Miss Potter

Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellwegger

 

The dramatised story of Beatrix Potter, creator of children’s character such as Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-Duck, with Renee Zellweger as the Edwardian miss who’s 32 years old and still not married. It’s about a woman struggling against the odds, against familial indifference, social expectation and industry hostility to get her books into print. And the fact that the publisher (played by Ewan McGregor) who eventually helps Potter also becomes the great love of her life, well that’s just double bubble for an actress who is as adept at portraying grown women who still have fluffy toys in their bedroom (see Bridget Jones) as she is those with a core of steel (see Cold Mountain). Both apply here.

This is that most unfashionable of genres – the sort of film that you could imagine Bette Davis making about 70 years ago. A woman’s picture, in other words. And like a lot of women’s pictures, it is extremely well made, gets to the point and doesn’t outstay its welcome. It has had slightly sniffy reviews, on the whole by reviewers who will bend over backwards to accommodate any masked man but who feel uncomfortable with stories about real people. Or maybe they were hostile to Zellweger’s English accent, though she fits in effortlessly alongside British stalwarts such as Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Anton Lesser and Bill Paterson. Or could it be the occasional use of animated Potter characters? Actually, I’m with the sniffers on this one, finding them unnecessary and slightly too cute, though what are you to do with Squirrel Nutkin, Little Pig Robinson, Tom Kitten et al?

Ultimately, it’s a film that is damned by association, with women. Or, going one jump down in the prestige stakes, with children. The fact that Chris Noonan directs and his previous film was Babe has got to be a mark against, if you’re feeling anti in the first place. Though Babe was and still is an utter charmer unafraid to explore dark places. As does Miss Potter when Beatrix hits a romantic speed bump and decamps to the Lake District, where she buys a farm and shifts into an altogether more Cold Mountain life of self-sufficiency.

There’s no sex to speak of, the clothes are all most elegant, and Noonan takes monstrous liberties with the weather in the Lakes where, in this film, it never seems to rain (travel tip, if you’re going: take waterproofs). It’s true that there’s a chocolate box element to this film. But it is a film, let’s not forget, about a woman who invented a character called Mrs Tiggywinkle. What, honestly, do you expect?

 

Miss Potter – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

 

Perfect Sense

Eva Green and Ewan McGregor in Perfect Sense

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

1 May

 

England and Scotland become the United Kingdom, 1707

On this day in 1707, the countries of England and Scotland officially became united in “one kingdom by the name of Great Britain” (according to the Acts of Union). By “England”, the acts included the country of Wales, which had become absorbed legally into England by the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542. Though in terms of monarchy, the English throne had been seized by a Welshman, when Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) defeated Richard III in battle in 1485. This Tudor line persisted in England until 1603, when the Scottish Stuarts took over, James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England. The two countries continued to be considered separate legal and constitutional entities, though this “personal union” clearly paved the way for the two countries to become united.

 

 

 

Perfect Sense (2011, dir: David Mackenzie)

This dour and unusual sci-fi movie set in Scotland internalises the disaster movie almost entirely. Many hands feature in the production, but one of them is Zentropa, Lars Von Trier’s outfit, so the unexpected is to be expected. It’s a love story, about two people who meet just as a very odd slo-mo apocalypse is robbing humanity of its senses – first smell, then taste, then hearing, finally sight. Ewan McGregor plays a chef, Eva Green is a research scientist working on a cure for the problem, so both are intimately connected with the progress of the disease. As the film progresses, and people lose first their sense of smell and then taste, the chef’s restaurant obviously hits something of a bump in the road. Undaunted, well, very daunted but continuing anyway, its owner and kitchen staff come up with new ways to surprise and delight diners, focusing on texture rather than flavour, and the business comes back to life. They even get a glowing review in the local paper, which continues to be published.

In fact life, in spite of unrest and violence in other parts of the world glimpsed on TV, seems to be going on in this eminently practical part of the world. Which appears to be the film’s theme – that life goes on. The chef continues to ride around on his bicycle, the scientist keeps bombing about in her hot hatchback. Not for ever, of course, because the final loss – sight – will effectively make everyone in the planet a prisoner in their own body. And yet director David Mackenzie and writer Kim Fupz Aakeson have come up with a way of making even that awful fate less gruesome than it might be.

It was still too gruesome for many critics, though, who gave this film a terrible panning, those who noticed the film at all. And yet it is worth seeking out, for its intimacy, its focus on the two lovers (its lo-fi sci-fi romance would make it a good fit in a double bill with Gareth Edwards’s Monsters), its attention to detail, its strange optimism, and for the way its premise is worked through logically – in Nordic-noir-meets-dour-Scot style. As for the acting, this is real showcase stuff, and McGregor has the edge over Eva Green, who has probably never looked so sultry – those big panda eyes. One final thing. The sense of touch they retain, which justifies the frequent nudity.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A strange high concept sci-fi film
  • The support cast includes Stephen Dillane, Connie Nielsen and Ewen Bremner
  • Giles Nutgen’s intimate cinematography
  • That dark Danish attitude

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Perfect Sense – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Impossible

Naomi Watts and Tom Holland in The Impossible

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 January

 

 

Shaanxi earthquake, 1556

On this day in 1556, the world experienced the deadliest earthquake on record. At 8.0 (possibly 7.9) on the magnitude scale (the successor to the Richter scale) it wasn’t the biggest quake the world has seen but it did kill the most people, largely because many of the people who inhabited that region in China lived in loess caves.

Loess (probably from the same English root as the word “loose”) is a wind-blown silt/clay mix held together loosely by calcium carbonate. It is very easy to excavate but is also highly susceptible both to collapsing and to disappearing under a landslide.

This is exactly what happened on the morning of 23 January 1556 when the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Hebei, Shandong and Gansu were struck by the quake which destroyed an area 840 kilometres (520 miles) wide.

The cave dwellers bore the brunt of the death toll, which killed 60% of the local population, but in the city of Huaxian, near to the epicentre, the earthquake destroyed every single building and killed hundreds of thousands of people too. In total it is estimated that 830,000 people died.

 

 

 

The Impossible (2012, dir: Juan Antonio Bayona)

How do you make entertainment from human misery? It’s the Schindler’s List conundrum that film-makers solve in a variety of ways.

In the case of this drama following one happy family through the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 the film-makers have decided on a three-track strategy.

Track one is the “fraught with prior knowledge” drama. As we follow rich Ewan McGregor, his lovely doctor wife Naomi Watts and their three kids – from her worries about flying, to concerns about the kids swimming in the pool at the lovely Thai resort they’re staying at, – we know that there’s a tsunami coming (we’ve seen the trailers). We know that these concerns are nothing compared to what’s approaching. The Impossible’s track of anxiety is very similar to what Paul Greengrass did in his 9/11 drama United 93.

Track two is the full-on disaster movie, a storm of special effects and CG after the tsunami hits, devastates the resort and throws all of the family into the raging water, separating them. As the film starts to focus on Watts and her eldest child (Tom Holland) it asks the disaster movie question – who will live, who will die?

Track three is the aftermath, the sort of drama that you often see in war movies, in field hospitals, as suffering souls are tended, some dying, others just making it, confusion everywhere. Will separated loved ones be reunited? Will injuries become too much to recover from? When will some sort of order be restored?

In The Impossible, in other words, there’s no shortage of drama, and types of drama.

The film is based on a real story, that of María Belón, a Spanish doctor on holiday in Thailand with her family at the time, but is as much based on all those YouTube clips and news reports that showed that wave – not huge, just awesomely relentless – rolling in from the sea, over the beach, then onwards, through the shacks on the beach, through the hotels, out beyond the hotels onto the highways, then on, on, on, on, right out into the countryside. Clint Eastwood’s atypical Hereafter caught its chaos well. Director Juan Antonio Bayona catches it better.

It’s worth remembering that Bayona showed a different though similarly powerful command of place and mood in The Orphanage.

As for the claim that this is a racist film, because its focus is on a white family struggling to survive a devastating event that consumed so many people with brown skins, point taken, though I don’t think the wall of water discriminated either way.

And, more cynically, this is how you make entertainment from human misery.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Naomi Watts’s Oscar-nominated performance
  • The cinematography by Oscar Faura – of The Orphanage fame
  • It was shot in the resort where it happened, gruesomely
  • A standout performance by Tom Holland, aged 11

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Impossible – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Trainspotting

Ewan McGregor in The Worst Toilet in Scotland

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

27 September

 

 

Irvine Welsh born, 1958

On this day in 1958, in Leith, Edinburgh, Irvine Welsh was born. Or was he? After a police arrest in 1996, just after fame had hit him like a heroin rush, the police revealed that he was in fact seven years older, so born in 1951. Or 1961, if the BBC’s Writing Scotland website is to be believed. But 1958 is what the author maintains (I say “maintains” though his own website is silent on the subject), so let’s stick with that. After growing up in nearby Muirhouse, Welsh moved to London in the late 1970s at the time of punk, played as a guitarist in a string of gob-spangled bands including Pubic Lice and finally moved back to Edinburgh, where he worked in the council housing department. Remembered as a well dressed young man who never seemed the worse for drugs, he was apparently destined to “go far” in local administration. All the while Welsh was writing short stories, many of which featured in local literary magazines. Trainspotting was his first novel, a tale of drug excess, depravity and skanky humour among a small group of heroin users, delivered in phonetic street-talk. The lack of moral centre, the refusal to be PC and tone it down made it one of those books read by people who don’t read books. Welsh, in effect, became the heir to the New English Library output of Richard Allen whose books (Skinhead, Suedehead etc) had had a similar effect a generation before. Secker and Warburg, his original publishers, were convinced it would never sell – the original print run was 3,000. Well, they were wrong there.

 

 

Trainspotting (1996, dir: Danny Boyle)

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television.” The soliloquy from Trainspotting, as spoken by Renton (Ewan McGregor), our likeable, voluble, eloquent guide to the more depraved side of Edinburgh life in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of the book. Having popped his head over the critical parapet with Shallow Grave, Boyle was propelled to international renown with Trainspotting, thanks to his ability (and that of screenwriter John Hodge) to safely transfer Irvine Welsh’s high energy, loud humour and foul mouth to the screen intact. With a largely Britpop soundtrack that wasn’t just cool but also appropriate (Iggy Pop, Primal Scream, Underworld, Blur, Leftfield), restless camera and some bravura stunts (Renton diving into The Worst Toilet in Scotland to rescue the opium suppositories), the effect was of a particularly nasty music video, or of a night of druggy excess, now exhilarating, now terrifying. McGregor’s heroin-chic cheekbones sold the film on posters, but great though McGregor’s performance is, Robert Carlyle as the insane Begbie is even better, one of the few instances of menace actually transmitting off the screen and into the audience. People took Trainspotting the film to their hearts the way they had the book, because it dared to say something that goes unsaid – the reason why people take drugs is because they enjoy it, simple as. And let’s not forget how funny it is – as Renton says about the group’s dealer, “We called him Mother Superior on account of the length of his habit.”

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Welsh’s best book, Boyle’s best film
  • Party like it’s 1996
  • A cast largely of unknowns at the start of interesting careers
  • Buckle up for the “Worst Toilet in Scotland” scene

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Trainspotting – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Serpent’s Kiss

Ewan McGregor in The Serpent's Kiss

 

 

A treatise on order and chaos, propriety and lust, hidden inside the convoluted, if a bit TV-ish, story of Meneer Chrome (Ewan McGregor), an 18th-century Dutch (or is he?) landscape gardener. Chrome has been employed to refashion and tame the herbaceous borders of bumptious self-made Thomas Smithers (Pete Postlethwaite) and in the process bankrupt him and seize his bride (Greta Scacchi), if the plans of dastardly fop James Fitzmaurice (Richard E. Grant) bear fruit. This lace-cuffed fol-de-rol of a Sunday afternoon movie is the directorial debut of Oscar-winning cameraman Philippe Rousselot and it doesn’t suffer from bad looks. It also has its odd sly, dry moment – though there are only so many times that the word “woad” can be pressed into comedic service. In looks, high concept and ambition it’s clearly in hock to The Draughtsman’s Contract and would dearly love to be a devious restoration comedy. It’s certainly got the setting and the characters, with buxom beauties, caddish gents and innocents abroad all fitting that particular bill. But in spite of a top-notch cast the script just lies there refusing to sparkle. All is not lost though, there is a nice game of “who’s going to take their clothes off first” to be played. Most of the cast have form.

© Steve Morrissey 1998

 

The Serpent’s Kiss – at Amazon

 

 

 

Velvet Goldmine

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Velvet Goldmine

 

 

 

 

In 1988 Todd Haynes made Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. In it he used Barbie and Ken dolls instead of actors to play out the tragic story of the singer with the golden voice whose anorexia eventually killed her off. Karen’s brother Richard Carpenter stamped it out of the record books, claiming Haynes didn’t have clearance to use the music. It has since resurfaced as an entry on imdb and pops up on youtube in various shitty resolutions.

Haynes is in pop-music territory again with Velvet Goldmine, moving Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers into 20th-century-boy poses in a story about a newspaper reporter (Christian Bale) in 1984 doing a story on the high point of glam rock more than ten years before. In particular he’s on the hunt, Citizen Kane-style, for its prettiest star, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). As he digs, Bowie, Bolan, Bryan Ferry, Steve Harley, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed are all excavated from the mound of dicarded tinsel, though Haynes has learnt his lesson and no one is too identifiable – even though the film itself is named after a Bowie song recorded for the Ziggy Stardust sessions and left out of the finished album. It can’t be denied, the film does have its share of naffery, but then so did the 70s. It’s the good bits that make it worthwhile. They succeed in transporting the viewer to the “gorgeous, gorgeous time when we were all living our dreams” as one character puts it. The soundtrack is transportational too, reminding us of the project of so many 1970s glam acts to sound like camp extra-terrestrials – Ferry, Bowie, Eno, they were all at it. The film wasn’t exactly a smash hit on the big screen, probably because the death of dreams doesn’t make most people want to wet themselves with glee. It’s a film that tries hard, perhaps too hard. But at least it dares to try.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

 

Velvet Goldmine – Buy the book (no film available) it at Amazon