Philomena

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

 

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

 

 

26 August

 

Mother Teresa born, 1910

On this day in 1910, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje, Albania (now in the Republic of Macedonia). Raised a Catholic, from an early age she was interested in the work of missionaries and by the age of 12 had decided to devote herself to the religious life. At 18 she joined the Sisters of Loreto, became a missionary and never saw her mother or sister again. After a stint in Loreto Abbey, Ireland, where she learnt English, she went to India, arriving there in 1929, aged 19. Twenty five years later she became headmistress of the school she taught at in Calcutta. Increasing poverty, a famine in 1943 and the outbreak of Muslim/Hindu violence in 1946 led her to believe that it was the alleviation of poverty, not the delivery of education, that was her true calling. In 1948 she moved into the slums of Calcutta, tending the sick, destitute and hungry. A small group of similarly minded women gathered around her and by 1950 she had received permission from the Vatican to start a mission to help “the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” As the years went by, Mother Teresa (as she had become known) opened a hospice for the poor to die with dignity, a centre for the treatment of leprosy and a home for lost and abandoned children. Her Missionaries of Charity started to spread through India in the 1950s and internationally in the 1960s. Mother Teresa became internationally famous, travelling to war-torn Beirut in 1982 to rescue trapped children, to Chernobyl to visit radiation victims, to Ethiopia during the 1984 famine, to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake. After suffering a heart attack in 1983, contracting pneumonia in 1989, breaking her collar bone and picking up malaria in 1996, she died in 1997 of heart disease.

 

 

 

Philomena (2013, dir: Stephen Frears)

Philomena tells the story of two very different people. It’s a true story too. On the one hand we have a former BBC journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who became a spin doctor for the Labour government before being bum-rushed out of that position (essentially by fellow journalists in one of the UK media’s regular moments of breathtaking hypocrisy). On the other is a retired Irish woman whose son, born out of wedlock, was taken off her by nuns when she was a slip of a girl. Sixsmith’s book on which this film is based tells the story of how the cynical hack first took on Philomena’s story, reluctantly (“human interest story is a euphemism for weak-minded human interest story,” says Martin to Philomena’s daughter, who he’s met at a party). Then it goes into the detail of the uneasy confessor/penitent relationship of biographer and subject, before finally describing their journey together to the US to find the by-now middle aged man. It’s a real mismatched buddies road movie of a story and would remain as generic as that sounds if it weren’t for the fact that Sixsmith wrote a poignant, self-deprecating book, and it’s been so well adapted to a screenplay by Steve Coogan, who also plays Martin. And given Coogan’s well publicised battles with the British press, having him play one of its representatives would seem to guarantee an interesting portrait at the least. In fact Coogan plays Sixsmith as a nobber, the sort of guy who’s full of petty triumphs and little moments of self-aggrandisement. Opposite him is Judi Dench as Philomena, the dithery but inwardly independent Irish woman who’s familiar to anyone who has an Irish mother. So when Martin hires a car for them to do their preliminary scouting excursions, he gets a BMW, and is proud of its swankiness; to this party she brings some custard creams and a packet of Tunes cough sweets for the journey. When they check into a nice hotel, he’s all blasé; she’s phoning him from her room to ask “Martin, do you have a little chocolate on your pillow.” The film could survive perfectly well on the funny double act that these two do – and doesn’t it say so much about Dench that she can be 007’s boss one moment, and is wringing a laugh out of simple lines like “it’s fruit bread, Martin” the next?
“I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, Martin…” she says later, as the film actually gets down to business and Philomena reveals the naiveté that led her to become pregnant as a young teenager, and then led her to accept the idea that her child should be taken from her. After a “fucking Catholics” by Martin, we’re off into darker territory and the destination of this film’s journey – the son, where he is now, the possible reunion, the explanations, tears and so on. I’m not going to reveal what actually happens, though plenty of reviews will, for reasons which are actually fairly understandable. Because though there is an emotional pay off at the end of the road this duo travel, first in Ireland and then in the USA, it’s the journey not the destination that is the joy of the film. Chalk and cheese (he wants to go to the Lincoln Memorial; she’d rather stay in the hotel and watch Big Momma’s House), with the obligatory “lessons learned on both sides” – but done properly.
Dench’s Irish accent drifts a touch, but it is an otherwise exquisite portrait of a resolutely fair, honest and optimistic woman, a perfect counter-balance to Coogan’s, his usual finger of Alan Partridge entirely appropriate here. I’d be happier without the pantomime evil nun Sister Hildegarde right at the end, but she does at least make the point that feelings run high on this issue, and that the nuns had a cogent worldview too, one in which “carnal incontinence” was something to be battled against. As for Stephen Frears’s direction, it’s a master class in old Hollywood storytelling – of Howard Hawks economy and lightness of touch. Invisible to the eye, all the hard work concealed.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great Steve Coogan script
  • A great Judi Dench performance
  • Manages to be funny and yet serious
  • Artful direction by Stephen Frears

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Philomena – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Hi-Lo Country

Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup in The Hi-Lo Country

 

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

 

 

16 July

 

Potsdam Conference, 1945

On this day in 1945, Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman arrived in Potsdam, where they were over the next two weeks to decide the shape of the world in the wake of the Second World War. The three powers had met before, at Yalta, in 1945 while the war was still coming to an end, when Franklin Roosevelt was still alive, and before then in Tehran in 1943, when it had started to look like the Allies might be triumphant. Germany had surrendered nine weeks before Potsdam, and the conference largely was about Germany’s punishment – borders were to be rolled back, the country partitioned, industry was to be dismantled, Germans in surrounding countries were to be expelled, reparations were to be paid. The conference also issued the Potsdam Declaration, calling on the unconditional surrender of Japan, or else it would face “prompt and utter destruction”.

 

 

 

The Hi-Lo Country (1998, dir: Stephen Frears)

Westerns so often set out to operate at a mythic level that it’s often a shock when something drifts by that locates what we’re watching in a specific time – a horseless carriage or a newspaper, say. Stephen Frears’s The Hi-Lo Country is every inch the classic western, yet it’s quite deliberately set in a recognisable time, right after the end of the Second World War, when men returned from vanquishing Hitler and tried to pick up where they had left off.
Westerns also are often about the end of the Old West, how lawlessness was superseded by the joys and pains of civilisation. Here the concern is the death of the New West, and how the mechanised world of agri-business was beginning to flex its muscles and kill off the guys-on-horseback model. But it would be too boring to watch something like that. So instead how about two rancher dudes who fall for the same gal, a gal who’s already married, to the foreman of their arch rival? Fleshing out the twin roles of the returning veterans are Billy Crudup as the go-getting Pete who fancies a bit of steering and rearing the old-fashioned way, Woody Harrelson as the hollering ball of tics Big Boy. Meanwhile, Patricia Arquette plays the no-good floozy Mona, who’s hot for Big Boy. And there’s a shimmering Penelope Cruz as Pete’s girlfriend Josepha, though it’s a half-hearted affair on his part since Pete’s in love with Mona. Sam Peckinpah spent years trying to get The Hi-Lo Country made but it was the British Frears who managed it. And he delivers the full western deal – saloons and cattle drives and poker games and rodeos and dance halls, with a Western swing soundtrack featuring Hank Williams, Merle Travis, a further injection of late-1940s modern to remind us that these guys are anachronisms and that they’re fighting a losing battle – man against mechanisation.
This theme apart, the film doesn’t break new ground in terms of style or content, and along with its side stories – of Sam Elliott the local cattle baron, Cole Hauser as Big Boy’s brother Little Boy – it also has a large number of horses to saddle up. This has led to it being marked down in some quarters. And it’s true that it does take its time getting going. But it’s a beautifully wrought character study once it does get moving, another of its joys being the way it luxuriates in the rolling New Mexico landscapes – captured beautifully by Frears regular Oliver Stapleton, who brings a touch of Leone to the table. It’s that sort of film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another enjoyably over-the-top Harrleson performance
  • An early English-speaking role for Cruz
  • Oliver Stapleton’s lush cinematography
  • A villainous Sam Elliott

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Hi-Lo Country – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Queen

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen

 

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

 

 

8 February

 

 

Elizabeth II proclaimed queen of UK, 1952

On this day in 1952, Elizabeth II was proclaimed queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. She had actually become queen two days earlier, on the death of her father, George VI, which she heard about while on a tour of Kenya. Proclamations were read out starting the next day. But according to time zone or geographical location, some parts of the new queen’s realm had not completed the formalities until the day after that. In keeping with protocol, the queen took different titles in different jurisdictions; in some she was also the head of the church and was accorded the title Defender of the Faith, an honour granted to Henry VIII by the Pope.

 

 

 

The Queen (2006, dir: Stephen Frears)

A film about the chaos caused by the death of Princess Diana in 2007 – or Diana, Princess of Wales as she was styled. That styling – the all-important comma in her title – is the axle on which this film turns. Was Diana, now divorced from her husband and a commoner by birth, royal at all? What was the protocol when someone of her status, if not rank, died? And imagine trying to make a movie about a topic that dry. But that’s what The Queen is – and in the shape of Elizabeth II we have a hard-liner in matters of protocol being weaned off the idea that she should stick to the letter of time-sanctified procedure and instead should accord Diana some of the outward displays – the flags at half mast, for instance – to show that her regal majesty was hurting too, like the countless thousands who had journeyed to the gates of Kensington Palace to lay flowers after the Princess’s untimely death. Did the queen bear Diana any personal animosity? The film does not go there. Instead it is a valiantly patriotic, almost forelock-tugging portrait of a monarch at a time of extreme duress taking time to swing towards the light. This traditionalism seems strange, considering that the film is directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Morgan, neither of whose resumés marks them out as lace-ruffed courtiers (Frears’s democratic bona fides include My Beautiful Laundrette and Dirty Pretty Things; Morgan has The Deal and at this point has just debuted the play Frost/Nixon, which would later become a film). But maybe Morgan and Frears are out to fell bigger beasts: the memory of Diana, and the monster of touchy-feeliness – not to mention the rank smelling mob – that manifested themselves when she died prematurely. Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her portrayal of the queen, cool but not cold, devoted to her country, iron-bound by duty. Michael Sheen deserved one for his Tony Blair, the prime minister who spoke of “the people’s princess” and then had to work hard behind the scenes to persuade the royal family that the right way wasn’t necessarily the proper way to handle her death. Other roles are less laudable – James Cromwell is struggling as the prickly Prince Philip, Elizabeth’s husband, Sylvia Syms is a fun, pantomime Queen Mother. Morgan’s intelligent screenplay handles the issue carefully, and works hard to avoid the charge of exposition by royal appointment. And he manages it beautifully. When the film came out, The Queen not signified that a sticky moment in the queen’s long reign had been negotiated, it confirmed the monarch as one of the great survivors.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Peter Morgan’s exemplary script
  • Helen Mirren’s tonally perfect performance
  • Michael Sheen’s second of three performances as Tony Blair
  • An honourable though not slavish view of the events

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Queen – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Bloody Kids

Peter Clark and Richard Thomas in Bloody Kids

 

 

This 1979 collaboration between two of the UK’s brighter rising talents – writer Stephen Poliakoff and director Stephen Frears – is a strange affair. Set in a slightly slipped-reality version of faded seaside Southend, it follows two 12-year-old pranksters (Peter Clark and Richard Thomas) who stage a sham knife fight – just for something to do, or so it seems at first – which ends up with one of them in hospital. What follows is a drab odyssey through all the public spaces the era offered – football ground, shopping precinct, disco, underground car park, Chinese restaurant, cop shop, hospital, caff – as Leo (Clark) is quizzed in hospital by the police, keen to know who his assailant was. Mike (Thomas) on the other hand is drifting through town, being picked up and made the mascot of a gang of punks (led by Gary Holton). If the acting is on the whole terrible, there is the suggestion that it is meant to be. We’re watching a film about a world lacking in affect, populated by people who seem barely to notice what’s going on, populated at the edges by punks and plods who seem equally nonplussed with life. Frears bathes it all in a bleak corridor atmosphere, which after a while begins to sharpen the anti-miserabilist urges. But Bloody Kids also has a morbid, sarcastic humour to it. And it undeniably catch some of the gloom of the post-punk, pre-Thatcher era, of a world going to the dogs, perhaps better even than it intended.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2008

 

 

Bloody Kids – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Prick Up Your Ears

Alfred Molina and Gary Oldman in Prick Up Your Ears

 

 

A re-release of Stephen Frears’s 1987 drama about Joe Orton, the blackly satirical and dead funny writer of Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane who was battered to death by his lover Kenneth Halliwell in their rundown London flat in 1967, just as the big time arrived. It’s a study of a relationship skidding towards the brink, with Gary Oldman a chirpy, cocky Orton, Alfred Molina working hard at the much less sympathetic role of Halliwell, the older man whose tutorial services were no longer required once Orton’s star started to rise. Meanwhile Vanessa Redgrave puts in to-the-manner-born performance as Orton’s imperious, patrician, rather scary agent, Peggy Ramsay.

The film seemed almost daring when it debuted in 1987 – the accent being on Orton’s homosexual behaviour. It seems less so now. In fact it threatens to dissolve here and there, so one-ply does Alan Bennett’s screenplay become at times. But you can’t deny the fruitiness of Bennett’s whimsical, playful excursions into Ortonese, and the two main performances are stonkers – this was the era just after Gary Oldman had erupted in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy; whereas Molina is so endlessly versatile that his acting ability is often overlooked. Together the pair flesh out the bare bones of the scandal of Orton’s death (and life, for that matter). There was more to the man than where he chose to park his private parts, after all. So yes, the “Ears” of the title is probably an anagram.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Prick Up Your Ears – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

High Fidelity

John Cusack and Jack Black in High Fidelity

 

 

 

A film that caught a moment rather well. One of the moments it caught was the high point of Nick Hornby – the chronicler of a generation that was slightly more conservative, slightly more sentimental than the preceeding one, and had come to accept it. Director Stephen Frears’s version of Hornby’s novel about men and their bloody lists also caught hold of the then current notion that men were all, to some extent, on the autistic spectrum.

Giving that idea flesh is John Cusack as the obsessive, nerdy, list-driven owner of a second-rate record shop. The action has been moved from London to Chicago but vinyl geeks are a global trope and Cusack’s dog-eared, likeable Rob is definitely a geek. In autistic-spectrum terms, as represented by this unrepresentative slice through life, he’s plumb in the middle – not as quiet and withdrawn as his co-worker Dick (Todd Luiso) nor as wildly firecracker as Barry (Jack Black, stealing the film). Rob’s job in this film is to work out how to connect properly with women. Will he get back with Laura (Iben Hjejle)? Should he? Is leaving her off his “Top 5 Girlfriends” list a suitable punishment for her dumping him? Are Top 5 lists really any pursuit for a grown man?  Beautifully, believably played, this is a film whose laughs spring from character rather than set-up and pay-off gags. In the shape of the three guys who spend long, event-free afternoons bouncing song titles, “did you know” factoids, nonsensical musings off each other , it’s also got rounded characters we all recognise. And music we probably all recognise too – from Eric B & Rakim and Stevie Wonder to the Chemical Brothers, Elton John and Belle & Sebastian. It’s a really, really nice film.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 High Fidelity – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Dirty Pretty Things

French cinema poster for Dirty Pretty Things

Seventeen years after he made My Beautiful Laundrette,  Stephen Frears takes London’s temperature again. Dirty Pretty Things is an ambitious, worthwhile drama digging into the spoil heap of the capital’s invisible underclass. And if that sounds about as glamourous and interesting as council housing, it is – until its hero, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers a human heart in a hotel toilet.

Okwe is a Nigerian doctor exiled in a London that tolerates him just so long as he keeps his head down. By day he’s a minicab driver, doing the odd bit of illegal prescribing to keep his fellow drivers clear of the clap they’re transmitting to each other like a relay baton. By night he’s a porter in a seedy hotel, making extra cash with an illicit room-service scam. Somewhere in the middle he’s grabbing a few zeds on the sofa he rents off fellow refugee Senay (a passably Turkish Audrey Tautou – of Amélie fame).

Then he discovers the human organ and realises the hotel he works in isn’t just the sort of place you come to for a quick bunk-up. Horrified, he informs the hotel’s manager, only to discover that the aptly named Senor Sneaky (a slippery Sergi Lopez) is at the centre of an organs-for-passports trade and that he wants Okwe’s medical skills to further his enterprise.

One Seattle critic found the whole notion of people waking up in lovely London, minus a kidney, in a bath full of ice too far-fetched, more urban myth than a plot ripped from the zeitgeist. But in August last year, just weeks before Frears saw his film open to huge acclaim, a Lewisham doctor was struck off for offering to procure an illegal kidney for a man who later turned out to be an undercover reporter.

The brilliance of this organ plot is that it transforms the film from wishy-washy social treatise into powerful noir thriller. Frears pulled off a similar trick with My Beautful Laundrette which presented a portrait of life among the dispossessed of mid-Eighties South London as a raunchy, if unorthodox love story.

Not that Frears is entirely responsible. The film was written by Steven Knight, who knows a thing or two about making drama – he was one of the team who created Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? from the threadbare quiz-show format using little more than basic theatrical stagecraft.

Dirty Pretty Things was voted film of the year in the Evening Standard Film Awards last year, with Chiwetel Ejiofor taking the prize for best actor. Deserved accolades for a mature, enlightening and exhilarating piece of work.

© Steve Morrissey 2003

Dirty Pretty Things – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate