Tag Archives: 12 Years a Slave

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 107 – Widows

José falls in love with Widows, a portrait of life and survival in modern America in the skin of a heist film. Mike can see exactly why he should love it, but just doesn’t click with it.

Based on Lynda La Plante’s 1983 ITV series of the same name, Widows sees three women lose their criminal husbands in a heist gone wrong, and their attempt to complete their final job with the promise of a big payoff. The film draws parallels between urban gang violence and entrenched political dynasties, complicates the widows’ grief with sex and intimacy, and constructs the potential payoff not as a cause of celebration but as a way out of bad situations. José finds the film a visual marvel, layered and expressive, but to Mike it’s more a reminder of what he loved so deeply about You Were Never Really Here than great in its own right.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum, UK, 2014)

imitation game

In The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch makes a secretive, repressed, and recessive character transparent and emotionally accessible on various levels simultaneously. He also makes a socially inept and unlikeable character charming without watering down his worst qualities. It’s a truly great performance: a tour de force. I don’t think the film itself is good, but it works, and is very moving, particularly at the end, where one feels the whole audience collectively well up.

Some aspects of the film are unsatisfying. I understand how the three-act structure, which enables the film to focus on Bletchley Park and the various obstacles to breaking the enigma code, whilst simultaneously going back to his past to explain his character (how he is OCD, how he was capable of great love, how that love was lost and how he learned to be secretive) and to the future (to explain the causes and context of his arrest, his sentence and his suicide) is an attractive proposition to a screenwriter: it does make the story flow; it enables the narrative to travel through time whilst retaining the film’s focus — the Bletchley Park section — as a seeming constant present. However, it also makes the film seem too pat. People are messier than machines, there is no one ‘key’ to people’s character.

The best illustration of the film’s worst flaw is perhaps the character of Joan Clarke played by Keira Knightley. Knightley is a bit strained in the final sequence and not photographed to advantage there but she is lively, charming and natural in most of the film, and she is not the problem; indeed, few could have done as well with the role. The problem is that the role as written and filmed is not a person but a function. She’s there to demonstrate sexism in British society through custom and convention (her parents initially won’t allow her to work at Bletchley because it wouldn’t be ‘decorous’ and then they call her home because she’s twenty-five and single) and structure (she’s not initially allowed to sit for the recruiting test because she’s a woman).

Clarke is made to be almost as intelligent as Turing but better socialized; the function of the character is also to act in relation to and in contrast with Turing. Thus, although the film is at pains to depict the sexism Clarke suffers from, by the end she finds love and gets a husband whilst continuing with her career, her definition of having it all, whilst he who has helped save 14 million lives is arrested, castrated and driven to suicide for being homosexual. Clarke is an argument on oppression and a figure through which to convey its various hierarchies in the middle of the last century. She’s not a person. That she vaguely comes across as one is due to what Knightley as star and actor brings to the role: an elegant, glamorous, vivacity shot through with intelligence that somehow seems not too far removed from what might be deemed real but much more glamorous..

The film does offer many pleasures: an excellent Charles Dance as commanding obstruction to Turing’s project; Mark Strong brings a twinge of the nocturnal — heartlessness with a potential for cruelty — and considerable strength to his role — he makes the character of Stewart Menzies seems an embodiment of state-sanctioned deception; connoisseurs might also appreciate the sight of Steve Waddington, previously Jarman’s Edward II, the king who sacrificed his throne for the man he loved, here cast as the gruff Manchester copper who seals Turing’s doom. Aside from the performances, there’s nothing exceptional about the film but it’s adequately directed; it looks good and moves well. However, the greatest achievement of The Imitation Game is that it succeeds in making audiences cry for Turing, and by implication for all those treated equally unjustly half a century ago.

It’s not too long ago that I felt contemporary cinema had giving up on making audiences cry, thus abdicating one of the greatest functions of cinema and denying audiences one of its greatest pleasures. Yet, this is precisely what some of the most memorable and important films of the year have succeeded in doing: 12 Years a Slave and Interstellar are but two and divergent types of ‘weepies’. Moreover, seeing The Imitation Game made me realise that British Cinema has been markedly successful in eliciting tears: Philomena, Pride and now The Imitation Game, three of the biggest hits of the year, have all aimed for tears (as well as laughter) and audiences have responded as if those tears were on tap and ready to flow subject to a tactful prompt.

At heart these recent British films make us cry because they’re melodramas that dramatise the gap between individual desires and proscribed ways of being, that looks at the past and measures the gap between what was and what is just. They structure their stories around differentials in knowledge not just between characters in the story, such as the difference between what the headmaster knows about Turing and his friend Christopher and what we know, but also differences in knowledge between what the characters think and accept of certain issues such as homosexuality and what we, the audience, think and accept now. These films are important not only because they make us cry or because they make us cry about these characters but because they also make us cry at injustice.

Although Philomena, Pride and The Imitation Game, put homosexual identity at desire at the core of the narrative, they’re not gay films per se, they’re not predominantly addressed to a gay audience. They draw on a wide and accessible frame of reference that most anyone can understand. They’re part of the stories a culture tells itself about what it was, what it is, what it should be. And in telling these stories in these ways, in making ‘us’ cry about the injustices ‘we’ did to ‘them’, they re-insert gay men and women into the national narrative, they mark a move from ‘them’ to ‘us’. Homosexuality is thus re-imagined, inserted and made central to a cultural and national identity, shifted from a type of otherness and through tears re-inscribed into a national ‘we’. It is not anything I could once have imagined in my lifetime and quite something to experience.

José Arroyo

Britishness at the BAFTAS

Britishness seemed to be main motif in BBC’s broadcast of the BAFTAS Sunday evening. When host Stephen Fry mentioned that the event was the highlight of the British Film Calendar, he backtracked as he heard what he was saying and asked: Is there such a thing as a British Film Calendar?

He did well to ask because the constellation of stars he took great trouble to show off — Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Tom Hanks – is no different than what we’d expect to see at the Oscars, though at the Oscars one wouldn’t have had to rely on Twitter to learn that Brad Pitt and Angelina wore matching Yves St. Laurent tuxedos, Lily Allen was in Vivienne Westwood, Amy Adams wore Victoria Beckham and Cate Blanchett wore McQueen – there would have been a whole series of programmes right up to the start of the broadcast breathlessly recounting every aspect in great details and using the very latest technological developments to broadcast every stitch to an eager public and garner worldwide unpaid publicity for the giant fashion houses. But as Oprah Winfrey said before the show started, ‘this (the Baftas) is not about glitz and glamour’.

But what are the BAFTAS about? What are they for? Presumably it’s to honour, celebrate and promote British Cinema. But one really wouldn’t have known that from the nominees of Best Film (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity, Philomena), Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, Steve McQueen, David O. Russell, Martin Scorcese) Best Actor (Christian Bale, Bruce Dern Leonardo DiCaprio, Chiwetel Ejifor, Tom Hanks) or even Best Actress (Amy Adams, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson). Indeed when the first award of the evening was announced and Gravity won for Best British Film, the twittersphere went into a frenzy of speculation as to what was British about it with Droo Padhiar of Peccadillo pictures insisting ‘It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British film. It is NOT a British Film’. Three times. Just in case one didn’t get the message.

Of course, one need not get too purist about these things. If the nominations don’t necessarily reflect a particular definition of British cinema, one which would probably run something along the lines of: films predominantly financed in Britain, about British stories, with a predominantly British cast and crew (Philomena, The Selfish Giant would be unproblematic examples), they do reflect British film culture: the films celebrated are the films that have entertained, delighted and informed us here, be they British or not. Moreover, later in the show when Cuarón returned to the stage to collect his award for Best Director and had presumably been made aware of the brouhaha over Gravity’s win for Best British Film he said, softly but pointedly: ‘I consider myself part of the British Film Industry. I’ve lived here for 13 years and made about half my films here. I guess I make a good case for the curbing of immigration.’ Yet, at the end of his speech, the cinematic culture Cuarón feels a part of was made clear and partly contradicted his earlier statement when he thanked Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Iñárritu, Mexican compadres and current colleagues in the higher reaches of global cinema. ‘I wouldn’t order breakfast before consulting them first,’ he said.

The Britishness of the BAFTAS was visible at oblique angles and at ‘special’ moments; thus the event was hosted at the Royal Opera House in London, one won the ‘Alexander Korda Award for Outstanding British Film’, or the ‘David Lean Award for Outstanding Direction’. The Britishness was also evident in the special awards presented. Thus we had the pleasure of seeing Juliet Stevenson, still truly, madly and deeply dazzling with her looks and her eloquence praise Peter Greenway as a visionary who challenged existing cinematic forms and pushed the boundaries of where cinema and painting meet, and to award him the ‘Michael Balcoln Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema’. Greenaway  graciously expressed his surprise and commented on the changes in contemporary cinema: It’s not the same as the cinema of our fathers and forefathers. Cinema has to be continuously reinvented.’ Tellingly, the person he singled out for thanks was his Dutch producer Kees Kasander who he said somehow always managed to put together the money for the British director to realise his singular works (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Prospero’s Books, etc). Such is filmmaking today.

A concern with Britishness and the forms of its articulation continued as  a recurring motif. Earlier in the show, after Stephen Fry introduced her as a ‘ghastly piece of shrieking, stinking offal, Emma Thomson replied, ‘Is it me or being British that makes being referred to as stinking offal …makes me feel so much better about myself.’ The finale of the evening was when HRH The Duke of Cambridge in his role as President of BAFTA introduced Jeremy Irons to really bring out the pomp and ceremony and recount the highlights Helen Mirren’s career. Accepting the award for her Fellowship of the BAFTAS, Mirren first thanked her old teacher, Alice Welding, who recently died at the age of 102 for having inspired her to desire to live in a world of literature and poetry; and then finished off her acceptance speech with a dazzling oration that invoked both acting and Albion, the ‘stuff that dreams are made on’ speech from The Temptest:

Our revels are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And like baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-cappe’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all of which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

is rounded with a sleep

It was a rather theatrical and very British end to a BAFTAS that saw 12 Years a Slave, a film which had Channel Four money, a British director and a large British cast, win Best Film but Gravity with its American money and cast and its Mexican director win Best British film. Chiwetel Ejiofor, black and British, won Best Actor. Oh and The Great Beauty the winner of Best Foreign Film didn’t even make it to the broadcast and was put in the little ‘These awards were handed out earlier’ addendum after the end of the main programme. The Britishness of these BAFTAS seems to be defined by placing America at the centre, various articulations of Britishness on the margins or ‘specialised’ categories, and Europeans out of the picture.

José Arroyo

A shorter version of this was published in the conversation as  https://theconversation.com/baffled-baftas-dont-know-how-to-be-british-23162