To Tie Firmly

Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Rebecca (Ben Wheatley, 2020)

It may be, of course, that I read Rebecca years and years ago — I know I started it and I studied the opening paragraph, the dream of the Manderley mansion from years later, but I’m not sure I got much further. And when I bought two Du Maurier boxsets, I don’t think Rebecca was part of them. It took me a while to track down a copy — although naturally I found several since, as a battered paperback 1992 reprint got more battered as it got carried around.

The conceit should be familiar: lady’s companion Rebecca meets aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo and the two have a whirlwind romance, before returning to the ancestral pad in … where we take to be Cornwall but it isn’t named in the book. The new bride finds life at Manderley difficult and the ghost of the dead Rebecca hangs over her, especially through the behaviour of housekeeper Mrs Danvers. A ball would be useful, perhaps, but Mrs Danvers persuades her to wear the same costume as Rebecca had and then it seems as if a wedge has been driven between the loving couple. Then a body is discovered in a sunken boat… Continue reading →

White, Red and Topkapi

Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, a German Children’s Story, Michael Haneke, 2009)

Topkapi (Julius Dassin, 1964)

Red Joan (Trevor Nunn, 2018)

The White Ribbon has the same slightly frustrating and unnerving feel as Happy End, this time set in Germany (or possibly Austria) in the year leading up to World War One. An unnamed teacher (played by Christian Friedel) narrates (Ernst Jacobi) his memory of a time in a small village, where the pastor (Burghart Klaußner) fills the children with fears of sin and damnation, forcing the guilty parties (including his own children) to wear white ribbons as a symbol of wrongdoing. This seems to invite wrongdoing — an attempt to kill the doctor, vandalism, masturbation, violent revenge — and presumably is building a narrative that will lead to the Second World War. The right people aren’t necessarily punished.

Meanwhile, Topkapi is a much lighter confection — for which Peter Ustinov won his second Academy Award. Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) and Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) hatch a plan to steal a treasure from a museum in Istanbul. Simpson (Ustinov) is meant to be a patsy, but gets recruited into the scheme. There’s some odd fourth wall breaking, especially at the beginning, and Mercouri, presumbaly not acting in her own language, can’t quite carry the film. Schell, meanwhile, is handsome in a way I’d never noticed before, knowing him better for The Black Hole (1979). But Ustinov steals every scene he is in and the whole thing is almost a dry run for The Italian Job, with a less clever ending. I really ought to read Eric Ambler one of these days.

I watched Topkapi knowing nothing about it — it popped up on BBC iPlayer. This led me to Red Joan, which takes the real story of the exposure of an old woman, Melita Norwood, as a Soviet spy. Here she is Joan Smith (Judi Dench), initially defended by her son Nick Stanley (Ben Miles, who I keep confusing with Ben Miller), arrested for sixty years earlier leaking of atomic secrets and occasionally has to look like she has indigestion so we can flashback to 1949 and Sophie Cookson being Young Joan. The politics is frankly botched and the sexism of the the 1940s is a little underplayed. Dench is always worth watching — and Iris did a more interesting double casting and flashback (although Kate Winslet was still less interesting). 

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Thanet

Ruby Blue (Jan Dunn, 2008)

Jan Dunn returned to the Isle of Thanet for her second feature, again on a low budget, but this time illuminated by Bob Hoskins’s last big screen appearance. We appear to be — and forgive me if this is a cliché of my reading of British film — in Ken Loach territory, as Kes seems to be in the mix.  I will be circumspect, but there are hints of spoilers.

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Look like th’innocent flower, But be the serpent under’t

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2016)

I confess I downloaded this assuming it was something entirely different and indeed Korean, but I was assuming it was a variant on The Scottish Play with a focus on Lady M. It was an odd experience, revising my sense of the film’s setting, from eleventh century to Elizabethan to mid-nineteenth century. I was, to be honest, tempted to give up, but I am glad I persevered.

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I Think You Mean Roma

Gypo (Jan Dunn, 2005)

Dunn’s debut low budget feature is Dogme 37, the first UK Dogme film, and is the three intersecting stories of Helen (Pauline McLynn), Paul (Paul McGann) and Tasha (Chloe Sirene). Helen is in a loveless marriage to carpet layer Paul, with a couple of kids, and befriends Czech refugee who is on the run from a bad relationshio with her mother Irina (Rula Lenska).

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So I Start a Revolution From My Bed

Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959)

At some point I ploughed through a load of British New Wave and Hammer Horror Films, noting the way in which the behind-the-camera team overlapped — DP here, director there, director here, screenwriter there. I suspect if you tried to do a Venn diagram of kitchen sink, horror and comedy between 1950 and 1975, there’d be huge overlaps. I know I saw A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), but I don’t think I caught this adaptation of John Osbourne’s play that recast Kenneth Haigh (Jimmy), Alan Bates (Cliff), Mary Ure (Alison) and Helena Hughes (Helena Charles) with Richard Burton, Gary Raymond, Mary Ure and Claire Bloom.

And there in the credits you see Nigel Kneale’s name.

Of course, he didn’t just do science fiction, but it was presumably just after or overlapping Quatermass and t’Pit (1958-59), although the fillm version was decade away. He was go on to adapt Osbourne’s The Entertainer (1960). I’m not sure, haven’t not seen the play (unless I caught a BBC version twenty years ago) what Kneale has done, beyond presumably adding scenes in the market, the station and the pub, and the bit with the crashlanded alien, but I wonder if the threatened market stallholder S. P. Kapoor is his addition (at least one of the Quatermass scripts wanted to draw comparisons with contemporary race relations).

So Jimmy Porter runs a sweet stall with flat mate Cliff and dominates his girlfriend Alison, who invites her friend, aspiring actress Helena to stay. Jimmy is angry and young and a man, presumably underachieving — depending how you read his allusions to Wordsworth, but market stallholders can read poetry, of course — and still mourning his father who died when he was ten. One escape is in playing jazz at local clubs. It’s not clear whether he fought in the war or has done national service.

But he is not a happy bunny and is heavily controlling of Alison, who is pregnant, but she doesn’t want to be controlled, or so it seems. The relationships are going to shuffle.

It’s hard, seventy years on, to reconstruct the impact this play had at the Royal Court, and the way it swept aside the well-made plays of Terence Rattigan and Nöel Coward, whose plays have gone through at least one renaissance now. I’m not able to recognise George Devine and Glen Byam Shaw of the Royal Court, Old Vic and Young Vic circles. I didn’t even recognise Donald Pleasence in a fairly early role. But you can’t help feel that Porter needs a good kick in the face and he really wants to get over himself. Thanks to the early death of his father, who had fought in the Spanish civil war, we know he had a problematic childhood, but these rebels without causes have not aged well. It’s not as if he is especially punished for his actions — but I wonder if we read the abuser/abusee relationship rather differently than we might have done at the end of the 1950s.

Meanwhile, there is a pull of Free Cinema and a documentary feel to the exterior shots, even as Brief Encounter might tug back for the waiting room.


Ammonite (Francis Lee, 2020)

Women are often written out of science.

In the nineteenth century, Charlotte Murchison (1788–1869) collected fossils and was somewhat overshadowed by her husband, Roderick Impey Murchison, who used many of her ideas and illustrations in his books. On one journey, to Rome in 1816, she contracted malaria and this would impact on her health for the rest of her life.

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