In Her Hands

Mathieu plays the train station piano

Two Brits starring in a French film. In Her Hands (Au bout des doigts in French) didn’t get a theatrical release in the UK or the US, so if the strategy was to guarantee anglosphere box-office action by casting Lambert Wilson and Kristin Scott Thomas (both of whom speak fluent French), it clearly hasn’t worked. The film did get some exposure in Canada (plenty of French speakers) and Australia, where it was called In Your Hands.

Perhaps that’s all a bit of red herring, because, though Wilson and Scott Thomas’s names come up first in the screen credits, it’s actually Jules Benchetrit who’s the star here. In his first major role, Benchetrit plays the moody wrong-side-of-the-tracks juvenile with a great gift – a natural talent for the piano.

The action opens with Mathieu (Benchetrit) playing Bach brilliantly on one of those pianos that now adorn big railway stations and being effectively discovered by Pierre Geithner (Wilson), a professor at a snooty conservatoire for classical music.

After a bit of plot shenanigans, things get going properly with Mathieu, all mid-finger attitude and scowls, at the conservatoire, where he is to be entered into an international competition. Just to add some jeopardy, Geithner’s job is on the line if Mathieu fails to win.

Kid with a raw talent being encouraged – in spite of himself – towards great things. The arc is Good Will Hunting (freely acknowledged by writers Johanne and Ludovic Bernard, who also directs), or Billy Elliot, or Star Wars, come to that.

Mentioning Star Wars only to drop it immediately on the grounds that it’s too heavy to lift, a Good Will Hunting or Billy Elliot needs a Robin Williams/Julie Walters mentor figure who is going to be stern but loving, exasperated and delighted, drained and sustained by the experience of tutoring this raw, wild and self-doubting talent.

Lambert Wilson with Jules Benchetrit
Lambert Wilson with Jules Benchetrit

Enter Kristin Scott Thomas as Mathieu’s piano teacher. I’m guessing Scott Thomas is playing an English woman since the Bernards have named her Elizabeth Buckingham, a joke about the sort of broom-handle roles Scott Thomas tends to be offered, surely?

Anyway, “la comtesse”, as she’s known (ironically?), gets to work, huffing to Mathieu’s puffing, rolling her eyes to his flounces, and nudging, cajoling and urging this piano genius into the light with method, discipline and technique.

Perhaps in an early draft the Wilson character and the Scott Thomas character were one and the same. As it works out, the film is interested in Pierre Geithner personally (his home life, his wife, his dead son), and takes no interest whatsoever in Elizabeth Buckingham outside the conservatoire. Though both Scott Thomas and Wilson are excellent in their roles, even their total commitment can’t hide the fact that one of their characters has no real reason to be here.

Still, Benchetrit can paper over that crack, can’t he? Sadly not. He’s a handsome man but there’s only so much any actor can do and Benchetrit’s lack of interiority counts against him. He only really comes alive in scenes with Karidja Touré, the joyous, gifted actor playing his cellist girlfriend Anna.

If you watched only the beginning and end of this film you’d be convinced that this was a familiar but entirely satisfying story, told with economy and hitting all the targets dead on. But that would be to miss the central section, when things become very sluggish. As well as superfluous characters clogging things up, odd plot details have been introduced only to be almost immediately dropped again. Mathieu prangs a tendon in his hand, for instance, only for it not to be mentioned again. He falls out with Anna, and then seems to be back with her, also without much explanation.

Some plaque in the arteries then, which dissolves every time Mathieu sits down to play the piano. From that opening Bach piece to the performance of Rachmaninoff 2 that’s the film’s showcase climax, the music is exquisite throughout. Take a bow Jennifer Fichet, who did the actual playing. If only she’d done a bit more.

In Her Hands also (confusingly) known as In Your Hands – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

Shuttlecock aka Sins of a Father

Major Prentis in a prison cell

Shuttlecock, it says on the IMDB, with the year 2020 in a bracket. Doesn’t that face look like Alan Bates’s, I thought to myself as the grainy image of a middle-aged man appeared on the screen. Since Bates died in 2003 this seemed unlikely. Up come the opening credits and there is the name Alan Bates at the top of the list. What am I watching?

A bit more digging and I see there’s another film called Shuttlecock on the IMDB, from 1991, also directed by Andrew Piddington and starring… Alan Bates. A bit more digging still and (thank you Wikipedia, and, yes, I have sent some money) a picture starts to emerge, of a thriller directed in 1991 and beset by financial and other problems. “The original film was never finished, really,” Piddington told the New York Times in 2014. It wasn’t very well received.

One final mystery I have only just solved by reading the New York Times piece that the quote came from is precisely when Piddington went back to the film and had another go at it. End credits suggest 2014 (they also suggest another title for the film, Sins of a Father), and that agrees with the NYT date, even though the IMDB is saying 2020. At the best of times films and dates are a foggy area.

Anyhow, here we are in 2020 with what the IMDB are now calling the “director’s cut”, though actually this Shuttlecock is more than that. Piddington has re-assembled some of his cast, decades on, and has constructed a framing device bookending the film – at the funeral of the Second World War hero Major James Prentis (Bates), John (Lambert Wilson), the plodding son he never quite rated, and doted-on grandson Martin (David Oakes) confront the rift in their relationship and the truth about the man they’ve come to bury.

Back we go in time – to original material shot in the 1990s – and in roughly 1970 Major Prentis has decided to up sticks and move to Portugal under the one-party rule of dictator Salazar, last of the 1930s gang of fascists which included Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. This is an odd decision for a man who’d proved his mettle behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. Doubly so, since Major Prentis has just published an acclaimed memoir about his war exploits, after much prompting, and is the toast of London.

The Major's grandson and son
Martin and his father John confront the major’s legacy

There, in sunny Portugal, the major has a massive mental breakdown and is rendered mute. His son John (Wilson, looking much younger in this material, because he is/was) arrives with young son Martin (played in these sequences by Gregory Chisholm, who could not be located for the reshoots) to find out what’s wrong with the Major.

What then plays out is something along the lines of a Stephen Poliakoff drama, an excavation of the past see-sawing between the the wartime exploits of Shuttlecock (the Major’s code name), the late 60s/early 70s of the Major’s mental collapse in Portugal and the present day, where John and Martin are trying to get both the past and their current relationship straight.

Also, Poliakoff style, the drama is really concerned with psychological damage – the sins of the father – echoing down through time. The Major’s neglect of his son has had an effect on John and his grandson and also, it’s suggested, might have contributed to the end of John’s marriage.

But never mind all that, is the film any good? Yes it is. Piddington has successfully pulled the 1991 film out of the fire and by adding 20-odd minutes to it and re-editing has shaped a successful psychological drama that does justice to Graham Swift’s original novel.

For something interested in psychological developments it’s got big visual ambitions. So many cavernous, lushly shot spaces – the Liberal Club in London, the psychiatric hospital in Portugal to name just two, and an eye for a gorgeous old Mercedes winding along a night-time city street in Portugal. I’m also guessing that modern tech has allowed for some cleaning and regrading of the original material, to match it with the newer stuff. However it’s been done, it feels like an up-to-the-minute film, which makes Bates’s presence feel like even more of a bonus, if you’re a fan.

As for the man himself, Bates gamely barrels through Second World War action flashbacks he’s too old for but comes into his own in the Portuguese sequences – before, during and after his mute spell – while the son who never quite measured up digs into the history of a dad who might not be all he seems.

It’s a touch melodramatic now and again but all in all it’s a very satisfying psychological thriller, with the new material actually reinforcing the original idea, that the past has consequences, particularly if there’s something to hide.

Shuttlecock – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2020