A movie for every day of the year – a good one
John Ball hanged, drawn and quartered, 1381
On this day in 1381, a charismatic priest called John Ball was killed publicly in front of the monarch of England, Richard II. Ball had been a “hedge” priest, roaming the countryside, unattached to a parish, a “Lollard” who believed the Church to be corrupt. In prison in Maidstone at the time of 1381’s Peasants’ Revolt – a rebellion against too much taxation, villeinage (ie slavery), corvée (obligatory unpaid labour) and the new laws making it illegal to refuse work on the grounds that the pay was too low (the Black Death had given its survivors a strong bargaining hand) – Ball was released by local rebels and preached to the growing army of insurgents near Greenwich before they marched on London. It was one of many uprisings throughout the country which Richard II put down with efficiency, raising an army of 4,000 and pursuing the leaders of the Revolt, wherever they turned up. Ball was held to be one of those leaders, and was made an example of. The punishment was to be hanged, drawn and quartered – placed at the top of a ladder so the attendant crowd could see, the victim was hanged till nearly dead, then he was drawn (sex organs removed and slowly disembowelled, the resulting organs being burnt in front of him), then cut into four pieces, each part being exhibited in a different town. Ball suffered all these, and then his head was stuck on a pike at London Bridge.
An Ordinary Execution (2010, dir: Marc Dugain)
It’s the early 1950s and in the USSR Stalin (André Dussollier) is not very well. He’s terminally ill, in fact, and suspects it when he sends for yet another doctor, this time a woman (Marina Hands) who is reputed to have a healing touch. She arrives and goes to work. And Stalin is impressed – with Anna’s skill, her looks, her charisma. Eventually he decides to do what Stalin always does with those useful to him. He gives her an apartment so she can be near him. The fact that this means she has to give up her own apartment and leave her husband is immaterial. Nor does what Anna thinks about all this matter, since what is more important than serving the motherland in its hour of need?
With no husband, there is no one to go home to, to spill the beans to about how sick the man of steel actually is. In the logic associated with tyranny, the relationship between Dr Anna and Stalin must be total. But Anna isn’t just gifted, pretty and unflappable, she’s also smart, and realises that getting closer to Stalin only grants a temporary benefit. There’s a conveyor belt effect. Being “indispensable” as Stalin calls her at one point, means he’ll be forced to get rid of her, since no one can be indispensable except the boss.
An Ordinary Execution brilliantly follows this glide of Anna towards the precipice and then back again. Her relationship with Stalin, with his courtiers (who all want to sleep with her or send her to her death), with what’s left of her life outside. And though fictional – there was no Anna that we know of – it paints a remarkable picture of life in a totalitarian state, where everything is disrupted by the leader’s paranoia, where everyone lives in a constant fear of being denounced and nothing can discussed honestly and openly.
“They don’t even have to be interrogated,” says Stalin at one point to Anna about a political prisoner, “they just talk.” Dugain’s insights into the way people under tyranny start to internalise the logic of the system are well made. And the abominable manner in which life is lived gives this film a gripping quality.
The performances by the three main characters really complement this, Dussollier resisting the urge to make Stalin the folksy Uncle Joe of poster legend, and Hands resisting the urge to make her character a sex bomb (tough, considering how she looks). Hardest role of all goes to Edouard Baer (a name that must have been given by parents with a sense of humour) as the husband, an underwritten part, an expository foil in many ways, but Baer pulls it off with real nuance.
Occasionally the dialogue doesn’t ring true – would a husband really accept his wife’s explanation that she’s been having an affair and is leaving him (she’s trying to protect him by not telling him of the visits to Stalin) quite so coolly and quickly? Likely not. But the writing throughout the film has this sketchiness and is excusable on the grounds that it’s covering a lot of ground, at speed. Similarly, not everyone is going to love the decision by Dugain and cinematographer Yves Angelo to shoot in ye olde standard sepia. But these are quibbles in a film that grips hard from the start, and even has time for a joke – one of Stalin’s flunkeys mentioning that he has a grandson called Putin. “Putin”, he repeats. Point made.
- Three great central performances
- A great debut by Dugain
- An intelligent political thriller
- Yves Angelo’s deliberately drab cinematography
An Ordinary Execution – Watch it now at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014