Film 2018: The Prestige

I don’t usually tend to watch films based on books I know, partly because the kind of books I like very rarely get adapted to film, but more often because I find it very hard to sink into the film and enjoy it for itself because a distinct part of me is continually assessing the mechanics of the adaptation: what’s left out, what’s been compressed, how they handled that scene, aaahh, how they dealt with that bit: no, didn’t like that at all.

As you’ll already be aware, I’ve been a long-term follower of Christopher Priest’s work (curious irony: an Amazon pre-order for his newest novel was in my in-box when I logged on today, before watching this film again) and it took me a long time to test what everyone, including Priest himself, had said, namely that this was good, indeed very good.

Re-watching it this morning, after a long break, I found myself oblivious to how the film is structured to adapt the novel, and more concerned to read how many clues there are to the essential mysteries of the film, which of course I knew from knowing the book.

What The Prestige is about is the rivalry between two late-Nineteenth Century stage magicians, Robert Angier (The Great Danton) (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (The Professor – Le Professeur de la Magie in the novel) (Christian Bale). It focuses on their enmity: Borden is responsible for Angier’s wife’s death on stage, is the better magician to Angier’s superior stagemanship, both try to sabotage each other’s acts, spy on each other, etc. Primarily it centres on one trick, The Transported Man, by which each magician disappears in one place and reappears in another almost instantly.

Borden invents it, Angier tries to duplicate it. Each has their own method but it’s not enough to have their own successful act, each has to know the other’s secret.

Director Christopher Nolan, working with a script adapted by his brother Jonathan, takes an achronological approach to the story, working within a frame-story that deals with the aftermath, in which the meat of events is presented as at least two series of flashbacks, and these are not themselves wholly chronological. We begin with a shot of a field full of identical black top hats, which is crucial to one strand of the plot but whose significance is not understood until much later.

Then we find Borden on trial for the murder of Angier, who, as part of the trick, falls through a trapdoor into a locked cabinet of water, where he drowns.

Then we watch John Cutter, Angier’s ingenieur or stage engineer (a lovely, warm performance by Michael Caine) demonstrate a fairly basic magic trick to a little girl, setting up the concept of the three parts of a magic trick: the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige, a three-act structure that the Nolans apply to the screenplay.

I’m undecided as to how much of the film’s secrets or revelations to discuss here. I mean, the novel’s been available since 1995 and the film appeared in 2006, so it’s not like I’m risking significant spoilers, but on the other hand the film does tie itself into quite complex knots to preserve its mysteries to very nearly the end, and I feel under a certain obligation to give in to its obsession. For spoilers, read this.

So, knowing in advance what revelations await, how does the film work? Quite simply, superbly. The film incarnates the period, and Bale and Jackman in their contrasting roles are both outstanding and utterly convincing. The supporting cast are also excellent: Rebecca Hall in the rather understated role of Borden’s wife, Sarah and Scarlett Johansen in the more obvious part of Olivia, mistress and assistant too both Angier and Borden are equally natural, and their duality is, for those aware of the true situation, a vital key to one of the revelations.

Indeed, duality (as opposed to Priestian Unreality) is a key element in The Prestige. Though the film avoids those parts of the book where the same events are described in differing ways according to which magician is seeing them, its objective approach is wrapped up in duplicated experiences on each side. To take one blatant example, at different times each magician obtains possession of the other’s diary, pores over it extensively, and learns that each diary is a plant, ending in a direct address to its intended reader, exposing itself to be a complex manipulation.

Once you begin to understand the extent to which duality is a factor in the presentation of the story, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see into the realities that Chris Nolan wants to withhold until the end. In fact, with foreknowledge, it can be seen that the film overflows with minor clues.

I’ve mentioned the film’s primary cast, though Rebecca Hall is actually a supporting actress, and mention must certainly be made of David Bowie’s mildly-extended cameo as the science/electric pioneer, Nikolai Tesla (with Andy Sirkis, blessedly motion-capture free, as his assistant). Bowie, in a neatly underplayed performance, makes Tesla into a strange, near-alien presence, lending a psychological credence to his producing, out of nowhere, the only genuinely magical element of the entire film, even as it is paraded as not Magic but Science.

This is the other mystery that Nolan wants to withhold until the very end. We’ve seen it in action at the outset, or rather one esoteric aspect of it, and it spurs the film into action as the explanation for why Alfred Borden is on trial, is convicted, is hanged. Put the field of top hats together with the man in the locked cage of water and you can understand the magic without needing the last, final, horrific shot to render explicit what the film has long since given away. All things are duplicated.

Actually, the end is the only disappointing thing about the film. Borden, who has died for killing Angier when he hasn’t killed him, kills Angier (work that one out) but not before the two have a final, cryptic conversation that is far too long and slows the film to a crawl just when it needs to stay taut.

I do have one further complaint about the film, or rather my DVD copy of it, which has the soundtrack mixed so low that, given that so much of it is conducted in whispers, or lowered voices, it was impossible to make out what was being said on many occasions, even with the laptop volume cranked up to 100.

But this is still a great film, and despite its differing intentions, it’s a worthy companion to Christopher Priest’s novel. Different but equal: no better thing can be said about an adaptation.


Film 2018: The Lacemaker (La Dentelliere)

I have owned this DVD for several years, and this is one of my three most favourite films ever, but this is the first time I have played it.
Claude Goretta’s La Dentelliere (The Lacemaker) was released in early 1978 and was Isabelle Huppert’s breakthrough role as Beatrice, known as Pomme (Apple). I learned of it from Barry Norman’s Film 78 and, despite having no previous interest in foreign-language/sub-titled film, was intrigued by it. Norman thought the film superb, and especially the performance of Huppert.
The chance to see it came up after I’d moved to Nottingham. It was being shown in the early summer by the Nottingham Film Society and I was eager to see it. I took a friend: I say ‘friend’ but she was the inspiration for Lesley in my novel Love Goes to Building on Sand, so in my eyes this was a first ‘date’.
Then, in the mid-Eighties, it reappeared at the Aaben in Hulme, an art-oriented cinema. I made my only ever visit to the Aaben, Saturday afternoon (in daylight), by bus, in and out (you did not leave a car unattended in Hulme, not if you ever wanted to see it again).
Later still, I bought the Video, and later than that I replaced the video with this DVD, and sold the VHS on eBay. But I have not not watched the DVD until now because, to my horror, the English version on it is not sub-titled, but dubbed. Though I may understand little of it in its pure form, to me the original voices, their inflexions, their pauses and tones are an integral element of the film: to lose Huppert’s voice is to lose half of the film.
And for something so highly reputed, it is astonishingly unavailable on DVD. Earlier this decade, it was twice placed on a release schedule, and each time withdrawn, and it is still not available. I have no idea why, but it is a travesty.
The film can be summarised simply. Pomme is an apprentice hairdresser in a Parisian salon. She still lives with her mother and is a simple, gentle girl, mentally and emotionally a schoolgirl, happy with everything around her. Her older colleague Marylene has been having an affair with a married man, and is devastated when he breaks things off. To recuperate, she goes on holiday, out of season, to a northern coastal resort, taking Pomme with her. The place is staid and quiet, not nearly racy enough for Marylene, and within a couple of days she has abandoned Pomme to take up with an older, American tourist. Pomme finds herself pursued by Francois (Yves Beneyton), a student in Paris. They grow closer and, on the last night of the holiday, sleep together.
In Paris, they move in together. Francois’s friends, who are all students and intellectuals, love Pomme, who is simple, fresh and uncomplicated (and also thoroughly enjoying a sex-life). But Francois is paranoid that his friends are looking down in him because Pomme is not as clever as everyone else, cannot share their conversations. He keeps trying to get her to educate herself, ignores her happiness with being a hairdresser. A visit to his parents in the South of France is a disaster, Pomme being completely out of place. Back in Paris, the physical side of their relationship ends.
Pomme moves back in with her mother. She has not been aware of his psychological reservations and blames herself for getting fat and becoming unattractive. She develops bulimia, leading to her collapse in the street, and removal to a Sanatorium. When Francois learns of this, he arranges to meet her, bringing two of his friends for moral support (they wait in a cafe). Though physically whole, Pomme has changed. She is brittle, unconvincing, her body-language completely different, her dress-style changed. She claims to been on holiday, with friends, to Mykonos, but this is evidently made up. Francois realises that she has been destroyed by his treatment of her. He leaves the Sanatorium, bursts into tears in his car. Pomme returns to the canteen, alone, fragile. We understand that she will never come back to life again.
That first ‘date’, my friend was still living on the outskirts of Nottingham so there was no time for drinks afterwards. I escorted her across the City Centre to her bus stop, and we chatted about the film. She asked me, out of the blue, if I preferred happy endings or sad endings. It gave me pause for thought as I’d never been asked to consider the question before. Almost immediately, I came up with the only possible answer: that I like the right ending.
La Dentelliere ends in incredible sadness. Huppert is brilliant as Pomme, quiet, simple, unaware yet still sweet, and completely realistic. We feel with her at all stages, and the destruction of this lovely little woman is horrible to witness. Without ever spelling anything out for us in words, only in actions that we are free to misinterpret but which, inevitably, we can’t, we know that the Pomme of the majority of the film is gone, beyond recall, a slight, inoffensive person crushed by the overbearing expectations of people unable to respect her for what she is.
It would be incredibly easy to devise a happy ending for this film. Francois meets Pomme in the Sanatorium grounds. He is distraught at what he sees and it reawakens his love for her. He takes her in his arms, whirls her around, kisses her, promises her things will be right this time. Her eyes sparkle, she smiles, laughs, we see the old Pomme rise to the surface, she hugs him like she’ll never let him go again, and they run back inside, pack her bag and race off, and the audience vomits.
Because that’s cheap, cliched and phoney, and it would destroy the film because it does not in any way arise from what has gone before. It’s a false ending, stapled on, and it destroys the honesty of everything to date. It would be lovely for Pomme to have a happy ending, but the ending in the film is the only truthful one: it is the right one.
There is a minority opinion about this film, in America, which holds Huppert and Pomme as failures and Francois as almost the film’s hero, arguing that he acts correctly. This view of the film, which I can’t share for an instant, sees Pomme as a totally inert person, colourless, characterless, not even reactive but an absence that offers neither opinions nor wants. In ridding himself of her, Francois is doing the only thing he can do, and quite rightly so.
Nope, not with that. Nor is the film.
As I said, this was Huppert’s breakthrough film, and she was deservedly heaped with praise. Pomme is the heart and centre of everything. Her quietness, her simplicity, her lack of awareness makes her a potentially limited character: it would be very easy to make the absence of her that’s suggested above, so that the film collapses inwards, and we get quickly bored, or worse still start to judge her as supposed ‘sophisticates’ like Francois.
But Huppert avoids that trap with ease. Pomme is an innocent, but she is a real and earthy girl. She may go to Francois on the last night of her holiday as a virgin, but she has already learned to trust him, and once she’s had sex, she displays a good enthusiasm for more of it.
The film contains a crucial scene, involving full-frontal nudity on Huppert’s part. That in itself is no hardship: she’s absolutely lovely as far as I’m concerned.
But Barry Norman identified this scene as the best justification for nudity in film he had yet seen, and having considered it carefully over multiple viewings, I am in complete agreement.
The film operates on a basic three act structure: Act 1, Pomme meets Francois, Act 2, Pomme lives with Francois, Act 3, Pomme has broken up with Francois. Huppert has already appeared partially nude at the end of Act 1, going to bed with Francois for the first time. That could be called titillation.
In contrast, the second scene is a crucial moment in the film, ending the Second Act and setting up the tragedy of the Third. Goretta shoots it with a static camera, at the door of the bedroom, looking down the room to the window. Francois, dressed only in trousers, stands at the window, looking out into the invisible Parisian night, his back to us, slightly left of centre. In the right foreground, Pomme stands naked and frail, having just undressed for bed.
The scene is silent throughout. Pomme walks, shyly, towards Francois, stands on his right hand side. For a moment he is completely still, before turning his head the smallest degree necessary to acknowledge Pomme’s presence without actually looking at her. He raises his right arm, puts it around her shoulders for a couple of seconds, then slowly lowers it to by his side again. Pomme reacts without reacting: she doesn’t move a muscle but her body tenses by a tiny degree, barely perceptible: she is in shock, as if she had been struck. A moment later, she turns, walks down the room, with slightly tauter, hurt steps, lifts her nightdress and slips it on over her head. Her face is bowed, her hair around it, hiding her expression, from us but mainly from Francois, who isn’t even looking.
The next shot is the bustle of Francois’s friends helping her move back into her mother’s house.
This is one of those magnificent scenes that make legendary cinema. It’s done without words, it’s practically static, yet we understand it clearly. Huppert’s nudity is necessary to make that point clear: if she’s wearing her nightie, the messages is blurred, easily misunderstandable.
Could it have been shot differently, establishing that Pomme is naked without Huppert showing anything she might want to reserve for close personal friends (as Clive James once put it)? Yes, of course. But Gorettta’s technique for the scene is no technique. The camera doesn’t move. We see everything all the time. We concentrate upon what is happened, undistracted.
Change that, start to move the camera, change angles, flit backwards and forwards, showing enough to show that Huppert has nothing on, but without revealing breasts or bush. The scene instantly changes. Technique is the focus. Attention is drawn to how the camera is being made to depict but not reveal. The male half of the audience immediately starts looking for the next angle: will something slip, will there be a flash of nipple for a second? Instead of the scene focussing on Francois’s non-response to Pomme’s sexual appeal, it becomes the audience’s focus upon Huppert’s. The whole scene is turned towards sex, instead of being away from it.
No, the unmoving camera, the unhidden nakedness, these tell the story and the scene pivots between ending Act 2 and thematically guiding Act 3. It’s a magnificent portrayal.
As I’ve already mentioned, the film ends, for Francois, with his running away and crying. Pomme returns to the Sanatorium, the camera following her at a cautious distance. Her clothes are drab, and suited to an older woman, her skirt calf-length. She walks erect, in tiny footsteps, a controlled, rigid movement down tiled corridors, her heels clicking rhythmically. She arrives in a cafe area with a couple of other people at separate tables, unheeding of her. She sits down at a table. On the wall behind her is a poster of Mykonos, with windmills, the place she claimed outside to have gone on holiday. We understand she hasn’t been anywhere, will not go anywhere.
Pomme takes up some knitting, the click of the needles replacing the click of her heels. The camera approaches her from behind, slowly, circles her to her left. She puts down the knitting, turns her head to look into the camera. Directly into the camera. She holds that look. Long before the film fades, you are squirming under her gaze, feeling that she has known, all along, that you were there, watching her.
The film then fades to a caption, read over the letters. He passed her by without seeing her. Because she was one of those souls who do not give any signs but who patiently question, learn and look. A painter would have made her the subject of a genre picture. She would have been dresser, watercarrier or lacemaker
And it is over.

Film 2018: Hellzapoppin’

There’s something decidedly modern about the humour in this classic 1941 comedy film. I heard about it from my Uncle before I ever saw it, and he was disparaging, primarily because he was in the British Navy in the Pacific during the Second World War, and Hellzapoppin‘ seemed to be following him around and he just saw it too many times.
By the time I got to see it for myself, in the Eighties, after he’d died, I’d been long influenced by Spike Milligan and the Goons and, to a lesser extent because I’d simply missed watching it when it was at its prime, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The absurd, the eccentric, the just plain silly, the story within a story being acted by the story-tellers: I loved Hellzapoppin’ the moment I saw it, and I can’t help but imagine that the late, great Spike knew this film well.
The film stars stage and revue comics Olsen and Johnson, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. Hellzapoppin‘ was a tremendous stage success in New York, an anarchic revue that reputedly was different every night. Given that by its very nature, the revue is impossible to actually put on screen, naturally the film is about putting Hellzapoppin‘ on screen, as a framework for Olsen and Johnson, and their troupe, to run riot, especially as the revue in its filmed form is about putting on a serious show which disintegrates into an anarchic revue… Already, I’ve lost count of how many levels this film is supposed to be working on simultaneously.
In fact, there is good cause to describe this film as indescribable.
Nevertheless, it’s perfect for a Sunday morning in a disrupted weekend, ninety minutes of anarchy on the framework of a musical whose songs are oddly attractive to the ear of someone with no interest in the music of the times.
The film begins with its projectionist complaining about having to appear on screen whilst he’s cueing the film up. This is ex-Stooge Shemp Howard, simultaneously trying to get a kiss out of his over-sized blonde usherette girlfriend. He’s also supposed to be cousin Louie, who only got the job by being family, and is constant;y being shouted at by Chic and Ole, who start to argue about whose cousin he is…
So then it’s into a big production number for the title song, about dozens of chorus girls descending a staircase that turns into a slide that drops them into Hell, full of demons with horned hoods and painted on curly moustaches and goatees, brandishing tridents and generally jumping around until Chic and Ole arrive in a puff of smoke and a taxi (that’s the first taxi-driver who took me straight to where I told him to go!), and the song going on about anything could happen and it probably will, until Chic and Ole run off the set to where the Director’s yelling cut!
And it’s chaos backstage. A woman asks for an autograph on her husband’s recommendation, gets disgusted when she learns it’s Olsen and Johnson and goes marching around shouting for “Oscar!”, an elderly man tries to deliver a pot plant to a Mrs Jones and keeps reappearing, desperately calling for her, the plant getting bigger every time.
Meanwhile, the Director tries to impress on Chic and Ole that they got to have a story (which Hellzapoppin‘ apparently doesn’t) and that it’s got to be a love story, because Hollywood has always got to change everything and it’s got to have a love story. This one’s about Jeff Hunter, poor playwright, about to put on a show that should catapult him to Broadway (Robert Paige) and Kitty and, millionairess banker’s daughter and aspiring actress.
Kitty loves Jeff, who loves Kitty but won’t try to win her hand until he has money of his own, meanwhile her parents prefer Woody, who’s Jeff’s best friend whilst being perpetually half-asleep. Chic and Ole play props men and co-boarders with Jeff, and that’s about as much sense as you can make of it. Selby, the scriptwriter (Elisha Cook, Jr, as a 97 pound weakling) starts to read the script, the boys look at a photo of the Rand estate, which turns into filmstock, with them in it, and basically we’re rolling.
Chic and Ole are funny of themselves, with Chic, the slightly taller of the pair coming closest to the straight man, and Ole possessed of a tittering giggle that ever quite gets irritating. They’re not first rank as a comedy pair, and this is clearly a peak for them, but they’re in charge of their material and they’re ahead of their time in breaking so many of the ‘rules’ of film.
First and foremost among these is the ‘fourth wall’, which is broken multiple times over, and not just the obvious one between Chic, Ole and the audience. A lot of the comedy is born out of the desire to play, the anything goes as long as it gets a laugh spirit, with the unrelated running gags, the high-speed whirl of jokes (which are actually quite moderate;y paced now we’re in the Twenty-First Century but which must have scorched the audience’s fingertips at the time).
The boys are amply aided by a strong supporting cast, especially the bumptious singer/actress/dancer/comedienne Martha Raye as Betty, supposedly Chic’s younger sister, a Brooklyn girl with an eye for a man and a loud and goody willingness to send herself up: the film lights up with energy whenever she’s onscreen, which is three-quarters of the picture. Film comedian Hugh Herbert plays his standard persona as a mild-mannered man with a nervous giggle who’s presented here as a detective and master of disguise, wandering in and out of scenes, and Mischa Auer is wonderfully rubber-bodied as Prince Pepi, a genuine impoverished foreign prince making a living by posing as an obvious gold-digging phoney pretending to be an impoverished foreign prince.
Paige and Frazee excel as romantic leads who try to play their parts straight, for the most part, to anchor the storyline in a way that enables everyone else to bounce off it, though they have their moments: a romantic duet about a cottage in the hills keeps having messages to the audience superimposed over it, telling Stinky Miller to go home, until the pair stop their song in exasperation to demand Stinky go home, and wait stern-faced as the silhouette of a boy stands up and moves across the screen, whereupon they resume the song just as if nothing has happened.
Jeff’s show is a serious musical, starring Kitty, Betty and Pepi and masses of singers and dancers. Chic and Ole has successfully cleared the way for Jeff to propose to Kitty by conning Woody into thinking Kitty’s a baaad girl, only to get the mistaken impression that she is, so they set out to wreak havoc on the show to save Jeff, who has a big Broadway producer watching. Scooter hopping bears, talking dogs, “Mrs Jones!!”, Chic and Ole turning half invisible, everything is thrown in bar the kitchen sink, which features in its own gag earlier on, but the producer loves the show as a comedy so everyone’s happy.
Except the Director. What’s all this, he demands of Selby, who merely comments that he saw Hellzapoppin’ in New York and liked it. Enraged, the Director fills him fulla lead, not that Selby’s bothered: he always wears his bullet-proof vest round the studio (drinks glass of water, which springs out of multiple holes…)
That’s abut as much sense as I can make out of the movie with telling you all the gags. Olsen and Johnson and screenwriters Nat Perrin, Warren Wilson and Alex Gottlieb take full advantage of the possibilities of film trickery, whose very crudeness only multiplies the gags by making them so obviously faked. The songs sit snugly in their slots, fitting their many moments in the story, and there’s a magnificent and show-stopping moment midway from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, with some hot, jumping jazz and some ferociously fast and athletic dancing that’s universally agreed to be the finest capture of Lindy Hopping on screen ever.
It’s done with a blazing comic grin, but it’s one of those scenes that take your breath away, however little it has to do with anything else.
But Hellzapoppin‘ manages to be ahead of its time and to out-zany the Marx Brothers, who were now in decline from their great movie years, and it’s still a heap of fun nowadays. Personally, I think it funnier that anyone single Marx Brothers movie, though clearly the Brothers’ longer run of fame and success counts in making them the better comedians. Chic and Ole made two more films, only one of which, the last, I’ve ever seen, and it couldn’t touch Hellzapoppin
Still silly after all these years.

Uncollected Thoughts: Avengers – Infinity War

Well, at last!

It’s been a long week of industriously avoiding spoilers and demanding that workmates don’t discuss it within twenty feet of me, but at last I can get to see Avengers – Infinity War. Admittedly, the first available performance was four hours after I booked, leaving time to fill in between, but I made use of it under a seriously sunny sun (ironic, actually, considering what else I might have to do next week).

Of course, setting a time to be back for only invoked my well-known paranoia, so getting there with only twelve minutes to spare was seriously cutting it fine in my universe. Though as I was on Screen 10, the furthest screen upstairs, about halfway back to my pokey little flat, it felt, the margin was down into single figures by the time I took my seat.

It’s also my first visit to The Light, which has replaced Showcase in Stockport. The seats are wide and luxurious, more like armchairs and if you don’t sit up, they start to slide forward, putting you, should you wish, in the semi-legendary recumbent posture.

Not until the trailer started coming at me in 3D did I realise I’d been lucky to book for a 3D performance. Though I may have to look at upgrading my 3D glasses for a pair less dirty and snaggled before The Incredibles 2.

I think that it was about Guardians of the Galaxy 2 that I said that you know what to expect from a Marvel movie, and that’s what Infinity War delivers, in spades. I could say that in terms of superhero characters, we get everything bar the kitchen sink – from memory, I think the only living ones missing are Ant-Man and Hawkeye, and they both get mentioned – but whilst that’s true, the expression does not suit the film.

Because this is bigger. And more serious. And more real. Bigger, badder, heavier, more powerful and yet in a true balance for every moment. The jokes, the quips, are less frequent but more in keeping: quick, incisive, apt, perfectly suited to the moment.

In short, this is the closest I’ve ever come to a superhero film that is exactly like the experience of getting immersed in a bloody good superhero comic. Everything is real. Everything is exact and believable, however fantastic it is. And the stakes could not be higher. This is for the Universe. And the bad guy wins.

I’ll return to that. Speaking to a workmate before going off to book, I mentioned successfully avoiding spoilers to the extent that all I knew was that there was at least one major death. He denied it, straightfacedly. He didn’t remember any deaths. I was right not to believe him: there were two in the opening scene, Heimdall and Loki.

And another one two-thirds of the way through. And a fourth in the closing phase.

That’s not counting all the still, silent, painless and passionless deaths that follow Thanos’s victory, endless in number, because although this film is over two hours long and I would have gladly welcomed another hour of it and even more characters, it’s really only half a film. Like The Fellowship of the Ring was only a third of a film. There’s another one to come, and who knows what resurrections we’ll see before it’s all done.

There’s a long wait for a single post-credits scene that’s a teaser not for Avengers 4 but for next year’s Captain Marvel movie, though that’s apparently set in the 1990s.

As for tonight, I’d happily agree with this as the best Marvel film so far, which means a great deal has to be done to top it. If we’re still here in a year’s time, I’ll tell you if I think it does.

Film 2018: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn

It was a toss-up this morning between this and Chicken Run for this week’s Film 2018 slot. Either way, I was in the mood for something lightweight and enjoyable with which to kick back and relax.

Not that The Secret of the Unicorn comes without controversy. It’s the product of two of the biggest film-makers in the world, Stephen Spielberg, who directed it and Peter Jackson, who produced it, it was produced using a combination of motion capture and CGI, and it freely adapts three of Herge’s Tintin books, being primarily the two-part ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’/’Red Rackham’s Treasure’, with a substantial dose of ‘The Crab With The Golden Claws’.

Now this is heavy nostalgia country for me. My first exposure to Tintin came in the early Sixties thanks to the Tele-Hachette and Belvision animated series, Herge’s Adventures of Tintin (I can hear the exact intonation of that announcement to this day!). This adapted (somewhat freely) several of the Tintin books into five minute episodes that would feature on BBC (pre-1 and 2) at 5.45pm, Monday to Friday, the last gasp of Children’s TV.

And the first of these I saw was ‘The Crab With The Golden Claws’, to be followed by, of course, ‘The Secret of the Unicorn’ and ‘Red Rackham’s Treasure’. What better choice of albums to adapt to entertain me personally?

There’s a universe of difference between the flat, limited animation of the TV series, which simplifies yet further Herge’s ligne clair style, and the heightened realism of the 2011 film, which rounds the characters up into three-dimensional form whilst retaining their cartoonish appearance. Where the serial, with its limited animation, avoids the detailed and realistic backgrounds that distinguished the albums, the film positively relishes it, particularly in the spectacular Bagghar chase scene.

But that’s where the controversy arises. Though the film was commercially successful, and was generally applauded, there were dissenting voices, none more loudly that in the Guardian who, in over a dozen different articles over less than ten days, slated the film unmercifully, accused it of raping Tintin (so, no over-reaction there) and basically forbade its audience to not only enjoy the film but to have a mind of their own about it, a tactic that failed with at least one person, who was pretty near determined to enjoy it out of sheer annoyance.

And enjoy it I did, for its own sake. I’m not blind to its flaws, nor to one unexpected one that’s a product of later events, but it’s a sunny, exciting, silly romp, and a fun spectacle that’s as near to Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock and the Thompsons walking off the page and circling you.

I was late to the cinema when I saw it there, and missed the credits and a minute or so of the film, so I was not aware until buying the DVD that the story starts with a touching tribute: we meet Tintin in a marketplace, having his picture drawn by an artist, who gently asks if he has drawn him before: it is Herge himself producing a likeness that is the simplest of Herge drawings.

From there, though, the film spends most of its time developing its plot, often to the accompaniment of high-speed action. In that sense, the film is entirely ‘realistic’, relying for its implausibility on the story itself, and the characters, though like any other CGI film it enhances that ‘realism’. It takes a few moments to adjust to the sight of cartoon figures with solid bodies walking around, and the ‘realism’ of the world has been correspondingly adjusted towards a roundedness that incorporates detail and atmosphere into a plastic solidity, but once the trick is worked, we are in the film’s vision and ready to accelerate.

Basically, the plot is that boy journalist Tintin becomes suspicious when attempts are made to first buy, then steal, a miniature ship he buys at the market. This is the ‘Unicorn’, the treasure ship of Sir Francis Haddock, sink by Pirate Red Rackham. The secret it conceals, or they conceal for there are three identical copies, is the whereabouts of Sir Francis’s Treasure, and the clue is three identical scrolls, each concealed in the main mast that, when matched and held up to the light, give the lat. and long. of the Treasure.

Tintin has one, though it’s stolen from him by a compulsive pickpocket, the villain Sakharine (Rackham’s descendent), who has bought the former ancestral Haddock home, Marlinspike Hall, has a second, and the third is in the collection of Sheikh Omar ben Salaad of Bagghar, which is where ‘The Crab with the Golden Claws’ element comes in.

And so does Captain Haddock. Captain Archibald Haddock, that is, not that anyone ever uses the first name. Splendid old drunken Captain Haddock, joyously incarnated by Andy Serkis, with a Scottish accent that fits the character well. Awash with whiskey, rum, brandy and more, Haddock is the rightful heir to Markinspike and the Treasure, and the film’s comedic spine, and Serkis is brilliant in the part, coming close to overcoming the one fatal flaw in this version of Captain Haddock – the voice.

I’m sorry, I grew up on ‘Herge’s Adventures of Tintin’ and whilst I can accept almost anyone in the Tintin world sounding different, I cannot escape Captain Haddock’s voice from so long ago. If it isn’t Peter Hawkins’ drink-soaked crustiness, it isn’t real.

That’s the one thing the film cannot provide. There are other areas in which it can be criticised, the first being how frenetic it is. There’s always something going on and, in true serial fashion, the film constantly shoots from fast-paced confrontation to fast-paced confrontation. The Bagghar chase sequence is spectacular, being a frantic and panoramic race from the Sheikh’s palace on the heights through the crowded town to the docks, with the broken dam sending water surging through the background as a counterpoint. It’s great, but it’s too fast and has too much going on, and the same goes for all the action scenes: there’s little or no variation of pace once the film has got the bit between its teeth.

In between, there are slower moments but where these might be the opportunity for more reflective moments, in keeping with the originals, and with the heightened reality of things, they’re usually geared to the progression of the story, and the one occasion when they’re not, when everything seems lost and Tintin accepts defeat only for Haddock to come up with a pep-talk, you rather wish they hadn’t, because it’s nothing but shallow rah-rah-rah.

Of course, a lot of this is the fault of the script, which comes from Edgar Wright, Adam Cornish and… Stephen Moffat. Three hip, intelligent English writers, with a modern sensibility, two of whom with a string comedy back-up, and Moffat back when his ‘Doctor Who’ was still good.

This leads me to that unexpected flaw that wasn’t present as such at the time the film first appeared, namely that Andy Serkis is delivering Moffat asides in a Scottish accent, which suddenly sounds entirely too Peter Capaldi for my particular liking. The resemblance keeps jerking me slightly out of the film, and not in a good direction either.

But the biggest charge against the film, and not just made by the Guardian is that ultimately the decision to make three-dimensional cartoons leaves the look of the film suspended between cartoon and reality in a place that the eye cannot fully accept or allow because it is too much of both to ever form its own plausible existence. Naturally, I don’t wholly agree, or at least not enough to dislike the film, whose energy carries it over nearly all its hurdles, but I can understand the point and it’s not without merit.

Nevertheless, and despite the unconscionably long delays, I’m still looking forward to the sequel, though it’s going through an incredibly long gestation period. It’s supposed to be Prisoners of the Sun, an adaptation of ‘The Seven Crystal Balls’/’Prisoners of the Sun’, with ‘The Blue Lotus’ (and presumably ‘Tintin in Tibet’) as the third. Peter Jackson needs to get a move on though: people who grew up on Herge’s Adventures of Tintin aren’t going to be around for ever.

Film 2018: Y Tu Mama, Tambien

This film represents the entirety of my Mexican film collection, and this morning is only the second time I have watched it.

It’s a strange film, for all that it adopts the conventional form(s) of the coming-of-age story and the road movie. It’s also deliberately explicit in depictions of sex, conversations about sex, and drug usage, to an extent that would be unacceptable in Britain, let alone a conservative, Catholic country like Mexico. But though the film is intentionally transgressive in this approach, it’s never defiant. It’s just a rich, realistic portrayal of the trio at the heart of it.

These are Tenoch Iturbide (Diego Luna), Julio Zapata (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Luise Cortes (Maribel Verdu, a Spanish actress playing a Spanish character). Tenoch and Julio are best buddies despite their differing social backgrounds. The film starts with each of them enthusiastically screwing their girlfriends, Ana and Cecilia, who are about to leave for Italy on a summer trip.

Other than this, and the fact their girlfriends are eager for farewell fucks that are ever so slightly awkward and hasty, we don’t get to see the boys’ relationships beyond this, though the course of the filmgives us plenty of material from which to draw conclusions, starting with the boys’ joint dismissal of farewells as bullshit.

That’s just the first in a long line of things this pair of seventeen year olds dismiss as bullshit, or if it’s people, as assholes. Yes, these are seventeen year olds at their worst: stupid, ignorant, obsessed with sex and spliffs, permanently competitive, finding farts a source of massive humour (that one is an infallible guide): in short, assholes, and wankers (they even compete at that). In real life, you’d look at them with disgust as complete wastes of space, not to mention protoplasm.

Indeed, for large stretches of the film, I found myself doing that, but I never once thought of switching off. In part, that was because of the strength of the performances by Luna and Bernal (who were good friends in real life), and in part because of what else was going on around them.

Much of that was Luisa. She enters the film after we’ve spent about ten minutes getting to know the boys, a slim, dark woman with a wide mouth: aged 28, she is married to Tenoch’s older and more than somewhat self-satisfied cousin, Jano. They’re all at a wedding party, honoured by the presence of the President (Tenoch’s father is a senior official in the ruling party: the story is set in 1999, just twelve months before this party will loe power for the first time in 71 years).

Tenoch and Julio try to pick Luisa up, inviting her to join them on a spurious trip to a perfect, remote beach, Boca del Cielo (Heaven’s Mouth). Recognising their gaucheness – they might as well have neon lights over their heads – she declines, but after a sequence of unexplained events, the most overt of which is Jano’s drunken telephone confession that he’s slept with another woman – she phones up Tenoch to ask if the invitation is still open.

So the boys take her off for an impromptu trip to a beach that doesn’t exist, with nowhere in mind to go. In the final third of the film, they will find an absolutely perfect beach, remote and unspoiled: it is, of course, called Boca del Cielo.

But that’s for later. Right now, the most obvious question is why on Earth Luisa would decide to accompany two such lame kids, whose combined maturity wouldn’t fill a thimble even if you spat in it afterwards. That’s a question that’s never answered explicitly, but it’s answered in full at the film’s end, a revelation that strings together several actions on Luisa’s part, most notably her propensity to burst into tears when she’s alone.

Ah yes, the road-trip. The film takes itself off into rural Mexico, endless shots of the car rolling along long bare roads, in country blasted by incessant heat, with few or none other vehicles in sight, all of which are travelling more slowly. The background unfolds, in the background, over which stories are told by our travellers, the boys boastful and stupid, competing for Luisa’s attention, whilst she speaks of her first boyfriend, her only real love, dead in an accident.

But the background is constantly there. It’s a world away from these self-entitled kids, and they pay it little attention – if they can’t wank off to it, it’s not there – but the audience can’t escape it. Little details, the presence of Police and Army, the obvious poverty, and not just economically, are constantly passing before our eyes in a way that we can’t ignore, because despite the stupidity of this pair, constantly encouraged to talk without inhibition by Luisa, we have sunk into this film. The journey is without purpose or end, the journey is the journey, and we share it.

Luisa isn’t there to screw either of the boys but she ends up screwing both. First Tenoch, catching her crying when he enters her room in search of shampoo. Luisa gets him to drop his towel, plays with him, fucks him, if you can call something that lasts literally seconds before he obviously comes a fuck.

This is the act that changes everything. Julio sees the tail-end of it, and retaliates by telling Tenoch that he has screwed Ana. Tenoch’s fragile self-confidence collapses and he rages at Julio. The next day, the tension palpable, Luisa tries to even the score by fucking Julio in the car, in front of Tenoch. Julio doesn’t last any longer, whilst Tenoch flies off into a petulant rage that makes him look more like a twelve year old than seventeen.

So, as soon as they’re under way again, Tenoch drops the bomb that he’s also had Cecilia.

The tension’s rising like mercury. Luisa threatens to abandon the pair over their behaviour, and only agrees to return if they accept her rules for the remainder of the trip, which start with her not screwing either of them.

Accidentally, they discover Boca del Cielo, a place of beauty that calms the nerves. They fall in with Chuy, a local fisherman, and his wife Mabel. Their daughter adopts Luisa as a second mother. The idyll is interrupted when the beach camp is attacked by a herd of pigs, escaped from a nearby farm. The trio go into town, staying at Chuy’s bar.

They get incredibly drunk and start dancing together as a threesome. This continues into their quarters, into an extraordinary scene where, after the boys have stripped her naked, Luisa kneels to stimulate both. Above her head, they sway towards one another, and begin to kiss. They wake in the morning, naked in bed, unable to look at each other. Both decide they have to get back to the City. Luisa stays behind, to explore further.

From here to the end of the film is only a few moments. The trip back is eventless. In the city, Ana and Cecilia dump them on their return from Italy. Both eventually find other girlfriends. They no longer see each other. A year later, they bump into each other by accident, go for a coffee because it’s easier than coming up with a reason not to. Both have changed. They will never meet again.

And Tenoch tells Julio that Luisa died a month after they left her. She had cancer, had known about it. All the pieces fall into place, little dominoes clicking as they come down. Because.

Yet this is a film of enormous life. You may despise Tenoch and Julio for most of it, and you may perversely decide that, for all they needed to just grow up, the selves they briefly show themselves as having become are mere negations of life, and that Luisa, who was ultimately more nihilist than both of them put together, had more life in her than anyone. The film does not lead you. It makes its road trip into its metaphor, and its ending into a dividing line. This trio found paradise: two left.

It’s a remarkable experience, and it has to be said that Maribel Verdu was lovely throughout, or at least I have to say it, but the true mark of her success was that she transcended her sexuality and made even the most explicit moments look human and not mechanical. These people lived and breathed: if you’re going to do sex and nudity on screen, this was a perfect example of how to do it.

Mention must also be made of the use of a narrator, interjecting asides about people, places, times and, in the case of Chuy, and Tenoch and Julio’s final meeting, fates beyond the film. In each case, the narrator is isolated: the soundtrack grows silent, and into that silence, as the film continues, he speaks, drily, dispassionately, sometimes with irony. What at first seems slightly awkward soon becomes a commentary telling us pertinent stories.

I’m sure that, not being Mexican or understanding their politics in 1999, there are many subtleties I’ve missed, but what’s up front for we Anglos to see is more than enough on a wet Sunday morning.

Film 2018 – Swallows and Amazons

It’s my working Sunday again, which influenced my choice this week to a film I’ve already written about, here.

This is the third time I’ve seen this film, the second time on DVD, and to be frank I’ve no new thoughts to add to those I recorded in 2016, home from a visit to the now-closed Showcase Cinema.

With more time to consider the film and the degree to which it succeeds in animating a book both classic and archaic, it becomes even more a film of two halves, two stories rather, joined at the hip in a manner that is well done enough without ever convincing anyone here for Arthur Ransome that it was worth doing.

On the one hand, we have a decent representation of the bones of Ransome’s original story, the children’s holiday adventure, the first of its kind: camping and boating and rivalry and making up your own world that is perfectly real behind the adults’ backs. I’m still no more convinced of Seren Hawkes as Nancy Blackett, but one understrength child actor is bearable, and any defects in the young lady’s wooden performance are more than made up for by those of the Swallows, and especially the two genuinely child actors, Teddie-Rose Mallesen-Allen as ‘Tatty’, and Bobby McCullough as Roger.

And I simply cannot watch young Bobby onscreen without a sense of awe that fortunately does not interfere with the flow of the film: he isn’t acting, he’s a seven year old boy from 1929 (sod the film’s updating to 1935) brought into the Twenty-First Century. They’re all good, but he just is Roger Walker, untouched by nearly ninety years since the Altounyans spent that summer on Coniston Water.

Whilst it would have been nice to have had more of the film take place on Windermere and Coniston Water, the modern world has impinged too much on the former, always the most accessible Lake from the south-east and thus the most commercial. Derwent Water may be wrong for ever so many reasons, none of which will affect anyone not a purist, but it has the advantage of consistency: unlike the 1974 film, the constant distraction of watching the little boats glide from lake to lake to lake indiscriminately is not present. And it is, of course, beautiful from every angle.

It’s still noticeable that, even though the film explicitly acknowledges it’s taking place in the Lake District, there isn’t the faintest effort to provide a Cumbrian or Westmoreland accent. If anything, particularly in the Blackett family, the accent drifts vaguely in the direction of Yorkshire, which is heresy so far as I am concerned.

That aside, there’s a comfortable familiarity to language in use by those Northerners. In the book, Ransome makes no play with accents or dialect. Beyond individual characteristics, the Amazons speak with the same middle-class voice as the Swallows. Like his prose generally, Ransome goes for a clear, limpid, smooth speech that assumes intelligence on his listeners’ parts but which never offers them any difficulties.

The film, however, unashamedly goes for northern epithets. Peggy Blackett calls her elder sister ‘cleverclogs’, and the General Store lady, upset at her corned beef display being knocked down, sends Tatty out of the shop with the words ‘you cheeky monkey’. Not having been brought up in Cumbria in the Twenties/Thirties, I can’t speak to local authenticity, but this is the language of my East Manchester boyhood all right.

Of course, the film still has its other half to negotiate, the spy plot that’s half John Buchan and half Arthur Ransome’s background. The book’s Jim Turner/Captain Flint has always been Ransome himself, spiritually as well as physically, and so the idea of turning him into the secret agent Ransome appears to have been in Russia during the Revolution at least has the merit of authenticity, though turning him into Rafe Spall doesn’t.

Spall underplays his part with a genuine sense of period overlaid by a low-key Buchan heartiness, which provides a useful contrast with the spicier Andrew Scott as Laslow, supercilious and cold, adapting his manic Moriarty to a role demanding naturalness. For what it’s worth, with the exception of the attempt by the two little boats to halt the seaplane from taking off – which in isolation is exactly the kind of thing children of their age and resourcefulness would think of trying – the spy plot works and works effectively. The jury is still out as to whether trying it in the same film should have been done at all.

As a Ransome fan possessed of all twelve books in those classic greenbound Jonathan Cape hardbacks, naturally I find against the film. But I enjoy it too much, and respond too much to those parts that represent the book at its most honest to hold it too badly against the film.

It’s getting on for three years since Swallows and Amazons was filmed and there are no proposals of which I am aware to adapt other books in the series. And Bobby McCullough is now ten, or thereabouts, so unless you’re going to clone him and grow the clone to age seven (or at worst eight), more fundamental damage would need to be done to Swallowdale to have him repeat his role. More’s the pity. I’d love to see a decent stab taken at that, at least once, especially if they genuinely climb Coniston Old Man as part of it.

But this film enables me to go back there whenever I want, not just to the Lake of 1929, but the sitting room at Brigham Street where I received my first Swallows and Amazons book from my Dad: he’d have found Rafe Spall and Andrew Scott stupid, but he’d have drunk in every other bit of it, the way I do.