agent. A couple of years on from Bonnie and Clyde – the film that shook up old Hollywood – it’s obvious that the producers have decided to gamble all on Preiser’s long hair and snake hips and go for the youth vote. Jones gets top billing, the likes of Richardson and Hopkins hold his coat and John Le Carré is largely left out in the cold.

Preiser struggles with his captors
Maybe the Warren Beatty hair and shades weren’t such a great idea

Sure, there are still glimpses to be had of Le Carré. Spying isn’t glamorous, it’s bureaucratic, a case of protocols and following the rules. There is spycraft and it’s of a very practical Le Carré-ish sort – messages hidden in toothpaste tubes, the correct way to disable a tripwire etc. No James Bond stuff.

That said, the understanding here seems to be that Preiser could eventually become a James Bond, that’s the way the whole movie tilts. He’s a master of several languages, resourceful, handy in a fight and insanely attractive to women. Look at the way the two women in his thrall are credited – Pia Degermark is The Girl, Susan George is simply The Girl in London (a year later she’d be starring in Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman).

It’s easy to blame Jones for the film’s shortcomings and he wasn’t the easiest to work with, apparenty, Hopkins in particular having complained about his attitude preceding his talent. But it’s the writing of Preiser’s character that makes no sense. Didn’t British spying have an agent who could speak German? Wasn’t there a spy of theirs over there already? They’re only asking Preiser to confirm that it’s a rocket, after all. And isn’t someone in hipster shades and with boutique Warren Beatty/Scott Walker hair going to stand out in concrete-grey Eastern Bloc Europe?

Where’s the jeopardy, where’s the intrigue? Having gutted the novel and repurposed it as a lure, using a countercultural (to studio suits, anyway) himbo as its bait, there’s not much actual meat left, which forces director Frank Pierson into some obvious time-wasting manoeuvres. Scenes that are too long. Tracking shots of vehicles crossing the countryside. And so on.

The foolishness of the decision to repurpose Le Carré this way becomes most obvious in the final scenes, where old-school perfidy and the dangerous aloofness of British spymasters re-assert themselves and, whaddya know, the film crackles into life before flopping into the arms of the end credits.

In sum, nicely made, well cast, but a bizarre film. Blame the screenplay writer (Pierson) if you must but really this goes all the way to the top. A John Le Carré spy thriller with nearly all of the Le Carré removed, it makes no sense. It would be almost another 15 years before Le Carré and the movies would meet again, in 1984’s The Little Drummer Girl. But that’s another story.

The Looking Glass War – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The World to Come

Abigail and Tallie get close

Mona Fastvold’s second film, The World to Come, continues her tick-tocking exploration of timebomb relationships, much as did her first one, 2014’s The Sleepwalker. And like The Sleepwalker, this also toys with the viewer, delaying the explosive payoff until its moment has started to recede over the hill.

Has Fastvold been watching Hungarian master miserablist Béla Tarr, I wondered. If so, it might explain the disengaged atmosphere. An early shot, of frontier couple Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) sitting down to eat a solitary boiled potato, was reminiscent of a scene in Tarr’s final film, 2011’s The Turin Horse, a drama so bleak that it dares you not to titter.

Also like The Sleepwalker, this is a four-hander. Into the lives of Abigail and Dyer come new arrivals Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbott). From first flashing glance there’s obviously something cooking between Abigail and Tallie, a relationship that develops into a full-blown romance, while spouses Dyer and Finney hover at the edges in different stages of disbelief – Dyer deciding that patience might yet win him the day, Finney invoking a wife’s biblical duty. “Submit to your own husband as to the Lord,” he fulminates. Ephesians Chapter 5, Verse 22, if you’re interested.

Béla Tarr might be a fanciful reference point and there are many ways in which this is absolutely not Tarr. It’s not long enough, dark enough, or monochrome enough, and it isn’t making intellectual points but emotional ones. It’s not an arthouse movie but an entertainment with a familiar setting (the Frontier) and unusual subject matter.

An exhausted Abigail
Laid low by love

But. Big but. Fastvold’s approach is to have all the mood settings flicked to “muted”. Waterston’s flat contemplative voiceover (which runs through the entire film), the soundtrack of earthy woodwind instruments, the intimate, close-up camera and the lights down low.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire Way Out West, perhaps, though The World to Come is more about the simmer than the boil.

“I have become my grief,” says Abigail early on, right after she loses her chid to diphtheria. “Astonishment and joy,” she says to herself later on, three times, after she and Tallie have first converted charged glances into touches. Opposite ends of the emotional register but both in the same near-monotone.

What a cast this is. The film belongs entirely to Waterston. The story is about her, the action focuses on her, the camera is with her and the voiceover is hers. Even so, you have to admire her ability to get any purchase at all with Kirby among the players, and the character of Tallie – lively, sexy, a low voice to charm the dead back to life – is a gift. But Kirby knows whose film this is, as do Affleck and Abbott, the pair of them more a seasoning than an ingredient.

The men are not the heroes of this film but the men are in charge. That, in a sense, is what’s going on here – cat and mouse sexual politics. The women are playing away, but will the men actually catch them at it, as they share their bodies in a leafy glade or trade fiery kisses by the hearth?

So much for Way Out West, it’s all shot Way Out East, in the Carpathia and Transylvania regions of Romania – and every shot says “book now for a getaway-from-it-all holiday” – imposing mountains, clean air, sparkling water, it looks fabulous.

It’s exquisitely made in ever respect, in fact, though the languid tone and intense subject matter aren’t so much contrapuntal as neutralising. As for the dead child who’s meant to be haunting Abigail, it’s a case of same/same – is Tallie a stand-in, a focus for Abigail’s displaced grief? A possibility hinted at and never really explored.

The World to Come – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


J3 is revealed

Here’s Archive, the debut by writer/director Gavin Rothery, who deserved better than for his film to slip between the cracks, which it did a bit thanks to the Covid restrictions. Instead of getting the big-screen release that was on the cards, it slunk out onto streaming months after it was due to be seen.

Rothery’s CV is full of art department gigs. He worked with Duncan Jones on Moon and Archive at first looks like it might be operating in the same territory. Lone guy marooned somewhere, taking orders from a stern voice back at HQ, possibly going mad in the process.

Except George (Theo James) isn’t in an off-world location, he’s in Japan, inside an aged retro-futurist tech facility, working on his own to create a robot to replace his wife, who died in a car crash.

He’s had two goes at it already. J1 (his wife was named Jules) is a big lumbering, silent, armless hunk of metal. J2 is talkative and TV-loving, a proper metal companion, albeit one with sharp edges and a screen where the face should be. J3, however, is different, a slinky humanoid who, once George has given her a mid-show makeover, becomes even more sensual – eyebrows, soft skin, silk clothes. Apart from the odd seam here and there she’s the spitting image of his dead wife. And once he’s downloaded his dead wife’s consciousness into her, the process will be complete.

What happens when you give a tech machine so much AI and machine learning that it develops empathy? One unintended consequence is that the two older robots get jealous of the new, Stacy Martin-shaped J3, J1 expressing herself via a series of disgruntled (concerned?) shuffles, while J2 more overtly pouts and sulks. Trouble is brewing.

So, three women fighting over Theo James (he’s also a producer) – check your privilege etc. At one point Rothery considers the notion of the perfect robot wife in terms of eating (J3 can eat though derives no sustenance from it), leaving other bodily considerations as shadowy suggestions. A box better left unopened, perhaps.

Stacy Martin and Theo James
Meeting the wife

Expertly grabbing hold of sci-fi tropes and design cues from sources as various as Metropolis, Star Wars, Ex Machina and Westworld, Rothery welds together the old-fashioned looks of “hard” sci-fi, all shiny surfaces and whooshing doors, with the grunge of the post-Alien era – in space no one can hear you take the trash out – a modern/postmodern melange.

The story itself is something Isaac Asimov might have come up with for his I, Robot collection, which considers the ethics of possible robot futures and the tricky relationships to be had once machines become super smart.

As you might expect from a man with an Art Department background, Archive looks great. George’s Bond-villain-esque remote lair is a confection of tech in various stages of disrepair. The robot design in particular is very good, each machine having its own personality, even the big lumbering J1, and each capable in a different way of being sinister.

Theo James has grown a beard for the film, which makes him less irritating and more plausible, somehow, while Stacy Martin is (again) perfect, entirely in character both as a warm human being entirely in love with George (all this in flashback) and as a bewildered robot learning the ropes of what it is to be human.

AI taken to the point of empathy, what could possibly go wrong? Sci fi’s focus is more often on the cold robot future (Skynet becoming self-aware in Terminator, for instance), but Archive tugs at a different thread, the warm robotic future. The perils of hanging out with empathic robots – that is very Asimov.

The ending is a bit of a cheat, satisfying in its own way but arriving from left field and explaining a few details, like the sudden arrival about a third of the way through of Toby Jones and a sidekick as a pair of sinister, black-clad gents claiming to be from the company where Jules’s post-mortem consciousness is stored. All is revealed.

A familiar film in many ways, but with a high concept that makes it worth a detour, on a big screen or small. I suspect Archive will develop its own cult following.

Archive – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021