Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers

I remember sitting down in the cinema, the now-demolished Grand Central, the five of us, all eager for the second instalment of The Lord of the Rings. I remember the sense of anticipation, the marvellous opening shots skimming over the towering, snow-capped mountains as graddually the dialogue from Gandalf’s confrontation with the Balrog rises into audibility, the plunge inside the mountain to repeat the footage of that scene, and the shock as the camera plummets with him, and Gandalf hewing and hacking the Balrog throughout that interminable fall, ultimately into the deepest cavern.

A magnificent introduction: I was pumped and primed by it.

And I remember my growing shock and revulsion at the structural changes Peter Jackson and Co made to the story, until I grew angry and smouldered with resentment even through the gloriously choreographed twin-spectacle endings of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, bringing the book to flaring life, and the Ent’s destruction of Isengard, lifted out of the back story to become a worthy addition to the film. Show, don’t tell: it should be stencilled on every story-maker’s forehead.

Seventeen years later, on a grey, damp, Sunday morning, I still disagree profoundly with the four major story-line changes Jackson headed, but knowing them to be a part of this version of the script, I can accept their existence and evaluate the rest of the film around them.

And, leaving these aside for the moment, The Two Towers is a much better film, a finer, more well-made offering than it is usually taken to be, and than its position as the middle-film, the runt of the litter.

In rising above that role, The Two Towers has the advantage of Helm’s Deep. It comes in the middle of the novel, but the novel at this point is telling two stories, parallel in time, and splits itself in two, to deal firstly with the adventures of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli, Merry in Pippin, and only afterwards Frodo, Sam and Gollum.

The film can’t do that. It has to adhere to one progressing time period and so it has to juggle, to intercut, backwards and forwards, between the three parallel strands. That isn’t easy to do, the risk being that you give too little time at a time to each thread, diminishing the impact of each, or that you allow stories to play out for so long that the audience has lost its place by the time you return.

Jackson judges the length of time each theme needs, and is advantaged in the first half of the film by having all three groups on the move constantly, so that he can, for the most part, drop into each new change of scene with an actual change of scene. And since all these scenes are mind-blowingly awesome New Zealand mountains and valleys, it makes it easy.

Watching the Extended Edition today means that the film stays very close to the book, adds off-page scenes, especially at and around Rohan before Aragorn’s party, and the resurrected Gandalf the White, get there. Very faithful, very impressive: but we’re not far from the end when the first egregious change is made.

We’re in Edoras, Gandalf has freed King Theoden (a superb performance from the great Bernard Hill, rock solid in every line and heart-breakingly vulnerable as the parent who has to bury their child), restored his vigour and his determination. In the book, he gathers Rohan’s army, including his banished nephew and now-heir, Eomer, and goes out to attack the forces that have attacked the Westmark and killed his son, from where he is forced to Helm’s Deep.

But Jackson has him turn all defensive, and even cowardly, ordering his people to flee to Helm’s Deep, to avoid a fight but bottling himself up in an inescapable, but theoretically unbreakable fortress.

Ok, this is like The Fellowship of the Ring, streamlining, compressing, accelerating. But it’s something else that I’ll come back to.

The next one is the Warg attack on the Rohan exodus and the quite riduculous and comletely unecessary cheap melodrama of Aragon falling off a cliff and being believed dead. It’s stupid. You don’t need to know the book to know that Aragorn isn’t dead, and that he’s not going to die only just into the second half of the second film. At a stroke, the film descends to Saturday Morning Serial level, and they were never filmed to the highest of standards. Even the kids were disgusted at that, and one of them was only eight.

Watching it again, it’s still dumb, a piece of gratuitous action in a quiet spot in the film but nevertheless wholly unnecessary. Watching it play out, I think the effect Jackson was aiming for, especially with Aragorn’s dreams of Arwen, and being nuzzled back to life by the horse, was to try to suggest a death-and-resurrection parallel to Gandalf. If so, it fails on the stupidity of the scene, on being too nebulous, and on the difference between the two characters. Aragorn may be long-lived (he confesses to Eowyn, the lovely Mirando Otto who I’d never seen before, that he’s actually 87) but he’s still a mortal, whereas Gandalf is a Wizard, a Maia. We accept his resurrection with a sense of anticipation.

I’m going to jump slightly to the Ents, now. I’ve got to say that I’ve never found Treebeard convincing. He moves too slowly, too mechanically, and he’s too obviously a CGI figure to fully stand on the screen like the rest of the characters, but that’s me. Johnson again diverts the novel’s narrative by having the Ents decide to stay out of the War: not their business. This is done to manipulate the story so that Pippin can divert Treebeard to Isengard, to witness the assault on the Forest and rouse the Ents’ wrath.

The problem is that it instantly diminishes the Ents in general and Treebeard in particular, by removing agency from them. In the book, Treebeard knows about Isengard already, and he persuades the Ents: Pippin and Merry are the pebbles starting the avalanche by waking Treebeard up to immediately take in what’s going on, but that’s not enough for Jackson: they have to lecture the Ents from a position of superiority.

I’ve saved the worst for last, to let me draw together the common thread between these changes, and one other addition, into what is wrong with the film. I speak, of course, of Faramir.

In the book, once Faramir learns of the Ring, and that Frodo has it, he faces a Galadriel-like test. Does he take it for himself? But Faramir has already said he would not reach out for the Ring if it lay beside the road, and he has the almost-pure strain of Numenor in him. Though he is unregarded in his father’s eyes (John Noble is an absolute monster of favouritism and personal gluttony), the point is that Faramir, brother of Boromir, is superior to his elder in every way.

So Jackson has him seize the ring, at which point I nearly howled. The film-maker’s explanation, in the extras on the DVD, was that we were continually being told that the Ring was all-powerful, that no-one could resist it, Gandalf and Galadriel both turn down the gift of it out of the fear and knowledge of what it could do to them. And yet everyone resists it. Jackson thought we had to have a scene of someone being tempted by it, or we wouldn’t believe in the Ring’s potency.

It’s the single biggest thing on which I violently disagree with him, and it’s made worse by his choosing Faramir. It besmirches him at a stroke, it poisons his purity, it reduces the potency of one of the major characters in the final film (though David Wenham as Faramir is one of the very few castings I debate as he’s too flat throughout). The change was also made to create an obstacle for Frodo and Sam when it was decided to postpone Shelob into the final film: sorry, no. Just No.

The writers do try to soften the impact by showing Faramir as motivated by his father, Denethor’s desire for the Ring, and wanting to improve dear old Daddy’s impression of him. All it takes to shake him is Sam blurting out that this is what happened to Boromir, which he waits to do until Osgiliath instead of any sooner, and Faramir changes his mind.

I’m also going to mention the insertion of a number of scenes, dream sequences or flashbacks, between Aragorn and Arwen, remnants of an earlier subplot when there were only going to be two parts. Some of these are used to counterpoint the scenes showing Eowyn’s developing love for Aragorn, his regard for her and his regret at the inevitable sorrow she will experience. Jackson has Elrond dead-set against letting his daughter marry Aragorn and stay in Middle-Earth to die, whilst Arwen loses faith and hope and decides to pony off to the Undying Lands to weep forever at not getting herself throughly rogered by her lover Man.

The common factor to all these changes (except the dumb cliffhanger one), which makes them so wrong in a film like The Lord of the Rings, is that they are all about compromise, and they are about compromise with evil, or rather Evil. Theoden loses faith immediately and seeks to run away. Arwen doubts, and seeks to run away. The Ents decide not to get involved and run away. And Faramir does the business of the Enemy. Every change strikes at the heart of the story.

They may be ‘justifiable’ as making the story more realistic, but that’s not what the film is. The Lord of the Rings is a Fantasy, a High Fantasy. It’s not about realistic things and realistic doubt or compromise. It is about Good or Evil, and being one or the other. You cannot make Good figures equivocal, and Jackson doesn’t understand that, and that is why The Two Towers is flawed.

That said, I had a good, long and thoroughly enjoyable time with it. And there is so much that is good about it, without the defects. I’ve already mentioned Bernard Hill, and Viggo Mortensen is, if anything, even better as Aragorn than in the first film. His scenes with Mirando Otto, where everything between them is done in their faces, are marvellous, and demonstarted that she was a superb pick as Eowyn (my elder stepson and I both found her fascinating). And Brad Dourif is the incarnation of creepiness as Grima Worntongue: I would never let him near my sister.

Of course, you cannot talk about The Lord of the Rings without talking about Andy Serkis as Gollum. I used to think that David Woodthorpe was an unbeatable Gollum in the BBC Radio adaptation, but Serkis is electric, in voice as well as in caper. His leaping, his bounding, his constant movement make the CGI Gollum look like something from another movie entirely but his gift is that this hysterical figure is fully part of this one. And he’s playing two parts, in reality, Gollum and Smeagol, and is miraculous in both.

So, that’s the middle one in Middle-Earth. I so look forward to next Sunday and the last one.



Film 2019: The Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring

Draw up your seats in your hobbit-holes everywhere, the next three Sundays will be spent in Middle-Earth grappling with the age old question of whether I have anything new or original to say about Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Mine is the perspective of a long-term fan of the book. I first read it in the last quarter of 1973, and must have read it 15 – 20 times before this film appeared. In 1979, I interrupted a short holiday in North Wales to see the Ralph Bakshi animated film version of the first half which, at the time, I thought was the best adaptation there could feasibly be (you may call me naive at this  point: I do). I listened avidly to the classic 1981 BBC Radio adaptation, full of resonant voices (one of them Ian Holm as Frodo Baggins, who now played Bilbo Baggins), when it was broadcast as 26 thirty minute episodes. I even attended an oversize puppet theatre production by a Canadian troupe. I was a fan.

On each of these occasions, my attention to the adaptation was alloyed by my usual rick of simultaneously assssing the how of the adaptation, especially with a book the size of The Lord of the Rings. What have they left out, what have they elided, ah yes, so they did this. The great joy of Jackson’s film was that, whilst I wasn’t unaware of such factors, they were relegated to a sub-cellar of my response. With family around me for a Xmas treat, I just sat back and luxuriated in the experience, absorbed into the visual appearance, the physical incarnation and, as a lover of mountains, that gorgeous New Zealand scenery.

Had my parents lived to see this, I doubt they would have enjoyed the story that much, but I would have taken them so that they could see the mountains and they would have loved every bit of that.

Whilst it doesn’t extend to the massive proportions that surround The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings was almost as controversial as it was popular. Many people, the Tolkien Estate included, complained that Jackson had failed to understand the book, and that he had concentrated upon spectacle and sensationalism, to the detriment, indeed the absence, of Tolkien’s true purposes in writing the Trilogy.

There’s a degree of truth to that, but there’s a much stronger degree of truth to the fact that books and film are two different media, each with their own dominant characteristics. Not for nothing had The Lord of the Rings been regarded for decades as an unfilmable book, because of its length and breadth. It was going to be changed for filming, it had to be changed for filming: nobody could be completely faithful to the book.

The obvious example is Tom Bombadil. Not one adaptation I know of includes Tom Bombadil, and everybody is right to leave it out. Why? Because it’s an extrusion into the story. Tom is of minimal relevance to the spine of the story, and Tolkien wrote him as such, a Force of Nature independent of considerations of Good and Evil. And he comes so early in the story. At a later point, you may be able to afford a complete digression, if the story is sufficiently picaresque, but Frodo’s barely left the Shire when Tom crops up. There are more important, serious, and above all relevant dangers to be had from Bree onwards, with Strider, without clogging things up thoroughly first.

And that’s the theme to all the alterations and omissions in the first film: streamlining. In the book, nearly twenty years pass between Bilbo’s party and Gandalf bringing the news that the magic ring is the One Ring. In the film, it’s near continuous. In the book, we get an extended lesson in history. In the film, Cate Blanchett narrates those parts we need to know (Gil-Galad is omitted) as we watch a prelude that risks being stodgy, but which lets us see the relevant facts instead of have someone tell us about them.

All the way, detail is removed to let the spine of the story, the journey to Rivendell, the Fellowship’s course, be the focus. And at the same time, detail is added, such as Gandalf’s adventure and imprisonment in, and his escape from Orthanc. In the book, this can be narrated as a flashback, in the film it is far more effective to see it for ourselves.

The same goes for Saruman’s destruction of the Treegarth of Orthanc, with the additional bonus that this sets up events in the second film.

On the other hand, Jackson is sometimes guilty of unnecessary over-invention. The Wizard’s battle in Orthanc is a bit OTT, especially when we know that neither Ian McKellan nor Christopher Lee are spring chickens but gets away with it by being brief. But the business in Moria with the stone stairs and that swaying section is silly and would have been better left as somebody’s bright idea.

What also impresses me is the strength of the acting. There are some serious heavy-hitters in here, such as Lee, McKellan and Blanchett, lending weight to a project that, at the end of the Nineties, before the all-out assault of superhero/fantasy/SF/CGI blockbusters showed itself to be commercially advantageous. McKellan in particular is brilliant as Gandalf, sinking into his role with complete commitment and conviction.

The remainder of the cast were mainly semi-unknowns, without substantial records, and this ensures that they cann play their parts without the audience slipping out of the experience and into a film starring… someone reognisable.

Not everybody is perfect in the role. This far on, I find Elijah Wood to be a bit too wide-eyed ingenuous, but the role itself is something of an idealisation, bucolic nobility. And Sean Astin’s chubbiness may look right for the peasant-like Sam, but his accent and intonation is a bit too forced.

But in Viggo Mortensen, playing Strider/Aragorn, the film bought itself its greatest stroke of luck. Mortensen was a late replacement for original choice, Stuart Townsend, brought in a week into filming and requiring intense training for his part as things went on. He turned out to be ideal: honest, athletic, vigorous, completely committed. Let’s face it, in the book Aragorn is a big stiff for most of the story, but Mortensen brings him to life. There never is a moment when you are not aware you are watching Aragorn. Given that my then wife fancied him something rotten (as much as I fancied Miranda Otto in the other two films), it’s a testament to his  performance that I can say all this. He’s tons better than Robert Stephens in the radio adaptation.

I do have to record, in respect of Aragorn, the one change in this story by Jackson with which I take issue, which is to make Aragorn a conscientious objector to his inheritance as King. His refusal of his destiny creates an unnecessary and somewhat trite conflict that is never properly explored and which is only set up to be knocked down.

But as far as it is possible to be, The Fellowship of the Ring sets out to be and is faithful to the book. It overlaps the strict confines by including Boromir’s commital to the Falls and the decision to chase the Orcs that have capured Merry and Pippin, which come from Chapter 1 of The Two Towers but that’s the only crossover. The film is an immersive experience and we all loved it.

My stepdaughter was so impressed, she asked to read the book, though she wanted to start with The Two Towers: it took tremendous pressure from my then wife and I to get her to read The Fellowship of the Ring first: she’d just seen the film she wanted to know the rest of the story. Eventually she accepted our assurance about all the stuff that wasn’t in the film…

Film 2019: 49th Parallel

49th Parallel is the first Powell & Pressburger film from the big boxset that I’ve not previously discussed. It’s a 1941 release, in B&W, a propaganda film requested of Michael Powell by the British Ministry of Information, yet which was not without opposition from the Government in wartime, and only the third time he and Emeric Pressburger had worked together, and the last before formally partnering as The Archers.

49th Parallel, as most people should realise, takes its name from the longest unguarded border in the world, between the United States and Canada. The film, which takes place almost entirely within Canada, but which was aimed at America, where it was titled The Invaders, pays tribute to what the boundary says aabout American-Canadian relationships, but has a wonderfully ironic aspect to it, as a brief explanation of the story will define.

The film begins with a lone German sumarine, U37, attacking Canadian shipping in the Gulf of St Lawrence before heading north for Hudson Bay to avoid detection by armed forces. A party of six under Leutnant’s Hirth and Kuhnecke are put ashore to raid a nearby trading post for supplies, just before the Canadian RAF locate and destroy U37 with bombers.

The film becomes the story of the six Nazis’ attemptto escape from Canada and return to the Third Reich. In spite of that long, unguarded border, it is the story of their failure.

The Ministry of information had envisaged a film about mine-sweeping, which would have hardly risen abovethe documentary. Instead, Powell wanted to wake up America, show them the face of the Nazis by contrasting them with the Canadian people. The film is episodic: of its four credited stars, only Eric Portman, as the fanatical Hirth appears throughout the whole film, with Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey playing their parts in various successive scenes (Anton Walbrook is omitted from the four star line-up but plays the other opposing figure).

Since filming would involve taking a large cast and crew out of Britain, in a State of War, the film was originally opposed on the basis that it was nothing more than a scheme to allow a bunch of cowardly artistic johnnies to rat out of the privations everyone else at home was facing. Powell was able to persuade the Ministry that he was serious in his aims, and that everybody would return. His case was undermined by actress Elizabeth Bergner, playing the only female role in the picture, doing just that, and refusing to return to Britain.

Powell has written of this incident as if Bergner unashamedly walked out as soon as she reached America, but Wikipedia claims that some long shots of Anna, the young Hutterite girl, are Bergner and that she left after a Hutterite woman became incensed at catching Berger, in costume, painting her nails and smoking, knocked the cigarette from her hands and slapped her. Berner was replaced by Glynis Johns.

The film consists of four major phases. Hirth and his command capture the trading post, run by Mac (Finlay Currie), at which the exciteable French-Canadian, Trapper Johnny has just arrived after eleven months in the wild. Johnny doesn’t know of the war and can’t take it seriously, nor the mentality of the Nazis. He niggles and provoked Hirth and his men, but when he makes a move to attack them, he is shot, and left to die, slowly, over several hours. But he is still defiant.

Several Inuits and twopilots are killed when the Germans escape in the rescue plane, though one German is killed by an Inuit rifle. Kuhnecke, the most practical and realistic of the party (Raymond Lovell), is killed on the plane crash-landing (Lovell, who couldn’t swim, nearly drowned in that scene).

The four survivors arrive at the Hutterite colony, whose inhabitants are primarily German in origin. Hirth cannot understand their religiously inspired community of peace, faith and trust, and makes the mistake of assuming their ethnicity will make them respond to his Nazi rhetoric. Instead, they are put to shame by Peter, the community’s leader who does not give orders, played by Anton Walbrook, giving a monologue almost on a par with the one he delivers in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Engineer Vogel (Niall McGuiness), a Baker before Hitler took over, recognises a real life, a home where his skills are of value and his life has meaning. He plans to stay, to hand himself in to internment: Peter welcomes him to return, and it seems that Anna will too. But Hirth accuses him of desertion: he is executed on the ‘battlefield’.

Three men go on, now heading for Vancouver and return view then-neutral Japan. In Banff, one cracks up under scrutiny and is arrested. Hirth and the other fanatic, Lohrman (John Chandos) attempt to cross the Rockies on foot but get lost. Englishman Philip Armstrong Scott (Leslie Howard) gives them shelter at his camp. Scott is a writer, studying tribal customs among the Indians, and the very image of the decadent democratic in the eyes of both Nazis. Scott is effete, art-loving, casually comic about Hitler, uncommitted on every level, until he is attacked and, worse, the art he loves, his German language Thomas Mann Magic Mountain and his own book are smashed and burned.

Howard, who once starred as The Scarlet Pimpernel, then reveals the other side of his character, the character many Britains imagined of themselves, the fearless, implacable, avenging angel, facing down evil (the film does dice with cliche here, but I’m not only old enough to recognise te self-image but to still be moved bywhat once was the reality of it). Scott dices with death over the calculation of exactly how many bullets Lohrman has, and does take a shot to the thigh, but he confronts the Nazi fistto fist, and righteously beats the living crap out of him.

Which leaves Hirth, heading back east. Hirth’s the last Nazi, but more importantly, he’s become a symbol. German propaganda boasts of Hirth, one man against eleven million. His escape will be a massive victory. Hirth’s journey has seen him come up against the French, the German and the English. Now he has stolen aboard the freight car of a trai crossing into the USA at Niagara Falls. Also abroad is Andy Brock (Raymond Massey, a Canadian actor playing the only Canadian role of his life).

Brock’s a soldier, and a grousing one. He’s eight days AWOL. He grumbles about being in the Army for 384 days and not having one chance to punch a Nazi in the nose. Hirth mistakes Brock’s grumbling for genuine disgruntement with his Government, which will be relieved when the Nazis take the world over. Oh, and he’s stolen Brock’s uniform to get into America, making Brock into a deserter along the way.

But, in the mostly directly apposite bit of political propoagandizing in the entire fim, Brock tells Hirth that it is his God-given right to grumble about anything he damned well likes, and it is because he is the citizen of a democratic country that he can do so without ending up in a camp. Hallelujah, brother, and we need more of that thinking right now

However, Hirth’s done it. He’s got to America, he’s won. Until, in a wonderful moment of democratic response to a sitution, Brock persuades the US Customs to treat him and Hirth as freight: they’re in the freight car, right? They’re not on the manifest. The train’s got to be sent back to Canada, for the unlisted freight to be put on the manifest… not taken off.

Hirth, who’s been responsible for eleven deaths during the film, who represents a fascistic, invasing force, is outraged by the otherside not playing by their rules. He’s also travelling back to Canada with Andy Brock, who wants his pants back, and isn’t asking for them, he’s taking them…

On that joyful note, the film ends. Yes, it’s a propaganda film, and in that it is irretrievably dated, or it ought to be except that we are unbelievably once again in an era when warnings against what fascism is and what it does are absolutely necessary. 49th Parallel survives as a film because it is also a film. It brilliantly uses the ‘Ten Little Indians’ structure, it contrasts the multi-ethnicity of the Canadiand, including a strong German element, against the racial purity of the nazis, and even where it directly makes statements, it is not so heavy-handed as to move beyond what human beings say in response to what they discover.

Like many artists, Powell and Pressburger’s next move was to seek inspiration from a reversal of this story. That film’s not in this box set, but it will be part of a final wind-down of the Film series, at the end of the year.

Film 2019: I Know Where I’m Going

Though you can’t class it amongst the Archers’ major films, I Know Where I’m Going occcupies the highest rung of the second tier. It’s a sweet, fresh, natural romantic comedy that is blessed with wonderful scenery, wonderful cinematography and an underlying seriousness that makes the film a success on every level it attempts.

I Know Where I’m Going takes its name and theme from the renowned Scottish folksong, which is sung over the opening and closing credits. It stars Wendy Hiller and the massively underrated Roger Livesey, though the original casting was to be Deborah Kerr and James Mason. Kerr couldn’t get out of her contract with MGM, opening things up for Hiller (who’d been the original choice for Kerr’s multiple roles in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp until she became pregnant). Mason dropped out six weeks before filming was due to start, not wishing to travel to the Hebrides for location shooting. Livesey asked to read the part, despite being older than the role and somewhat out of shape: he lost twenty pounds and took the role, despite being committed to a London play which meant that all his scenes had to be filmed at Denham Studios. The use of a double on location is so brilliantly concealed that unless you know in advance, it’s undetectable.

The film was made in 1945, though the War is still active in the story. It further exemplified the Archers’ crusade against materialism begun in A Canterbury Tale and took the place of the intended A Matter of Life and Death, for which there was not sufficient colour film available yet.

The storyline is simple. A series of voice overs introduces to Joan Webster, a forthright and determined young lady with ambitions towards a better life, i.e., one of money and luxury. At the age of 25 she is engaged to marry the substantially older Sir Robert Bellenger, Chairman of Consolidated Chemical Industries, where Joan works. Bellenger is almost as old as Joan’s Bank Manager father, who is less than impressed at her news, not that Joan cares. After all, she knows where she is going.

And that’s the Isle of Kiloran, in the Western Isles, where Bellenger is tenant of the island for the duration. Bellenger is the rich man: he has had a swimming pool built rather than swim in the ocean, buys in salmon from Glasgow rather than take the abundant local stock, and thinks the only people worth knowing in this part of the world are an Englishman and his silly-ass, bridge-obsessed wife. Ths is the life Joan dreams of, and has headed towards all her life.

Joan has an itinerary, taking her from Manchester to the Isle of Mull, where a boat will collect her to take her to Kiloran. But it is here that fate, or nature, intervenes, first in the form of sea-fog, and then a gale lasting seven days, making the last leg of the journey impossible. There’s some blatant symbolism in the wind blowing Joan’s itinerary into the sea at this point, though the moment was far too obvious even in 1945.

Also stranded in another Kiloran-bound traveller, a Naval Lieutenant who we initially know only as Torquil, who arranged for himself and Joan to stay overnight at the House, owned by his childhood friend, Catriona Potts (nee McLaine), played by the lovely Pamela Brown, along with her eccentric tenant, falconer Colonel Barnstaple (Captain C.W.R. Knight). Not until the next day, en route to Tobermory to take up hotel accomodation there (and relieve the strain on Catriona’s underfunded household), do she and we learn that Torquil is MacNeal of Kiloran, the true Laird, as opposed to Bellenger who is only an interloper.

It’s plain that Torquil finds Joan attractive. It’s less plain that Joan finds Torquil attractive, enough so to make her doubly determined to get to Kiloran and remove herself from temptation’s way. Even when she goes to stay with the Robinsons, ‘the only people worth knowing around here’ according to the fruity-voiced Bellenger, who is never seen and only heard this once, they are on their way to play bridge with the elderly Rebecca Crozier, whose houseguest is Torquil.

The underlying theme of the entire film, which is seen at its cleaest in the ensuing ceilidh scene, celebrating the Diamond Wedding anniversary of Mrs Crozier’s head gardener (Mr Campbell’s son, John, is played by a young John Laurie, who also choreographs the ceilidh). It’s a beautiful scene, natural and simple, and Joan is plainly drawn to it, and to the eevident enjoyment of all the participants. But it is Torquil who is at home, and who is accepted amongst the people, notwithstanding his lairdship.

Because Joan’s problem, like that of Bellenger and the foolish Robinsons, is that they don’t belong, and it’s not just being English in the West of Scotland. Colonel Barnstaple belongs, and he’s as English as they come. Bellenger lives with, but above and separate from the people of the area. Joan is seeking a lifestyle that Bellenger’s money can give her, but in knowing where she’s going, she belongs to no place. She is in motion. Torquil, Catriona, Rebecca, the Campbells, Ruairidh Mhor, the boatman, Kenny, his assistant, and Bridie, his daughter who Kenny hopes to marry, they are all in the place that they know and understand. They are part of the land. Catriona puts it best, to Joan at the end, sobered by her ordeal: Joan still sees only money as the measure of life: instead of struggling to maintain their homes, Catriona, Rebecca, Torquil, they could all sell. Catriona is mystified by the thought, cannot understand it. The land is as much a part of them as they are of the land, and they cannot be if this is severed.

Joan has to learn this. She bribes Kenny to take Ruairidh’s boat out, behind his back, when it’s manifestly insane to do so. Torquil, unable to talk her out of her stupidity, her rootless arrogance to think that she knows better, washes his hands of her, until Catriona points outwhat he’s not yet seen for himself, that Joan is running away, not towards, and she isrunning from Torquil.

So MacNeal of Kiloran goes on the boat, and well that he didd. High winds, high seas, storms, a soaked engine, Joan’s wedding dress going into the sea and the risk of drowning in the whirlpool Corryvrecken. But Torquil gets the engine working again in time, and all are saved.

A beautiful day dawns, but too late for Torquil. His leave is over, without reaching the island, and the boat is coming for Joan. He asks her to have her pipers play a particular song. She asks him to kiss her, which he does, with great enthusiasm. Then they part.

Torquil’s path takes him past Moy Castle. Like at least three generations before him, Torquil has not set foot in Moy Castle, ever. A curse was laid, by a long-ago Catriona MacLean, forced into marriage to MacNeal of Kiloran, felling to her lover of Moy Castle. Kiloran beseiged and took the cattle, and bound the lovers in chains, to stand upon a rock in the deep pool below the banqueting hall, until their fatigue pulled them both down to drown. Torquil knows of the curse, and now he enters Moy, climbing to its battlements. He will never leave a free man. But Torquil is not free, not now or ever again..

And we hear pipes, playing a particular song, pipers advancing on Moy Castle, with Joan marching behind, all set to abandon where she has been going because she has arrived where she wants to be, with Torquil, in this life she has begun to understand. The curse has struck: MacNeal of Kiloran shall be chained to a woman until the end of his days.

It’s a beautiful story, and a dream of a script, written by Emeric Pressburger in only four days. No, it’s not a major film, not like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes or Black Narcissus, but the view from here to there is not so great or so high, and the film’s setting in Scotland, and its sense of place and eternity gives the story a sense of shape that a mere romantic comedy could not have on its own. Sunday morinings are made for magic like this.

Film 2019: Manon des Sources

It’s impossible to speak of Manon des Sources (Manon of the Springs) without speaking of Jean de Florette. The two films are one story and Manon presents itself as the second part of the initial film in its title. Filming took place over seven months, creating both films as a sequence, creating a consistency between the pair that makes any attempt to distinguish between them a fallacious exercise. Only in their titles, and in the character referred to, are the films separated: Manon des Sources is where the chickens come home to roost and the full extent of a tragedy worked out in human emotions over an act of chance becomes clear.

Not quite a decade has passed sincce the events of Jean de Florette. Ugolin Soubeyrand (Daniel Auteuil) has become successful with carnation farm, but is no nearer perpetrating the Soubeyrand line and restoring he family’s local prominence, which is the dearest wish of his Uncle Cesar (Yves Montand), locally known as Papet, short for Le Papet, an honorary title.

Manon, daughter of Jean the hunchback, remains. Her mother has returned to opera singing, but Manon, who is now nearly eighteen, lives with the Piedmontese widow, and runs wild, herding goats on the hills. This was Emmanuelle Beart’s first starring role, and not only is she astnishingly beautiful, as the role calls for her to be, but her performance won her the Cesar Award (the French Oscar) for Best Supporting Actress, and she is superb in a role that calls for complete naturalness and extreme emotions.

The shape of the tragedy is implicit from the start. Ugolin, out hunting, accidentally spies Manon bathing naked and dancing with her goats, playing her father’s old harmonica. He falls in love with her, an obsessive, overwhelming love, born of her beauty. She is an ideal for him, a dream. He certainly doesn’t know her as a person: almost no-one does, for she avoids the village and its people. She becomes an idee fixe for him, and we know without needing to be shown in any way that she will reject him root and branch. The difference in their ages, the fact that Ugolin is ugly, that the new, young, handsome schoolteacher Bernard (Hyppolite Girardot) has caught her eye. But most of all, Manon hates Ugolin, as she hates Papet, for what they did to her father.

Ugolin is aware of some of this, his looks, the schoolteacher. He makes offerings to her, planting trapped birds, even a hare, in her snares so that she can earn a modest sou selling these in the next village, but the first time he tries to talk to her, decked out in new clothes, she refuses to even reply. Her hatred is clear on her face and she marches away, faster even than he can follow, pouring out his heart in his desperation.

Whilst she is checking her snares, Manon overhears two of the villagers discussing the spring and realises that the entire village knew how her father’s problems could have been resolved, and not one stepped in to help. Chance then steps in to enable her to punish all: following a lost kid into a crevice, Manon discovers the  source of the valley’s water and blocks it. This affects not just the spring that waters Ugolin’s carnations but the fountain in the village: the valley is dry.

In Church, the cure all but indicts Ugolin as the criminal whose crime has called down God’s wrath and the punishment of the spring drying up. Manon, the orphan, is ask to lead a Holy Procession: an Orphan’s Prayers are known to be infallible when asking for divine intercession. She refuses, refusing to help a village that failed too help her father, that knew and stood by. This is Beart’s longest dialogue in the film, in which she has thus shone by body languag and expression, and her fragility even as she defies all of them, is key to the moment at which all the careful construction starts to crumble. The villagers admit knowing, but they do not openly turn upon the Soubeyrands until Manon provides the key that unlocks Papet’s subterfuge. No-one knew Monsieur Jean was the son of Florette. To them, he was an outsider, not of them.

Papet blusters, but the poacher confirms he saw the spring being block. Ugolin, whose obsession has evoked the family madness (implied, early on, to be caused by inbreeding) makes a last impassioned plea, part confession, part despair. It can all be resolved by Manon marrying him. He would give her everything. But none of it is enough, his fate decided long ago. Like his father before him, he hangs himself from a tree, ending the Soubeyrand line.

Papet is broken. Manon marries Bernard and is soon pregnant by him. I find myself wondering about her life with her new husband. That he is young and handsome, and intelligent, and he knows and keeps her secret about the spring which he helps her unblock, these are all the things we know, but I find myself speculating about some of the looks he gives her, and wondering if he is motivated by more than the beauty of Manon.

But there is a final moment before the sheer length and breadth of the tragedy can be revealed. The old, blind woman Delphine returns to the village. She knows Papet of old and, sat on the stone bench outside the church, she accuses him of a crime, for failing to answer a letter. Papet is surprised: he never received the letter, and because of it, all we have seen has followed.

Before going away in the Army to North Africa, Cesar was in love with Florette, a love he has never admitted to, though it’s been clear she was the love of his life. Three weks after he left, she wrote to him to tell him she was pregnant, and that if he wrote to her father and promised to marry her when he returned, she would wait. He never replied, because he never got the letter. Montand, his voice rduced to a croak, shows us in his eyes that he already knows, and fears, what Delphine will tell him. Florette had a son. The baby was a hunchback.

If there is a single flaw in this pair of film, it is that this is not the ending. Papet’s resignation to his fate, his determination to die by wiling it so, his letter to the granddaughter who will never acknowledge him, who may never reconcil herself to his blood, and the comb that once belonged to Florette in his dead hand are all skillfully presented but otiose. Cesar Soubeyrand is dead from the moment of realisation of everything he’s done, up to and including never once allowing himself to speak to or even see Jean de Florette, and the film ends with that, once we know the whole of the tragedy.

In every respect, and not least the acting, which is wonderful, this pair of films are near perfect. To have so much turn upon a lost letter, that merely sets up a series of conditions upon which human wants, aspirations, feelings, desires and hatreds in turn act, demonstrates just how fragile and contingent our lives are. Within the film, especially when Manon blocks the spring, both the cure and the villagers attribute divine intervention to both problem and resolution, when it’s down to an all-too-human agency that nevertheless uses the exact same tools to punish the crime that supposedly affronts God. And the religious may also see God’s hand in the letter that went missing under circumstances where many things went understandably missing.

I see the shape but I don’t see the motive force. Nevertheless, it’s an arguable point: the cure pinpoints the issue exactly. Does God move Manon’s hand, to punish and to relieve? Marriage and children with Bernard are that outcome: I have already recorded my concern that that may not be the best thing.

But this pair of films are exact in their depiction of the inevitable, which is the essence of tragedy: that who, and what we are and how we respond will define what happens. In less potent form, I have personal expeerience of that, a seemingly minuscule thing over which I had no control that had effects that didn’t make themselves felt for decades. So this pair of films strikes a very deep chord with me. I will not quickly retun from Provence today.

Film 2019: Jean de Florette

First of two parts, this Sunday and next, this is my only Box Set to consist of just two films, and the last but one of my foreign films (you are going to be so surprised when I get to the last one). Like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, this film and it’s other part, Manon des Sources are really a single film, divided into multiple parts due to its length.

The two films, which were shot together over seven months after a year of careful preparation bearing ample fruit, are classics, not merely of French cinema but of cinema itself. Jean de Florette stars Yves Montand (in one of his last roles), Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteil, in a role that transformed his career. The cast is small, the only other parts of significance taken by Depardieu’s wife Elizabeth, and Ernestine Mazurowna as the nine year old girl, Manon.

Originally, the story was created by Marcel Pagnol, filmmaker, dramatist and novellist, as a four hour film in 1953, under the Manon des Sources title. Unhappy at how it was treated, Pagnol turned the story into two novels, with Jean de Florette as an extended scene-setting. Director Claude Berri treated rhe books faithfully and the outcome is worthy of all the praise that’s been heaped upon it since the films appeared in 1986.

When I was at School, in the Sixties, and studying Death of a Salesman in English, I was introduced to the classical definition of tragedy as the fall of aperson in a high posotion. Tragedy, true tragedy, could come only from the lives of Kings and Gods and Heroes, for only in the descent from elevation could tragedy be found. Willy Loman was the antithetis of a high person, and so his story had to be qualified as a ‘domestic’ tragedy. Jean de Florette is characterised as a ‘period’ tragedy, set in Provence in the South of France, in a meticulously recreated early Twenties, after the Great War. Nobody in it could be characterised as High in any way, save perhaps, in an ironic manner that is not realised until the very end of the second film, the character of Le Papet, or grandfather, Cesar Soubeyrand, played by Montand, paterfamilias of a dying family whose ambition to restore his family’s local prestige, its honour, and its life is the driving force of both stories.

But the films are tragedies on any level that the human heart operates, in their depiction of human failings: love, greed, obsession, hope, ambition, pride, insularity and the insistence upon seeing what one wants to see.

Jean de Florette begins with the return from the war of Ugolin Soubeyrand (Auteil, cast against his previous superficial, urban type and a revelation). Ugolin is, we slowly understand, the last of the Soubeyrand family, his only relation his Uncle Cesar, Papet. He’s a youngish man, but an ugly one, and slow of thought. Yet he’s smart enough to com up with the idea of making his tiny mountainside farm pay by growing carnations. Papet, intially dismissive, is convinced by Ugolin’s sales that the affair can be profitable. And with profit comes pride and, most important in Papet’s eyes, a wife, and children, and the continuation of the Soubeyrand line.

Ugolin is less concerned. He has an account at a local brothel, half an hour a month and choice of all the girls takes care of all his needs. But Papet knows that to ensure the continuation of the line, Ugolin needs to expand. For this he will need water, and there is a spring on the neighbouring land of Pique-Bouffige, half-choked though it is. But Pique-Bouffige has his own pride, and a spite towards the Soubeyrands, and will not sell. Angered at the insults, Papet drags him from a tree, throws him and accidentally kills him.

This is the opportunity. With peasant wiliness, Papet and Ugolin plan to block the spring, to render the land next to worthless and buy it cheap when, as it must, it comes up for auction. But their plans are thwarted. Pique-Bouffige’s only relation is Florette, his sister, with whom Papet was once close. She married when he was in military hospital in Algeria, moved away. Papet has never married.

Florette, we learn, has died the days news came of her brother’s death. She leaves a son, a tax collector and, what is worse, a hunchback, against whom there is instinctive prejudice, believing them to be cursed by God. He is city-bred, he will sell. But he does not: Jean Cadoret, who in the local parlance would be called Jean de Florette, John of Florette, John of the Flowers, has a dream of living in the country, of providing for himself and his family, his wife Aimee, a former opera singer, and their daughter Manon, named after her favourite role.

Jean is Depardieu, and one look at him signals to you that tragedy is inevitable. Jean is honest, open, enthusiastic, ambitious, but he is a dreamer who has not a morsel of the practical knowledge of the Provence peasantry, the farmers who tear their living out of the land. But Jean has hope and manuals and calculations that will make him self-sufficient and rich.

Just one look. The city clothes. The bowler hat, the long, buttoned down town coat, the cane, the gloves he wears to carry out the repairs, the digging, the planting, the tending of the kitchen garden that he knows will feed them, the ambitious plans for a rabbit farm that will not be allowed to get out of hand and strip the country, like Australia.

Oh, Jean is a comic cut, with his honest belief in the goodwill of his neighbour, Ugolin, who encourages him and helps and watches him carefully. Ugolin, whom Aimee does not like, nor does Manon, whom Jean gently reprimands. It is not Ugolin who is ugly but Manin’s thoughts when she says so.

And the Soubeyrands watch and gloat. The spring is dammed, they have dammed it. No-one will tell Jean because they have isolated him from anyone who might tell him, isolated beyond what he has already done, bringing in food from outside, being an outsider, bearing that hump.

It takes two years, but the inevitable has patience. A heatwave. The constant trips to the distant spring in the heat that is an even money bet will kill Jean or the mule first. The increasing dependece upon wine. The decreasing inheritance. Ugolin, who despite himself and Papet’s sneers, likes Jean, softens to the point of offering to buy the farm, only for Jean to use the valuation as a basis for a mortgage: money to dig a well, to revive the farm, to pay things off in twelve months. Fatally, the mortgage money is offered by Papet.

It cannot be postponed forever. The well hits bedrock. Jean dynamites the rock. in his eagerness to see the water gush forth like some Arizonan oilwell, he runs in too soon and is hit by falling rock. He dies on his kitchen table. Ugolin reports the dath, the culmination of the plot to Papet. He insists that he is not crying, it is only his eyes that are crying.

The mortgage is foreclosed. After repayments, fees and interest, Aimee will have 3,880 francs on which to bring up Manon. They leave the farm. But the Soubeyrands are impatient, Papet is impatient. They unblock the spring too soon, the water bubbling up, not gushing but still intense. Manon has followed them into the brush, has seen the water, has understood. She runs away, shrieking, a sound Papet mistakes for a buzzard killing, a metaphor that will return most aptly. Little Ernestine puts something in her face you wouldn’t imagine a child could know. Fin de Premiere Parte.

The story is incomplete, but it has drawn up lines and, like railway tracks, the people are not free to go where they choose. These lines will lead only to one place, driven by a family’s name and the risks attendant upon cunning and an overweening pride. Jean de Florette died upn the altar of his own pride, too blind at his ambition to understand just how ill-suited he was for his chosen future, yet such a simple thing as access to water could, no, would have seen him reached his own romantic ideal of the promised land.

And before this story plays out to a conclusion whose dimensions have already been concealed in the details we already know, we will understand just how much of a tragedy this already is.

I can’t praise this film highly enough. It is acted beautifully, naturally, with a total conviction in all its parts. The Provencal countryside is both beautiful and harsh, and the film’s extended shooting time enabled all aspects of it to be seen, even to the golden duststorm of the sirocco. Though this was made in 1986, it is so exact as to its period that there isn’t a sense of age to it: it owes nothing to the time of its making and is as immediate as it was so long ago. Time cannot touch it, it cannot wither or stale.

And this is only half a film. I am already eager for next Sunday.

Film 2019: Toy Story 2

Short of acknowledging the film’s extraordinary themes, of love and purpose, and of how far immortality falls short of beng satisfactory if it denies what you are, it feels as if there isn’t really much to ssay about Toy Story 2.

I could pad it out by outlining the speed at which the sequel was put together, appearing only four years after the original, and having to be fit in around the Pixar staff’s full-time commitment to A Bug’s Life, and how the film developed from a sixty minute long direct-to-video that may well have turned up in traditional animation, not CGI, but that would only serve to emphasise the extraordinary skill of everyone involved in bringing in so wonderful a picture under such conditions.

Toy Story 2 began as a typical direct-to-video feature, an attempt to duplicate the effect of the original on a fraction of the budget and a fraction of the originality: more of the same, only different. Instead, it became an object lesson into how to dig both deeper and wider into the underlying implications of what you’ve established.

What Toy Story had going for it, apart from the astonishing CGI animation, was an amazingly simple, intuitive idea: the life of toys when their children are not playing with them. It worked this out superbly well over a very limited canvas, of Andy’s house and Syd’s, and the rivalry between favourite toys that represent, literally, past and future.

What Toy Story 2 does is to look, with equal simplicity, at what a toy is for and, by extension, what do any of our relationships mean to us. Woody gets left behind from cowboy camp when he suffers a tear in one arm. It’s the begininng of obsolescence, further exemplified by Squeaky, the penguin who’s lost his squeak, and who, for Andy, has effectively ceased to exist.

What is the meaning of, what is the point of a broken toy? That forced obsolescence is but the harbinger of the inevitable and irrevocable obsolescence that comes when a toy, damaged or not, outlives its usefulness because its owner has outlived it.

Woody, thanks to the slobbish, nerdy greediness of Al of Al’s Toy Barn, is stolen to complete a toy set of which he is the centrepiece. He’s offered the chance to escape his own redundancy, to avoid obsolescence completely. Woody can overturn entropy, and can rescue the other toys of his set, Jessie the cowgirl, Bulleye the horse, and Stinky Pete, the comic old-timer, from an oblivion that’s already overtaken him. All he has to do isstep off the wheel (of karma?) before he is thrown off, and he can live forever.

At the expense of what he is made for, which is to be played with. Jessie’s song, ‘When she loved me’, written by Randy Newman, sung by Sarah McLachlan, encapsulates that. Jessie haspassed through that she is willing to cling to any kind of half-life to avoid the darkness. The Prospector, voiced with honeyed but hollow tones by Kelsey Grammar, has never even known that.

But the arrival of Buzz and Co on a rescue mission helps remind Woody that he hasn’t outlasted his purpose yet, and that however long or short a time in which he can be what he is and share the love for which he lives, it remains the most important thing of all for and to him. Woody chooses the one-day death because until that happens he’ll be alive, just as we choose the love that makes us into everything we can be just not forever, rather than deny ourselves living for a sterile, locked away existence.

So yes, I suppose there are things to say about Toy Story 2 after all, apart from saying it is again superb, and for once even better, because it isn’t a show, it’s a life, and we all want to see wwhat that feels like.