Tag: British Films

Another Year (2010)

Another Year header
Ruth Sheen and Jim Broadbent are either a blissfully happy and kind or rather smug couple in Another Year

Director: Mike Leigh

Cast: Jim Broadbent (Tom Hepple), Ruth Sheen (Gerri Hepple), Lesley Manville (Mary Smith), Peter Wight (Ken), Oliver Maltman (Joe Hepple), David Bradley (Ronnie Hepple), Karina Fernandez (Katie), Martin Savage (Carl Hepple), Michele Austin (Tanya), Phil Davis (Jack), Imelda Staunton (Janet)

Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are a blissfully content middle-class London couple. He’s a successful geologist, she’s an attentive NHS counsellor. They divide their time between work, their allotment and socialising with friends. But many of their friends are disaster zones. Gerri’s work colleague Mary (Lesley Manville) is a divorcee who falls over herself to tell people how happy she is, but is clearly depressed with a drink problem. Similarly, Tom’s old uni friend Ken (Peter Wight) is a lonely alcoholic, seriously overweight and equally depressed.

The fascinating question at the heart of Mike Leigh’s heart-felt and beautiful film is: are Tom and Gerri a sweetly loving couple who go out of their way to support friends – or are they a desperately smug pair, facilitating those around them in self-destructive patterns? It’s hard to say either way: and that’s the beauty of Leigh’s honest, subtle character study which presents a single year in the lives of these characters.

It’s also, of course, superbly acted by the cast – all of them regulars in the work of Leigh. Broadbent and Sheen are brilliant as a couple completely content and happy in themselves and confident that they essentially have life sussed. They are kind, considerate and supportive of everyone. But how much is this genuine and how much is it performative? They fuss and smile to each other around the depressed and fragile Mary – but do nothing to help her change and improve her life, and merrily continue to fill the glasses of both her and the even more alcohol ravaged Ken.

When Tom’s sister-in-law dies, they rush to support his quiet, reserved brother Ronnie (David Bradley). They arrange every detail of the funeral and do everything they can to remove any burden from him. Tom is furious at the selfish and uncaring attitude of Ronnie’s son Carl (a grimly chippy Martin Savage) who seems convinced he is somehow being cheated by them. They bring Ronnie back to stay with them for a few weeks – but frequently leave him alone or allow him to sit watching their own insular conversations. Sure, they give him a home and support, but do they really care or are they going through the motions of people who want to believe they really care?

Wouldn’t a real friend of Ken, tell the obviously over-weight, permanently drunk, desperately self-loathing man that he has serious problems and help him change his life, rather than refill his glass at every opportunity? Or is it a sign of Tom and Gerri’s decency that they don’t see it as their place to tell other people to live their lives? In addition, Tom sticks loyally by Ken in a way very few people would – its clear during a golf game with Ken, Tom, son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and pal Jack (Phil Davis) no-one else wants Ken there – and gives him more warmth and attention than you suspect anyone else ever has. Does it just not occur to him a real friend would help Ken change his life?

Above all, we see the frantic desperation and all-consuming anxiety, fear and neediness of Mary, played with a heartfelt and deeply moving frankness by a never-better Lesley Manville. Mary is a very sweet woman, who has lost her place in the world and clings to the idea – now long since departed from reality – that she is a young glamour puss, rather than a desperate, divorcee in her fifties. Tom and Gerri support Mary, making her a part of their lives. She is a frequent overnight guest in their house, has known Joe since he was little and relies on Gerri utterly for friendship.

But there is also a slight air of judgement with their treatment of Mary. Does having this all-too-obviously tragic case, this failure who is utterly emotionally dependent on them, make them feel better about themselves? What have they done over the years, for all those sympathetic ears and shoulders to cry on, to help Mary deal with the root cause of problems? While they are willing to listen at great length to her (often tedious and repetitive) conversation, they never once really step into help her effect real change.

Events bubble up as the lonely Mary begins to fixate on a fantasy of her forming a relationship with Joe. It’s implied everyone is aware of this, but politely do their best to hope the situation will go away. Manville is of course brilliant in playing the tragically self-deluded hope under this longing for a never-will-be relationship – particularly as she never once looks down on Mary, but plays with a real empathetic warmth, that helps us feel an immense sorrow for this woman, while still acknowledging she can be deeply frustrating.

And Mary perhaps has more warmth, and ability to connect naturally with people, than Tom and Gerri. This is suggested during a wonderful late scene with Ronnie (a brilliantly quiet David Bradley), where in a long conversation she forms more of a bond of him than we’ve seen Tom and Gerri, for all their patience, ever form. It’s impossible not to relate to Mary as she’s so clearly such a vulnerable person, desperate for love and human connection. Seeing her slow-motion collapse across the film is heart-rending. For all her flaws, she’s someone you are desperate to see happy.

Mike Leigh is able to capture all this in his beautifully observant film, perfectly placed, low-key but deeply affecting. There are never obvious beats and he is willing to show the positives as well as the flaws in every character. He never tips the deck either for or against Tom and Gerri, allowing us to judge them by their actions: they could be warm, friendly, open-house people who stick loyally to troubled friends most people would drop immediately; or they could be subconsciously using these tragic cases to feel even more blissfully happy with their own perfect lives. Leigh never tips it either way, and the breathtakingly emotional performances and beautifully played and written scenes mean that, even though the film is short on plot, it feels rich in character and emotion. It ends with a beautiful held long shot on Mary that, like the rest of this film, is deeply moving but also leaves you with more questions than answers. A triumph.

Heat and Dust (1983)

Shashi Kapoor and Greta Scacchi in a love across the divide in Heat and Dust

Director: James Ivory

Cast: Julie Christie (Anne), Greta Scacchi (Olivia Rivers), Shashi Kapoor (The Nawab), Christopher Cazenove (Douglas Rivers), Nickolas Grace (Harry Hamilton-Paul), Zakir Hussain (Inder Lal), Julian Glover (Crawford), Susan Fleetwood (Mrs Crawford), Patrick Godfrey (Dr Saunders), Jennifer Kendal (Mrs Saunders), Charles McCaughan (Chid), Madhur Jaffrey (Begum Mussarat Jahan), Barry Foster (Major Minnies)

Adapted by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala from her Booker-prize winning novel, Ivory-Merchant’s production of Heat and Dust is much like the source: precise, admirable and both faintly enigmatic and intriguingly slight. In 1982 Anne (Julie Christie) travels to India to discover more about the life of her great-aunt Olivia (Greta Scacchi). In 1923, Olivia lived in Satipur as wife to local official Douglas Rivers (Christopher Cazenove). The Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) is the local Indian prince, a charismatic man who may or may not be in league with local bandits. Enthralled by India, bored by British India but deeply in love with Douglas, Olivia still finds herself drawn to the Nawab. Scandal is round the corner.

Heat and Dust is a delicate, well-mounted adaptation, but it never quite engages as much as it should. Perhaps this is because its central plot – a white woman is fascinated by India – is a familiar trope in both novels and films of the Raj. It does take a different approach by intercutting between the present and the 1920s. This presents intriguing opportunities to show ways India has changed physically (the homes of the British Raj have become offices) but also ways it has remained the same culturally.

This carries across in the contrasting stories of two women, both of whom become intrigued by their surroundings and romantically entangled with Indian men. While Olivia is (eventually) disgraced and ostracised by her community, Anne has the freedom to make her own choices. Both women find themselves drifting into life-changes through male seduction. Perhaps this is one of the points of the film in the end – that women, no matter the timeline, are people that things (or men) happen to, rather than being the true owners of their own lives?

It seems the case with Olivia, who never feels in full control her own life, but instead moves inexorably towards a destiny she can’t really influence. Charmingly played, with a sparkle and playful innocence by Greta Scacchi in her film debut, Olivia’s motivations are almost deliberately obscured. Although Ivory uses a device at first of Olivia’s letters being dramatised by Scacchi addressing the camera, this device is swiftly dropped. The letters remain a presence, but we never hear from them. Instead most of Olivia’s actions are narrated by her friend Harry (Nickolas Grace), now an old man. It places a distance between the viewer and Olivia, making her actions harder to understand.

But then that is part of the enigma. India is a land of heat and dust, where normal rules don’t apply and people (particularly those from the West) find themselves reformed by. Olivia has no time for the stuffy, racist British population (especially the frightful woman). But she’s drawn to the Nawab partly because he’s a fusion of East and West, an Indian exotic with the charm of an English gentleman. For his part the Nawab, very well played by Shashi Kapoor, plans a seduction but his motives are as hard to read as Olivia. Is it attraction or revenge on the British for their contempt?

Perhaps it’s a film where we look for deep meaning and motivations, but it is in fact about how we don’t necessarily make grand decisions about our lives, but make a series of in-the-moment decisions. Both Anne and Olivia never seem to proactively make decisions, but instead events largely occur to them. Although this can make for a film sometimes lacking in energy, it does avoid making things obvious for the audience. Even if that can be frustrating when characters remain almost deliberately oblique.

What’s also oddly frustrating about the film is its more modern section. The commentary comparing the present and the past promises much but actually adds little. Anne is a curiously uninvolving character, played with a sweet tenderness by Julie Christie. Anne is hardly proactive and there is very little narrative drive behind her exploration of the past. Strangely the issues the more modern section deals with – including digs at Western cultural tourists – end up feeling less relevant than the issues of race and empire in the 1920s.

And its unfortunate that the 1920s plot line, although well staged and managed, seems extremely familiar – with echoes of A Passage to India and The Jewel in the Crown for starters. While it’s well acted (as well as those mentioned, Christopher Cazenove is very good) and creates an enigmatic atmosphere, you often feel you’re seeing something done better elsewhere. It starts as an investigation into the past, but becomes something more freeform, as if in the heat and dust of India, plans come to nothing. But its air of enigma and portrayal of characters buffeted by small events doesn’t come together into a compelling story or a rich insight into India.

A Passage to India (1984)

Judy Davis and Victor Bannerjee in Lean’s final film on tensions in the Raj, A Passage to India

Director: David Lean

Cast: Victor Bannerjee (Dr Azizi), Judy Davis (Adela Quested), Peggy Ashcroft (Mrs Moore), James Fox (Richard Fielding), Alec Guinness (Professor Narayan Godbole), Nigel Havers (Ronny Heaslop), Richard Wilson (Collector Turton), Antonia Pemberton (Mrs Turton), Michael Culver (Major McBryde), Clive Swift (Major Callendar), Art Malik (Ali), Saeed Jaffrey (Hamidullah), Ann Firbank (Mrs Callendar), Roshan Seth (Amit Rao)

David Lean’s final film came after a 14 year hiatus after the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Ryan’s Daughter. (During a disastrous two-hour lunchtime with several prominent US film critics, Lean was asked outright how the director of Brief Encounter could have made “such a piece of bullshit” – the experience shattered his confidence for years). When he returned, it was with this handsome literary adaptation of EM Forster’s classic novel on the tensions in the British Raj. A Passage to India is a wonderful fusion between Lean’s later films that fill the largest canvas, and the carefully judged Dickensian adaptations of his early years.

In 1920s Chandrapore, Adela Quested (Judy Davis) has arrived from England with her prospective mother-in-law Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) to marry the local magistrate Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers). The two women are fascinated by India and its culture – and quickly bored with the parts of it the ex-pat community will show them (basically a sort of little-England alcove). When they befriend local Muslim doctor Aziz (Victor Bannerjee) and liberal pro-Indian school superintendent Richard Fielding (James Fox), Aziz invites them on a trip to the local Marabar Caves. During the trip, Miss Quested flees and accuses Aziz of attempted rape. Aziz pleas his innocence – Fielding and Mrs Moore believe him, Miss Quested seems confused – but the case becomes a cause celebre that will explode the tensions between the rulers and the colonised.

Lean’s production of the book (as well as directing, he also wrote the screenplay and edited the film) is a delicate and handsome adaptation, carefully capturing the events of the book and making a manful effort to bring to life its textures and complexities. Forster had worked in India for several years as the secretary to a Maharajah and for many years was in love with an Indian called Masood. He had a unique perspective of Indian/English relations (much of it filtered into the character of Fielding) which he believed was underpinned not only by misunderstanding but also unpassable barriers that Empire throws up between East and West.

A Passage to India doesn’t always quite manage to capture this – perhaps largely because the book’s third act (which focuses in particular on the strains on the friendship between Aziz and Fielding) is truncated down to about 12 minutes of the film’s 2 and half hour run time. This does mean the film’s final impact feels rushed and unclear – and that the final parting of these characters doesn’t carry the impact it should. I can see why this has been done – that section of the book is less interesting, and also shows Aziz, at times, in a less sympathetic light – but it does mean the film misses something of the book’s engagement with moral and intellectual issues in favour of delivering the cold, hard plot of the Caves and the trial.

But these sections are well-judged, carefully structured and expertly executed. Lean’s film is very good on observing the kneejerk racism (some paternal, some outright unpleasant) from the British community. The incongruity of British clubs, garden parties and middle-class homes and lawns in a foreign land. How Indians are only welcome into these settings as silent servants or repurposed into British icons, such as brass bands. The total detachment of the rulers from the ruled: the tour of India arranged by Ronny features the British barracks, court-room and culminates in some ghastly amateur theatricals. Indians exist only to be told what to do and to applaud their rulers.

This is counterpointed with the rich, vibrant, dynamic culture of the Indians. If the film sometimes tips into displaying this as a sort of Oriental mysticism, that can be partly because our experience of it is often filtered through Adela and Mrs Moore who are bewitched and intrigued by a country of colours, emotions and passions unheard of in Britain.

Lean’s film never overlooks the Indians though. Our introduction to Aziz is to see him nearly mowed down on his bike by a speeding government car. His home is kept in good condition, but cannot compare to the wealth of the British. He and his friends talk passionately of the possibility for independence. There is a natural expectation of rudeness and dismissal from the British, that is taken in their stride.

Well played – if the role is a little passive – by Victor Bannerjee, Aziz is the victim we witness events through. Proud to befriend the British women, friendly and over-eager, Aziz is a highly unlikely would-be rapist. Put-upon and dismissed by his British superiors, he’s a lonely widower whose children are living hundreds of miles away, who suggests the trip in a moment of social awkwardness and goes to absurd ends to make the trip a success.

Sadly, its doomed. Leans film does a good job of maintaining much of the book’s mystery of what happens in the caves. Lean also finds a visual way of representing much that lies implied in the book. In an invented scene before  the trip, Adela cycles into the Indian countryside eventually finding a ruined temple filled with sexually explicit statues and hordes of monkeys in heat. Its clear the exposure to sexuality both shocks and unnerves her – but also fascinates her. Later she dreams of the statues she has seen. The same overwhelming feels seem to consume her in the caves – a heightened sense bought on by claustrophobia and a fear of a moment of personal intimacy between her and Aziz, perhaps spinning off into a temporary nervous collapse.

The film doesn’t state it for sure, but the implication is carefully put there. It leads perfectly into the well-staged trial scenes. Lean’s film focuses largely on delivering the plot of the novel, rather than the depths, but in delivering this crucial encounter he finds a marvellous way to use the language of film (music, editing and photography all interplay effectively in the sequences to add to their unsettling eeriness) to dramatise a literary sequence.

It’s not a perfect film. At times languid, it could no doubt have done with a bit more tightening and pace (it takes nearly half the film to reach the caves). While the film benefits from the build of the atmosphere and the tensions between both cultures, if Lean can do Great Expectations in less than two hours you feel he could have done this book more tightly. The unfortunate decision to cast a brown-face Alec Guinness as Brahmin scholar Professor Godbole looks more uncomfortable with each passing year – not least as all other Indian roles are played by Indian actors.

The film does however have a very strong cast. Judy Davis is both fragile, uncertain and at times even deeply frustrating (in the intended way!) as Miss Quested. Peggy Ashcroft won an Oscar (part of a late boom in her screen career – she also won a BAFTA the same year for The Jewel in the Crown) as the very grounded and worldly-wise Mrs Moore. James Fox gives his finest performance as the sympathetic Fielding caught between two worlds and eventually rejected by both.

A Passage to India has a lot of Lean’s visual mastery, but it’s less a sweeping pictorial epic and more of a careful and well-judged literary adaptation. While it does focus more on the plot and less on the meaning of the novel, and it overlong and at times lacking in energy, it also has some fine performances and brings many parts of the novel triumphantly to life. His final film does not disgrace his CV.

Great Expectations (1946)

Valerie Hobson and John Mills in David Lean’s masterful adaptation Great Expectations

Director: David Lean

Cast: John Mills (Pip), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe Gargery), Francis L Sullivan (Jaggers), Finlay Currie (Abel Magwich), Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham), Alec Guinness (Herbert Pocket), Jean Simmons (Young Estella), Anthony Wagner (Young Pip), Ivor Barnard (Wemmick), Freda Jackson (Mrs Joe Gargery), Eileen Erskine (Biddy), Torin Thatcher (Bentley Drummle)

Of all Dicken’s books there is perhaps none so popular as Great Expectations – and no Dickens adaptations are more highly regarded than David Lean’s 1946 film. Of course, just under two hours is only time to tell a simplified version of Dicken’s original. But no-one’s taking the book away. What Lean’s film did triumphantly was turn Dicken’s prose into a clear cinematic language and style, without losing the uniqueness of the author’s voice. Lean’s visual mastery is perfectly matched with his experience as an editor of telling a story to produce an endlessly entertaining film.

As a young boy Pip (Anthony Wagner) encounters an escaped convict (Finlay Currie) in a graveyard. Intimidated, Pip brings the convict food and tools to escape his chains – acts which the convict clears him of when he is caught later that day. Weeks later, Pip is invited to the home of rich spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) to provide her and her adopted daughter Estella (Jean Simmons) with company. The visits continue until Pip’s apprenticeship as a blacksmith to his brother-in-law Joe (Bernard Miles) begins. Imagine Pip’s (now John Mills) surprise six years later when he is informed by lawyer Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan) that he has come into money – that he has become a gentlemen of “great expectations”. Assuming it is the work of Miss Havisham – and that he is destined to marry Estella (now Valerie Hobson) – he is horrified to discover his life is more complex than he believed.

The film repackages Great Expectations a bit more into a romance. While the relationship between Pip and Estella, and the bond between them, is clear in the novel – and a large part of its plot – its but one thread masterfully woven together into the final storyline. Here this thread is given prominence, at the cost of several others. It’s not a complaint as such, but it makes Great Expectations into a more traditional story: a feeling added to by the film’s more conventional “feel-good” ending (very different from the much more uncertain ending of the novel, that Dicken’s edited back and forth in different editions to increase or decrease its hopefulness). However, it works for creating a film story, even if it loses some of the depth of the novel.

Its also more than balanced by how much the film gets right. Lean brilliantly captures the novel’s atmosphere, its gothic sense of impending dread, the burden of the past and the paranoia of persecution. For decades the opening scenes of the film, with its masterfully shot and edited mist covered graveyard (simultaneously a place of peace and a place of unsettling unknowability ) bursting into life through the grasping hands of Magwich, were practically used as a textbook example of cinematic language. Lean’s work is intensely cinematic. The mis en scene of Expectations is masterful – everything from casting, to camera angles to score comes together to bring Dickens world to life. This is exactly his London as he wrote it. It’s a wonderful expression of a particular author’s style, told using a mastery of cinematic language – from camera angles to editing cuts.

The characters have that perfect sense of eccentricity laced with menace that Dickens invests them with. Francis L Sullivan’s Jaggers is an unknowable legal machine who is part man of business, part fearsome fixer. Alec Guinness (in his film debut) is good-natured kindness to a T as Pip’s faithful friend Herbert (in one lovely scene he politely and gently corrects Pip’s primitive table manners). Finlay Currie’s Magwich captures the sense of danger and threat in the book’s opening that will become a fatherly meekness in the story’s later acts.

Largest of all, Martita Hunt’s gothic Miss Havisham sits like a giant spider at the centre of a decaying web. The design of Satis House – with its rotting wedding cake, sprawling cobwebbed dinner service, the heavy curtains and lack of light – is just one of the many perfect touches in the film. Hunt herself is superb as this outwardly eccentric aunt, who in fact has been nursing a core of bile and hatred that ends up only hurting those closest to her. There is something hugely dreamlike about Miss Havisham’s home – you suspect Lean may have watched some Cocteau – with its strangely angled table and mix of intimate framing and wide-angle crane shots.

Perhaps because we only see, not read, Pip’s actions in this film it’s impossible not notice what an arrogant snob he becomes. John Mills does decent work in the part, but (much as in the book) Pip ends up feeling like a slightly colourless figure. The film doesn’t always explore in detail the negative sides of his character meaning moments like his patronising dismissal of the kindly Joe (a perfectly judged Bernard Miles), don’t do the character much favours. Mills does however make a larger impression than Valerie Hobson, left slightly adrift as Estella. She’s not helped by how outstanding Jean Simmons is as the young and preciously flirtatious Estella, the perfect picture of the little cruelties teenagers inflict on each other. (A braver film might have had her play the role throughout – but then Mills would look even older than he does!)

The film is very strong on the pain caused to these two characters – and that they cause for each other. More than any other version, we get a sense here of how Miss Havisham’s misguided aim to use Estella as a weapon of revenge on all men only manages to hurt Estella herself and Pip (her one true love as presented here). Just as a Pip’s snobbish dismissal of Joe stings. And Lean’s brilliant sense of pace and rhythm means that this plays hand-in-hand with Pip’s ever more desperate attempts in the second half to save Magwich from doom.

Many of the complexities of the plot (from Estella’s parents to Herbert’s marriage to several key characters) are cut out, but it’s striking how the film still manages to feel so faithful to the book. Lean’s understanding of Dickens mix of eccentricity and darkness is communicated in every frame. The major moments and characters from the book are beautifully bought to life, from that opening scene to Satis House. But also because small moments, like Wemmick’s “Aged P” remain in the film. Sure, the canvas has been reduced – and refocused into a love story of sorts – but the picture that emerges is still very much in the style of Dickens.

That’s what makes it one of the greatest adaptations of all time: it’s both an interpretation of the original and a beautifully judged capturing of its spirit and tone. An adaptation twice the length may have caught more plot, but would not have been such a fine movie. Because so much of this film’s imagery and drama sticks in the mind long after it is finished. Lean’s masterstroke here was to understand completely the heart of the book, and to focus the film on that. Brilliantly assembled, designed, shot and acted, it’s still one of the best literary adaptations ever made.

Odd Man Out (1947)

James Mason is wounded and on the run in Odd Man Out

Director: Carol Reed

Cast: James Mason (Johnny McQueen), Kathleen Ryan (Kathleen Sullivan), Robert Newton (Lukey), Robert Beatty (Dennis), Cyril Cusack (Pat), FJ McCormick (Shell), William Hartnell (Fencie), Fay Compton (Rosie), Denis O’Dea (Inspector), WG Fay (Father Tom), Maureen Delaney (Theresa O’Brien), Dan O’Herlihy (Nolan), Elwyn Brook-Jones (Tober)

Is it set in Belfast, or is it set in Purgatory? We follow in the footsteps of Johnny McQueen (James Mason), a leader of “the organisation” (the IRA by another name), on the run in an Irish city with a bullet buried in him. With the police looking to bring him to book, Johnny has to find his way to safety – easier said than done when pain and blood-loss keeps you moving between consciousness and collapse. Is this Johnny’s dying fever dream? It’s a tempting interpretation of Carol Reed’s stunning Odd Man Out (the first of a hat trick of masterpieces from Reed over three years, the others being The Fallen Idol and The Third Man).

It’s a perfect marriage of styles. It opens with a sense of documentary realism that would do Rossellini proud, the camera flying over its unnamed Irish city. As we dive into the house where Johnny and his cell are hiding out, planning a robbery for much-needed funds, the film tips into a marriage of noir and classic gangster film. After the disastrous robbery, where Johnny shoots a man dead in a scuffle, the film becomes more and more an impressionistic series of vignettes as an at-times delirious Johnny stumbles from encounter to encounter, meeting a host of people who help or hinder him, many of whom want him for their own ends (from reward to bizarre artistic inspiration). All this is intermixed with his own increasingly tenuous grip on reality, some scenes floating and soaring with Johnny’s own fantasies and visions as the bullet in him slowly drains his lifeforce.

As Reed’s film increasingly moves into a world that is a few degrees less real than our own, you could argue that perhaps Johnny was dead from the start. That this is his own journey through some sort of Dante-inspired purgatory. His own odyssey, where he will encounter some who want to save him and others who want to damn him.  Reed brilliantly helps us share Johnny’s vulnerability by taking the film ever more off-balance. From Johnny’s visions of the past in the air raid shelter where he takes shelter we spiral down into a surreal bombed out house and an ending that has the sniff of Greek tragedy.

No wonder Johnny feels disconcerted, as this is a rag-tag city with its own rules. Half under construction, half well-established, where the streets are a mix of cars and horse-drawn cabs, Johnny’s journey takes him from dotty housewives to tramps to saviour priests and Dickensian artists. As his fever takes hold, so does the bizarreness of his settings, until he finds himself in an abandoned grand house leaking snow from outside, being painted by a drunken artist who wants to capture the moment of death on his canvas. It’s a million miles from the forensic reality of the robbery that the film started with. Yet it never feels out of place.

A large part of that is because of how brilliantly the film invests us in Johnny’s journey – with Reed’s inspired camera-work and story-telling pulling us into his experience. James Mason spends large chunks of the film in silence, but his performance is extraordinary. A man who seems partly aware that he’s dying, guiltily wanting to know if the man he shot died. Who even from the start seems to have lost his purpose, doubting if violence can bring the results “the organisation” wants, dazzled by sunlight after years in prison, who leads his cell through habit rather than inspiration. Mason’s brilliance here is capturing the very essence of suffering humanity, a confused and frightened man who struggles to understand what is happening around him. Buffeted by events, he’s sympathetic because he never feels in control.

Partly that’s because death feels like its always been waiting for Johnny. You can see it from the start, as he sits in his hide out wondering what its all been for. Kathleen (well played by an impressionable Kathleen Ryan) can’t get death off her mind as she talks about finding and saving Johnny or dying with him. Sympathetic priest Father Tom (a devout WG Fay) just wants to have the chance to save his soul. There is a sense of inevitability about the film – helped by Mason’s crumbling weakness – that destruction is coming and nothing can avoid it.

Reed’s film also has a brilliant sense of the compromises and shady questions of right-and-wrong. Johnny is a murderer and a terrorist – even if he also is a man plagued with doubt. Kathleen is a romantic and a fanatic. Hotel owner Theresa plays both ends against the middle. The coppers will do their duty, but they don’t seem vindictive, just determined to do what they must. There are no clear moral answers in this film, everyone has shades of grey.

It all combines together into one of the most inventive, dynamic and compelling British films of the 1940s by a director who was entering a purple patch where he could claim to be the greatest director in the world. This is a perfect fusion of styles – part realist, part impressionist – that puts you into a cold reality before tipping us into a poetic never-world where the boundary between life and death seems blurred. With a superb performance from Mason (and the rest of the cast), this is still one of the all-time greats.

Rocks (2020)

The lives of a group of friends in a London school is wonderfully bought to life in Rocks

Director: Sarah Gavron

Cast: Bukky Bakray (Olushola “Rocks” Omotoso), Kosar Ali (Sumaya), D’angelou Osei Kissiedu (Emmanuel Omotoso), Shaneigha-Monik Greyson (Roshé), Ruby Stokes (Agnes), Tawheda Begum (Khadijah), Afi Okaidja (Yawa), Anastasia Dymitrow (Sabina), Sarah Niles (Ms. Booker), Layo-Christina Akinlude (Funke Omotoso), Sharon D. Clarke (Anita)

It may have surprised people when Rocks emerged as the most nominated film at the BAFTA Awards for 2020. It really shouldn’t, as this independent film is not only rich, expressive and humanitarian film-making, it’s also a deeply heartfelt and emotional insight into overlooked lives in Britain, made with an expressive skill and richness.

Set in an inner-London school, the film follows Rocks (Bukky Bakray), a black teenage girl, left caring for her young brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) after her mother walks out on them (leaving just a note and small envelope of cash). Terrified of being taken in and separated by social services, Rocks struggles to cope with the pressures forced upon her.

It’s a simple plot – and could have been told with a Loachesque bleakness, like a modern-day Cathy Come Home. Instead though Gavon and writers Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson frame a story that could have been misery with warmth, love and hope. The film’s essential optimism and faith in the goodness of people makes it – for all the heart-breaking sadness it includes – a far more involving and moving film than a social lecture would have been.

It also treats its teenage characters not as future tearaways, thoughtless millennials or shallow bullies. Instead they feel like real, breathing and genuine people, capable of moments of thoughtlessness but still fundamentally decent. Rocks’ best friend Sumaya (Kosar Ali, who is brilliant) is desperate to help her friend – and, for all the tears Rocks jealousy of her settled family causes, persists in being loyal and mature to the end. Even the disastrous mistake caused by Rocks’ friend Agnes comes only from an overwhelming desire to help. What also makes this film feel optimistic and real is that these disagreements are resolved with a mature kindness and emotional intelligence we could all learn from.

At the centre of is Rocks herself, played with an astonishingly naturalness and emotional rawness by Bukky Bakray. Rocks is a child forced to become an adult too early – eventually dragging Emmanuel around streets, from house to house and pretending she is his mother to book rooms in a hotel – all the time terrified to let her situation become known to social services. Rocks doesn’t have much in her life – a deceased father, a useless mother – and the thought of losing what family she has left is agonising to her. It’s what lies behind her bitter, subconscious, envy and rage at seeing the large and supportive family Sumaya has. It’s everything she has ever wanted but never had.

The only place where she can truly relax and be a child is at school. There she is free for a while of the pressures of home and caring for her brother. Gavron’s film shows an extraordinarily refreshing look at inner-city school life. These are kids who may behave ‘badly’ at points (but boisterous more than anything, captured in a food fight that breaks out in a cooking class), but they are passionate, engaged and ambitious. They have genuine dreams for the future – lawyer, businessmen, make-up artist are all careers mentioned – they seize with fascination on a lesson taught about Picasso. Far from the cliché of drifters, the film shows a world of teenagers full of passion, interest and talent – some of which, you fear, may never be truly tapped into.

It makes a real contrast with the harried doubts and concerns Rocks has to deal with in the ‘adult’ world. Her situation drives her to theft, lying and puts divides between her and her friends, who she seems unable to really open herself up to and ask for help. Her anxiety is picked up on by her adorable brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu gives a phenomenal performance of warmth, cheek and later devastating fear), who makes it his mission to cheer her up: a scene in a hotel where his simple, gentle attempts to comfort her and make her laugh are tear-inducingly endearing.

It’s all part of the winning humanity at the heart of the film. There are mistakes made in this film by its characters, forced separations and painful arguments. But, where other films would have used this as a bitter spiral to hammer home a depressing message about the bleakness of the world (and by implication of communities like this), this film remains optimistic. Despite everything, it ends with an image of a group of friends laughing and playing on a beach – they’ve feuded but have an emotional maturity to forgive adults could do with. It’s part of the fundamentally positive outlook.

The film even manages to not demonise social services in the way so many similar films do. Truth be told its clear Rocks can’t cope with these pressures – her friends know it even she and Emmanuel know it. The contrast between the girl we see in the opening moments and the increasingly insular and harassed figure she becomes is striking. Social services are genuinely concerned people – who are right to be concerned. The eventual resolution is remarkable for its normality and even touches of positivity and hope for a new beginning. It’s a film that explores the life of the less well off in the inner-city without preaching at or depressing us.

And that optimism is its greatest strength, as it allows us to see people rather than social issues. It’s an agenda-free film that simply tries to tell a human story – and, with the energy and passion its shot with, immerses us in the lives of a group of people many of us would walk past without thinking about. Rocks is about a world where people want to rally round and help, where hope and new beginnings can be found in any situation. It doesn’t shy away from moments of pain – and there are moments here that will break your heart – but it never loses its optimism and humanity.

Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Victoria and Abdul
Judi Dench and Ali Fazal forge an unlikely friendship in the tame heritage flick Victoria and Abdul

Director: Stephen Frears

Cast: Judi Dench (Queen Victoria), Ali Fazal (Abdul Karim), Tim Pigott-Smith (Sir Henry Ponsonby), Eddie Izzard (Prince Albert), Adeel Akhtar (Mohammad Bakhsh), Michael Gambon (Lord Salisbury), Paul Higgins (Dr James Reid), Olivia Williams (Baroness Spencer), Fenella Woolgar (Harriet Phipps), Robin Soans (Lord Stamfordham), Simon Callow (Giacomo Puccini)

In the last decade of her life, Queen Victoria (Judi Dench – who else?) makes an Indian servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), one of her closest friends and advisors. As Victoria and Abdul become closer, the rest of the court are outraged – bad enough that the Queen is spending all this time with an over-promoted servant, but an Indian as well?!

The fundamental events of Victoria & Abdul are true. There was a man called Abdul Karim – and Victoria did raise him from servant to a confidant. He did cause conflict in the royal household and was finally sent back to India after her death, after surrendering most of his papers. But Victoria & Abdul repackages this friendship into a cosy, Sunday-afternoon entertainment, bereft of depth. And carefully works on the rough surfaces to make the story smooth and easy to digest.

The film is clearly trying to ape the success of Mrs Brown – a far more intelligent and emotionally complex (if similarly heritage) film that looked at Victoria’s previous all-consuming friendship with a male servant, John Brown. But that film didn’t close its eyes to the negatives of such relationships, as this one does. It made clear royal attention can be fickle – and being elevated above others can help make you your own worst enemy. In that film, after a honeymoon, the friendship declines into one of residual loyalty but reduced affection. It’s a realistic look at how we might lean on someone at times of grief, but separate ourselves from them later. Victoria & Abdul takes only one lesson from Mrs Brown: that a close bond between monarch and commoner is heart-warming.

The film in general is in love with the idea that if the Queen could only speak directly to her people, the world would be a better place. It presents a Victoria stifled by court procedure who knows very little about her empire and is constrained by the courtiers around her. It wants us to think that if the Queen took direct rule, she’d be kinder, wiser and more humane. That this figurehead symbol could craft a better British Empire if she was an absolute monarch.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. This romantic view of “Victoria the Good” is comforting stuff, but undermined even within the film by our introduction to the Queen at a royal dinner, where Victoria stuffs food down herself so quickly that mountains of untouched food goes uneaten on the plates of the other diners (as all plates are removed the moment she is finished). And despite being told that the Koh-i-noor diamond was stolen by the British (to her surprise), she still doesn’t think twice about wearing it later in the film while in the midst of her Indian passion. And while the real Victoria loathed the racist attitudes of some at her court, she still clearly sees herself as a paternalistic mother figure for India, which could of course never be able to make its own decisions about things.

Not that the film is interested in tackling more complex ideas of the position of India and its independence. It’s similarly confused by Abdul himself. In a more interesting film, Abdul would have been partly naïve servant and partly charming rogue. He very carefully spins an invented story of himself as a teacher and thinker (he’s actually a clerk from a fabric office) and it would have been interesting to see his building of a relationship with Victoria at least partly being based on self-gain. He certainly gains an awful lot from her – from his own carriage on her train to a home and his own servants. It would have been possible to have this side of him and still have his loyalty and friendship to the Queen being genuine. But it’s too much for the film to tackle.

An Abdul who was consciously playing a role of exotic thinker might have come across as a scam-artist – but would have given the film a lot more to play with, when the royal court is full of people positioning and presenting themselves for influence. Adeel Ahktar’s fellow-servant Mohammed even suggests in one scene that this is what Abdul is doing – and good luck to him. But the film is scared that this could be seen as endorsing the court’s fears about Abdul. So the character is neutered into nothing: he becomes exactly the sort of empty “exotic”, free of opinion and character, that filled out the extras list of a 1940s epic. He has no agency, never makes any decision or expresses any opinion. And his feelings for Victoria are presented as totally genuine which, combined with his foot kissing, turns him into someone who looks and feels really servile.

This is because the film wants to tell the story of a perfect friendship, with the British upper classes as the hissable baddies (never mind that no one is more upper class than Victoria). Never mind that Abdul’s action will indirectly condemn Mohammed to death in the British climate – or that while Abdul rises, Mohammed becomes his servant, still consigned to sleeping on the floor of his railway carriage. We learn nothing about Abdul. How did this clean-living saint become riddled with the clap? Why did he die so young? Did he really think nothing of the riches and honours Victoria showered him with? We don’t have a clue.

Instead the film keeps it simple with goodies (Victoria and Abdul) and baddies (almost everyone else). The most politically astute character, Mohammed, disappears and never allows things to get unpleasant. Jokes of the courtiers standing around aghast saying things like “Now he’s teaching her Urdu” are repeated multiple times. They’re fun, but it substitutes for dealing with the real issues.

It all has the air of ticking boxes. Frears’ direction is brisk, efficient and free of personality. Dench is great, but she could play this role standing on her head while asleep. Pigott-Smith (in his final role) is fine but Farzal has nothing to work with and Izzard provides a laughable pantomime role of lip-smacking villainy as the future Edward VII. The finest performance – handling the most interesting material – is from Ahktar. He’s the only character who seems to place what we see here in any form of context. Other than that, this film is just a string of very comforting heritage ideas, thrown together with professionalism but a total lack of inspiration.

The Dig (2020)

THe Dig header
Ralph Fiennes plays an amateur digger who makes a huge discovery in the poetic The Dig

Director: Simon Stone

Cast: Carey Mulligan (Edith Pretty), Ralph Fiennes (Basil Brown), Lily James (Peggy Piggott), Johnny Flynn (Rory Lomax), Ben Chaplin (Stuart Piggott), Ken Stott (Charles Phillips), Archie Barnes (Robert Pretty), Monica Dolan (May Brown)

One of the greatest archaeological finds in British History, the Anglo-Saxon burial ship in Sutton Hoo revealed vast treasures and cultural insights that are very rarely glimpsed. Land-owner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), a widow with a young son Robert (Archie Barnes), hires self-taught excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to investigate the curious mounds on her land. Brown discovers one of them holds the buried ship. But the dig is taken from his control by the British Museum, led by Charlie Phillips (Ken Stott): professional archaeologists who want to ensure the work is ‘done properly’. With tensions of class and profession, everyone must race against time to complete as much of the work as possible before the outbreak of the Second World War.

On the surface, The Dig is a charming, heart-felt reconstruction of a fascinating moment of archaeological history, mixed with engaging (but familiar) stories of a working-class amateurs being patronised by upper-class professionals. However, Stone’s film manages to have a richer second layer. With war approaching, and mortality constantly on the mind of most of the characters, it’s also a subtle investigation of legacy, the past and death itself.

Stone’s film develops this with its rich, poetic filming style. Beautifully shot in a series of gorgeous hazy hues, with dynamic use of low-angles and wide-angle lenses, Sutton Hoo is given an almost mystical beauty. Stone also makes extensive use of playing dialogue over images not of the conversation, but smaller moments in character’s lives, from casual meetings to cleaning shoes, that as such take on a profounder meaning. It’s a visual representation of how our legacy is often a snapshot of images and relics, moments that stay in the memory even when events (or conversation in this case) has moved on. It’s subtly done, but carries a beautiful impact.

Then of course, it’s not surprising legacy in on the mind. Each of the characters is at a tipping point in their own lives. Edith Pretty – so consumed with quiet grief over the loss of her husband that she is desperate for there to be something on the other side – is struggling with her own health, aware she will shortly leave her son an orphan. Her cousin Rory prepares for service in the RAF – service she fears will shortly leave him dead (the dangers of the airforce are clearly shown when a trainee pilot crashes and drowns near to the dig).

This connection to the briefness and intangibility of life pushes people to address their own choices. After all they are all standing in the grave of a man considered so important at that the time, a ship was dragged several miles to honour him – and today we have no idea who he was. Married archaeologist couple Stuart and Peggy Piggott confront an amiable loveless marriage (he’s gay, she’s falling in love with Rory) that shouldn’t define their lives. Basil has dealt with quiet grief at a childless marriage, and sees his work in astronomy and archaeology as his legacy.

These ideas are gently, but expertly, threaded together with a reconstruction of the key issues around the dig. Needless to say, the academics – led by Ken Stott at his most pompous – have no time for Basil’s home-spun methods. Basil’s predictions of the Anglo-Saxon tomb are constantly dismissed until he literally digs the ship up. Immediately he is benched to clearing soil (and only on Edith’s insistence is he allowed to remain at all) and later his name will be scrubbed out of the official record. It’s always the way with Britain – and a sign of how tenuous our legacies can be.

The personal stories are not always as well explored. The film has its flaws, not least the sad miscasting of Carey Mulligan as Edith. In reality, Edith was in her mid-50s when the ship was discovered. The film was developed for Nicole Kidman, but with her withdrawal Mulligan (twenty years too young) was drafted in. Sadly, nothing was changed to reflect this: meaning the characters years of spinsterhood before marriage lose impact (seriously how old can she have been when she married? She’s got a 12 year old son!). A softly underplayed romantic interest between Edith and Basil is also rather unsettling considering the vast age difference between them. (It’s better to imagine it as a platonic bond).

It’s still more engaging than the rather awkward love triangle the film introduces late on between the married Piggotts and Edith’s (fictional) cousin Rory. It’s fairly familiar stuff – the closeted gay Piggott, the growing realisation of this by Peggy and the obvious charm and gentle interest of Rory – and more or less pans out as you might expect, although at least with a dollop of human kindness.

The film’s other delight is the acting. Ralph Fiennes is superb as the taciturn Basil, a dedicated self-taught man who knows what he is worth, but struggles to gain that recognition. Fiennes not only has excellent chemistry with Mulligan and Barnes, he also suggests a quiet regret in Basil as well as a fundamental decency tinged with pride. For all that she is miscast, Mulligan does very good work as Edith while Chaplin, James and Flynn make a lot of some slightly uninspired material.

The Dig is at its best when asking quiet and gentle questions about life and when it focuses on the platonic romance between Basil and Edith. Directed with a poetic assurance by Simon Stone, it doesn’t push its points too far and gets a good balance between fascinating historic reconstruction and more profound questions of mortality.

The Servant (1963)

Through a glass darkly: Dirk Bogarde and James Fox in a dark drama as master and The Servant 

Director: Joseph Losey

Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Hugo Barrett), Sarah Miles (Vera), James Fox (Tony) Wendy Craig (Susan Stewart), Catherine Lacey (Lady Agatha Mounset), Richard Vernon (Lord Willie Mounset)

Imagine a world where Bertie Wooster was a weak-willed, sexually confused drunk and Jeeves a malign force, to whom control over and destruction of his master go hand-in-hand. That’s the basic set-up of Joseph Losey’s masterpiece The Servant, a fascinating and brilliant exploration of class and sex in Britain in the 1960s, a lean, razor sharp, gripping and sinister film that lingers in your memory like a nightmare you can’t shake off.

Tony (James Fox) is a louche, rich young man returning home to Blighty, looking to expand his inherited fortune through dodgy property investments in Brazil. Before then, he needs a home to call his own – and a gentlemen’s gentlemen to run it. Tony hires Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), a scrupulously polite, observant man, able to meet every single one of his employer’s needs. But why is Tony’s fiancé Susan (Wendy Craig) so instinctively hostile to Barrett? And what is Barrett’s exact relationship with the housemaid Vera (Sarah Miles) he introduces into the house – and who quickly becomes the focus of Tony’s interest? Over time, the balance of power between servant and master becomes more and more uncertain.

Losey was an ex-pat American, driven out of the country by the McCarthy hearings. This adaptation of a Robin Maugham novel is the sort of brilliant deconstruction of (and assault on) the British class system and manners that perhaps only an outsider) could have made. The film drips with an air of corruption and vice. Even the earliest, most unobtrusive frames carry an air of over-observant malice. No coincidence this is also the leading quality of Barrett, perhaps one of the most darkly malign forces on film, whose piercing intelligence sees everything and whose self-control never slips. Losey’s camera constantly lingers over the slightest shot and detail, to an increasingly unsettling degree. As the plot becomes increasingly dark, claustrophobic and horrifying, the film’s exploration of the class-fuelled psycho-sexual, alcohol-fuelled relationship between Barrett and Tony becomes ever more pointed.

Losey partnered with the perfect script writer in Harold Pinter (who also briefly appears as a posh restaurant goer). Pinter’s lean, spare and menacing dialogue, with its corrupted poetry and acute psychological insight, is easily his finest film script – and perhaps the only one that truly could sit alongside his finest stage work. Pinter’s brutal vision of this twisted world is coated in a dark menacing commentary on Wodehouse (Susan and Barrett’s “duel” over the placing of a vase comes almost straight out of Jeeves) – and above all on the weakness that underlies those dependent on servants, as well as the loathing a servant can develop for his master, while still loving the control he has over his life.

Losey responds to this masterful script with some inspired work, making the house where the action takes place increasingly claustrophobic and disturbing. The camera work slowly becomes more intimate as the film progresses – and Barrett entraps Tony increasingly into a total, infantile dependence on him. Takes become longer as the house itself – increasingly dishevelled, with Barrett’s property increasingly appearing throughout the property, while Tony’s goods are disposed of – seems to close in around the action. Reflections and mirrors increasingly dominate the film, as if pulling us with Tony through a glass darkly.

It’s a good servant who understands his master’s needs before he knows them. Barrett is the best kind of servant. Within seconds, the unctuous, Uriah Heap-like Barrett (ever so ‘umble), has dissected the character of the foppishly weak playboy Tony, and identified him as man with no will of his own, ripe to be dominated and manipulated. Dirk Bogarde has never been better than his work here, a terrifyingly precise and soulless manipulator, whose veneer of obsequious service drops away with his affected accent to reveal a deeply corrupted, terrifyingly cruel man. Bogarde never allows a second of doubt to enter Barrett’s mind – even when it (briefly) looks like he’s lost his position, Barrett’s face is contorted with a contemptuous curl of the mouth and a cocky defiance. It’s brilliant work from Bogarde, creating one of cinema’s greatest monsters, destroying because he can.

His tools are of course to use his master’s fondness for booze and pretty faces against him. Vera – played with a sparkingly flirtatious richness by Sarah Miles, which disguises her ruthless disgust for Tony and his selfishness – is inveigled into the house as Barrett’s “sister” (actually his mistress), and swiftly instructed to seduce the hapless Tony, bending this playboy to her will. Losey’s camera follows in smooth shots as this woman moves from one man’s bed to another – while you can feel the influence of Pinter in the spare, sexually charged power Vera uses to seduce Tony (and the hints of submissive excitement in Tony). Losey soundtracks their first encounter – Miles erotically discussing the weather, pure Pinter genius, while Fox’s throat is so dry you can almost feel it yourself – with first the dripping of a tap, then the rocking back and forth of a pan in the sink. It brilliantly suggests the way Tony himself seems to be being consumed in a hypnotic trap.

Not that Tony is particularly sympathetic himself: a weak-willed, rather feckless and languid playboy whose interests in pleasure quickly tip into addiction. James Fox is perfectly cast in a role that plays on his aristocratic assurance, but finds deep reserves of doubt and inadequacy in him. Pinter and Losey draw more than a bit of a question mark over the sexual undertone in the relationship between Barrett (at least metrosexual) and Tony, that travels across sharing the favours of Vera. After (temporarily) throwing Vera and Barrett out, Tony collapses into a grief-stricken mess over Vera’s bed – the bed shared with Barrett – the camera gliding gently over male nudes pinned to the wall. Later Tony will debase himself fully to Barrett, reduced to crawling around the floor, his tie used as leash, dragged to perform with prostitutes for Barrett’s dark amusement.

If there is a character who sees through this early it’s Wendy Craig’s sensitively played Susan – but even she can have no idea of the horrors of Barrett’s plans to break Tony completely to his will. Susan recognises – even if she can’t understand why – the sinister satanic nature of Barrett, even while she seems powerless to do anything about it. Her attempts to empower Tony to break his dependence on this omniscient figure fail completely. In a beautiful Pinterish touch, at the end she almost considers joining their bizarre, sex and alcohol fuelled menage – as close as cinema as perhaps got to skirting a sort of sexual hell.

The final act of the film (it has a neat three act structure, Pinter superbly constructing the screenplay to show Barrett and Tony’s shifting power relationship), sees an almost infantalised Tony now meekly accepting (almost apologising) as Barrett lets rip – all pretence at humbleness gone and Northern vowels increasingly let loose – with his abuse and disgust.

In a brilliantly dark commentary on the upper and serving class, such is the dependence on one for the other, that the house collapses in Barrett’s temporary absence. The power may lie with Tony – but when Barrett stops collaborating with that, the imbalance between them is revealed. It’s Barrett who can actually do things – from cleaning to cooking – that Tony cannot. The drive and will of the middle classes eventually overwhelms and breaks the upper class, turning them into a vehicle for their own entertainment, like some sort of dark National Trust.

The Servant is a profoundly brilliant film, one that could stake a claim for being one of the greatest British films ever made. Losey’s sharp outsider’s eye brilliantly dissects both the tensions between the classes, but also the disturbingly awkward relationship the British have about sex, a drug for the reserved, a pot of unspoken but deeply desired treats. Bogarde is quite simply superb, Barrett is one of the greatest monsters of cinema who could strike fear into the heart of Hannibal Lecter. Pinter’s dialogue is brilliant. This psycho-sexual class drama is a work of art and essential viewing.

The Sound Barrier (1952)

Sound barrier header
Ann Todd and Nigel Patrick on a dangerous mission to break The Sound Barrier

Director: David Lean

Cast: Ralph Richardson (John Ridgefield), Ann Todd (Susan Garthwaite), Nigel Patrick (Tony Garthwaite), John Justin (Philip Peel), Dinah Sheridan (Jess Peel), Joseph Tomelty (Will Sparks), Denholm Elliott (Christopher Ridgefield), Jack Allen (‘Windy’ Williams), Ralph Michael (Fletcher)

David Lean’s film career can be divided into two eras: his early films are British-based literary adaptations and family dramas, many of them front-and-centring the experiences and tribulations of women. The later era are the jaw-dropping epics he became best known for. The Sound Barrier is towards the end of the first era – and it’s almost a bridge between the two, an impressively filmed story of man’s triumph over nature, that sneaks under the wire an emotional family-in-crisis storyline, with a daughter suffering the damaging impact of her father’s obsession.

That father is John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson), a famous aeronautical engineer and airline entrepreneur who, with the end of the war, returns to his fixation: discovering a way to make a plane fly so fast it breaks the sound barrier. It’s a vision that has dominated his life, but which his daughter Susan (Ann Todd) finds hard to understand. John is a domineering, demanding father, whose son Christopher (Denholm Elliott) gets himself killed trying to qualify as a pilot to win his father’s respect. In his place, Susan’s husband Tony (Nigel Patrick), a test pilot, is claimed by John as a surrogate son and equally pushed to risk all to try and fly faster than sound.

Lean’s film is a wonderful mix of post-war military-based exploits and stiff-upper lip exploration of family dynamics, where resentments and passions go unspoken but shape everything. With a superb script by Terence Rattigan, whose work is filled with monomaniacs like Ridgefield and sympathetic and emotionally intelligent women like Susan, The Sound Barrier might seem like a celebration of British pluck (it hardly matters that we Brits didn’t actually break the sound barrier first – no mention of Chuck Yaeger here…), with some stunning aerial photography. But it’s a lot more than that.

What’s fascinating about The Sound Barrier – and what makes it such a rewarding watch – is how much it questions the value of these sort of quests. The film’s focus is less on the engineering struggles and the bravery of the pilots (compare and contrast this film with the more straightforwardly triumphant The Dam Busters), and more on the human cost of obsession and this sort of adrenalin-fuelled airborne machismo.

The Ridgefield family has been damaged almost beyond repair – under their wealth and comfort – by their father’s demanding perfectionism. Ralph Richardson is superb as this bluntly-spoken man who sees no reason to sugar coat anything or hide any disappointment. The character has more than a hint of a Gradgrind of engineering – and just like Hard Times patriarch, his well-intentioned but misguided parenting has distorted both his children.

His hero-worshipping son Christopher (a wonderfully fragile and charming Denholm Elliott) pushes himself through chronic air-sickness to lay down his life trying to follow in his father’s footsteps (John greets his death with a sad criticism of his flying skills and goes back to work with his jet-plane models straight after the funeral). Susan has a cold relationship with her father (strikingly she calls him Father while everyone else – even her husband Tony – calls him Dad), and can’t understand why all this goal is worth sacrificing lives and any chance of simple domestic happiness. Her father’s coldness and distance from his children – not to mention his obvious and continual disappointment that she was born a girl – has led her to treat him with respect but not love.

It’s a dynamic completely missed by her husband Tony, played here with a bluff simplicity by Nigel Patrick. But then it’s pretty clear that this risk-taking pilot is quite simply not that bright. His lack of independent thinking is even identified by engineer Will Sparks (a ‘sparkling’ performance of avuncular surrogate fatherdom by Joseph Tomelty) as his major weakness as a test pilot. Tony has no idea of his wife’s concerns or emotional problems with her father, and instead quickly gets sucked into filling the role of “son I never had” for John. But then Tony has everything John wants – the flying skills Christopher never had without the questioning independence of Susan. He’s exactly the sort of weak-willed would-be-hero who can be quickly sucked into taking huge risks.

The film’s sympathies though are with Susan, played with a real warmth tinged with a sad expectation for disaster by Ann Todd, whose presence slowly grows to dominate the film. She can’t understand why it is necessary to risk all for this nebulous goal: it’s a refrain she repeats throughout the film “I wish I knew, I really wish I knew”. We’ve just gone through a second calamitous war – why are we throwing our lives away for a concept? Why should her husband put himself at huge risk like this for a brief mention in the history books and nothing else? Why not be content with a happy family life and living to see his son? Not to mention that the film proves her right – the nice-but-dim Tony isn’t good test pilot material and Susan’s new family is destroyed just like her old one.

At first it might seem that Todd’s character is the stay-at-home “don’t go Darling” type, but the film increasingly shows the validity of her doubts. There is a slightly toxic “carry on” Englishness about Tony and her father. Obsession is shown to drive out all over considerations – and Richardson has a late scene that carefully but brilliantly demonstrates how it has left him isolated and alone. It’s telling the barrier is finally broken by devoted husband and father Philip (a very decent John Justin), who is aware of the danger and has the most settled family life of the lot (and who greets his triumph with tears of relief rather than cheers).

The Sound Barrier could have easily been a “Britain triumphs in the skies!” with soaring music and heroic filming. Instead, it demonstrates the danger of obsession and the damaging impact it can have on people and their families. It concentrates not on the men in the sky, but increasingly the potential widows on the ground, forced to acknowledge that life with the family is less important than the chance of glory. It’s a rich and emotionally intelligent film, very well directed by Lean with warmth and humanity and with three terrific actors leading from the front.