Tag: Glenda Jackson

Mothering Sunday (2021)

Mothering Sunday (2021)

Arthouse flourishes and trickery drown this try-hard literary adaptation

Director: Eva Husson

Cast: Odessa Young (Jane Fairchild), Josh O’Connor (Paul Sheringham), Sope Dirisu (Donald), Olivia Colman (Mrs Niven), Colin Firth (Mr Niven), Glenda Jackson (Older Jane Fairchild), Patsy Ferran (Milly), Emma D’Arcy (Emma Hobday)

Based on an award-winning novel by Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday is mostly set on a single day: March 30th 1924. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is the maid of the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman), both of whose sons died in the Great War. The only surviving son of their close social circle is Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), who has been conducting a secret sexual affair with Jane for several years. On this fateful day, Paul sneaks away from his fiancée (who was originally to marry the Nivens’ deceased son, James) for a tryst with Jane. The tragic after-effects will shape Jane’s future life. This is intercut throughout the film as she deals with the illness years later of her lover, philosopher Donald (Sope Dirisu).

Mothering Sunday is a proud, in fact a little too proud, art-house film. It takes an intricate, well structured and delicate novel by Swift and piles on the technique to try and wring as much meaning from the piece as possible. In doing so, Husson drowns a simple story in cinematic tools. Skilful cutting, intriguing shots, rich layered music, artful compositions, juddering intercutting between timelines, repeated shots and symbolic compositions eventually give an impression of a film trying too hard to impress.

It’s a story that would have carried a world more impact if it had been told with simple directness, where stylistic flourishes felt natural rather than exploited at every conceivable opportunity. Instead of moving though, the film eventually becomes tiring and the pointed dynamism of the film’s making gets in the way of the emotion. As we are cut away from moments of emotion, or the dialogue tries too hard to capture the complexity of Swift’s writing (as my wife put it, “there is a lot of talk about jizz”), we are constantly prevented from encountering the quiet emotion and unspoken devastation that should be at the heart of this simple-but-shattering story.

Even when Olivia Colman’s character – in her only real scene – is heart-rendingly confessing her pain at the loss of her children and her envy of Jane for her orphan status (she has no one to lose), Husson’s camera seems at least as interested in making you admire the fiddily mirror-based tracking shot she is using to shoot it. It is far more impactful and graceful when it sits still: for example moments like Colin Firth’s well judged performance of deeply repressed grief and pain, which expresses itself in very British banalities about the weather and doing-the-decent-thing.

Which isn’t to say that Mothering Sunday is a bad film, or that there aren’t moments of deeply impressive film-making. A dashboard-mounted camera that follows Jane’s disguised torment as she is driven to the scene of disaster is memorable, and there are beautiful shots like an aerial shot lingering over a fire in a forest that haunt the imagination. The film has a haunting quality to it, like a half-memory that flits from clear picture to clear picture via hazy recollection. But all this style swamps the impact. The film never has the patience to sit down and let us get involved in its story properly. Or really tackle how lasting the impact of loss – particularly the generational loss of the 1910s – had on families and, by extension, the whole country.

Mothering Sunday’s main successful feature is the hugely impressive performance from Australian actress Odessa Young. Not only is her accent faultless, but Young has a poetic romanticism in here that sits equally alongside an old soul within a young body. Much of the film is dependent on her micro-reactions to moments of life-changing sorrow and joy. She spends a large chunk of the film naked (as required by the source material – although this is also another tiresome sign of the film’s overly proud ‘arthouse’ badge) – but imbues this with a bohemian freeness that suggests it’s the only time, released from the shackles of her work clothes, that she feels truly free. She carries almost the whole film and does so with a consummate, compelling ease.

There are fine performances as well from Josh O’Connor – channelling Prince Charles somewhat – as a conflicted man, crushed by the burden of carrying the expectations for a whole generation, and Sope Dirisu (in a rather thankless role) as Jane’s later philosopher lover. Glenda Jackson contributes a neat cameo as a Doris Lessing-like older Jane, now a hugely successful novelist, reacting just like she did to the winning of the “major international prize” for literature.

But the overall film never quite manages to carry the impact it should. It should leave you consumed with the sadness and waste of early death and the destruction that comes from war. Instead, you will remember more the pyrotechnical invention of its making – and the wonderful score by Morgan Kibby – rather than any heart or sense of tragedy.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

Sunday bloody sunday header
Peter Finch, Murray Head and Glenda Jackson in an unconventional relationship in Sunday Bloody Sunday

Director: John Schlesinger

Cast: Peter Finch (Dr Daniel Hirsh), Glenda Jackson (Alex Greville), Murray Head (Bob Elkin), Peggy Ashcroft (Mrs Greville), Tony Britton (George Harding), Maurice Denham (Mr Greville), Bessie Love (Answering service lady), Vivian Pickles (Alva Hodson), Frank Windsor (Bill Hodson), Thomas Baptiste (Professor Johns), Richard Pearson (Patient), Jon Finch (Scotsman)

Is anything better than nothing? Or, sometimes, is nothing better than anything? It’s a question that lies at the heart of John Schlesinger’s mature and surprisingly low-key exploration of relationships Sunday, Bloody Sunday. In the on-going puzzle of life, what on earth are the answers?

Alex (Glenda Jackson), a divorced woman in her mid-thirties, is in a relationship with young artist Bob Elkin (Murray Head). But the bohemian Bob is also in another relationship, with 50-year-old Dr Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch). Bob moves between his two partners. Alex and Daniel, who have never met, accept they have him on a timeshare basis and work within his rules, for fear of losing him.

That’s a brief summary – but this is not a film overburdened with plot. Rather it’s a character study. Perhaps its greatest strength (and for some it’s main weakness), is the lack of melodrama or conflict in this unconventional set-up. Any expectations that this might be building towards a cathartic outburst or a traumatic event of some kind should be dispelled from the start. This is a very restrained and genuine film, deeply heartfelt, that avoids cheapness.

In fact, the film becomes a very striking study of the fear of loneliness. Both Alex and Daniel live in semi-acknowledged fear of being left alone. You can see the emotional fragility in them, when separated from Bob. Alex – who Bob has abandoned during a weekend’s baby-sitting to visit Daniel – quietly sits eating fudge and trying to read a book, while tears play in her eyes. Later Daniel will similarly resemble a little boy lost after being stood up at a restaurant. The excitement of being with Bob – for all his faults – are just as acute as the sadness when left alone in their own company.

Both Alex and Daniel are people staring down the barrel of a life of being alone. Alex is a woman stuck between two stools – too bohemian to be happy in a nine-to-five and a safe everyday relationship, too conventional to fully embrace the sort of devil-may-care casualness of Bob. She seems uncertain herself what she wants from life (the perfect relationship, or the bursts of happiness with a young lover).

Daniel, a gay Doctor in middle-class London from a traditional Jewish background, has spent a lifetime quietly carrying on and accepting companionship where he can find it. A man who has understood that a certain degree of isolation is just part and parcel of being who he is. Who balances, perhaps, the flaws in his relationship against getting only a part of what he wants as opposed to nothing.

It’s those questions the film comes back to time and time again. Alex expresses them most clearly, happy in the moments of playful joy she finds with Bob, but this only covering deep lying anxieties. Flashbacks reveal her childhood worries about traumatic events befalling her father (bought on by the killing of a friend’s dog in a road traffic accident due to the carelessness of a child she is looking after). These fears are directly linked to her tentativeness towards long-term relationships: she invests emotionally so much in those she cares for, that it’s difficult for her to find a romantic partner that is perfect enough to justify this level of commitment.

But Daniel has similar issues: his life has taught him to expect that he might always be alone. An insight into his romantic life before Bob is shown with a chance encounter with a former pick-up (played with chippy aggressiveness by Jon Finch) who forces Daniel to give him a lift and then pinches his medical bag. These sorts of risky, emotion-free entanglements are dwarfed by the tenderness and warmth Daniel gets with Bob, for all that Bob is mercurial and immature. As Daniel says at the film’s end (in a beautiful fourth-wall breaking address to the camera), Bob isn’t perfect but he’s something and that while Bob never made him completely happy, right now Daniel is happy only when he is not missing him. It’s balances like this that people make in their lives.

It may also be a fascination with youth. Both Alex and Daniel are either heading into – or deep into – middle age, and they surely wouldn’t deny there is an additional excitement from spending time with the defiantly young Bob. Bob – a rather thankless role to be honest, played with a deliberate lack of depth by Murray Head – is in some ways a cipher, a rather selfish young man who can only think about moving on to the next opportunity, not the difficulties of being fixed in one place and making the best of it. Does this young man’s attitude carry additional appeal to two people with greater ties and responsibilities? Perhaps it does.

Schlesinger’s film is well-paced, and directed with an intimacy by the director who surely built many elements of his own life into Daniel. The two leads – who share a scene only twice, at one point literally passing each other in cars like ships in the night – are both superb. Glenda Jackson is superbly able to suggest a hinterland of emotional guardedness and fragility, behind a confident exterior, that only cracks at key moments. It’s a brilliantly subtle performance of small moments.

Peter Finch is equally superb as Daniel. The film was controversial at the time for featuring the first gay kiss in British cinema (sexuality questions are refreshingly not a major part of the equation and never discussed, which makes the film ever more modern – the kiss itself is played with an unshowy naturalism). The part had been hard to cast – Ian Bannan was fired (to his later intense regret) for being visibly uncomfortable – but Finch (less worried, perhaps because his romances with everyone from Vivien Leigh to Shirley Bassey were so well known, no one watching in the cinema could imagine he was really gay) embraces the part with a beautifully sensitive empathy. It’s a wonderful moving portrait of a man who has come to terms with loneliness and accepted it. Tender and very true, it’s wonderfully heartfelt.

Both stars (along with Schlesinger and the script, credited by Penelope Gilliatt but likely the work of several hands) were nominated for Oscars (inexplicably the film itself was snubbed), and its perhaps their sensitive and tender work is behind the film’s success. Schlesinger co-ordinates all this into a unshowy but very mature intelligent analysis of relationships and the compromises that come with them. Thoughtful and questioning, it’s adult cinema.

Women in Love (1969)

The stars of Women in Love: this publicity still gives only a hint of the simmering (and slightly strange) heightened passions you find therein

Director: Ken Russell

Cast: Alan Bates (Rupert Birkin), Oliver Reed (Gerald Crich), Glenda Jackson (Gudrun Brangwen), Jennie Linden (Ursula Brangwen), Eleanor Bron (Hermione Roddice), Alan Webb (Thomas Crich), Vladek Sheybal (Loerke), Catherine Wilmer (Christina Crich), Phoebe Nicholls (Winifred Crich), Sharon Gurney (Laura Crich), Christopher Gable (Tibby), Michael Gough (Tom Brangwen), Norma Shebbeare (Mrs Brangwen)

DH Lawrence is an acquired taste. While his writing is undoubtedly brilliant, reading his novels today it’s hard to shake off their sometimes histrionic melodrama – their revelling in all that (at the time) shockingly frank discussion of sex and all that Freudian analysis of fractured personalities against an alien industrial world. So perhaps there is a reason why one of the best interpreters of his work for the screen has been someone as melodramatic and envelope-pushing as Ken Russell.

Women in Love is Russell and Lawrence to the max. In a 1920s mining town, two sisters, Gudrun (an Oscar-winning Glenda Jackson) and Ursula (Jennie Linden) want to make their own way in the world. Local school inspector Robert Birkin (Alan Bates) wants to find perfect love and fulfilment. Alpha-male son-of-the-local-mine-owner Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed) isn’t quite sure what he wants, other than to reinvigorate his father’s business. Naturally all four of these characters come together in romantic, intellectual and sexual tangles that lead to a lot more misery than happiness.

Wow this is a difficult picture to write about. How so? Because it is about two-thirds masterpiece to one-third pretentious, hyperbolical nonsense. That’s quite some tight-rope. Russell walks it pretty well, but his problem has always been he loves being a sort of enfant terrible of British cinema too much. Too often he succumbs to temptation and pushes things a little further, to go for the demented camera or editing trick, or to push the sexual content a little bit further. The whole film has a hint of a cocky teenager, jumping up and down to look cool and catch your attention. 

But then on the flipside, sometimes this excess really works (or if you like, sometimes more really is more). Nowhere is this clearer than in the famous naked wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates. It’s a high-blown, tightly edited, single-camera, increasingly artistic sequence that leaves little to the imagination as we wonder how far this nude, willy-waggling, sweaty wrestling turned intimate clinch will go (the final shot sees the characters roll off each other and lie exhausted on a carpet, breathless, in front of a roaring fire). But it works so well because the amped up shooting and content really tells us something about these two characters, their relationship, feelings, viewpoints on life, sexuality – everything. It’s a great scene and it’s a sign of how good this film can be.

And then you get other moments where you sigh and roll your eyes and almost want to say “yeah Ken we get it…”.  As Robert and Ursula roll off each other after an intense sexual encounter in the woods, we cut immediately to two bodies found drowned in a lake, their bodies locked together in exactly the same position. Yup sex ‘n’ death. Gerald and Gudrun have sex, intercut with shots of Gerald’s mother. Other moments ape up stuff that was already pretty ridiculous in the book to the max: Birkin, after a bash on the head, runs naked into the countryside and smears himself with grass and mud and rolls in the dirt. For about three minutes.

But then this is the sort of film where Glenda Jackson tames some bulls by performing a bizarre dance. Why does she do this? Who knows (certainly not the characters). But then the film is full of moments like this. But what kind of makes it work, even when it is so ridiculously over-the-top and dated in its filming, is that there is a smartness in it. It is a film that does, underneath it all, have some profound thoughts about love and relationships.

It manages to bring together the themes that intrigued Lawrence with a bit of coherence. What do we want from life? It focuses overwhelmingly on the men of the story, and in particular Alan Bates (excellent) as Birkin. Made up to look like Lawrence, Birkin also carries a lot of the prose of the novel debating what makes us happy, whether we need equally strong bonds in our life with men and women, and what constitutes our completeness as human beings. 

The film does this to a certain extent with the female characters as well – although we see them almost completely from the perspective of the men (which is interesting – maybe they were worried about making a film called Men in Love…). That’s possibly why Gudrun’s confused desires for Gerald never quite come into focus. Marvellous as Glenda Jackson is – surely an actress born to play this sort of part, marvellously passionate but strangely unknowable, vulnerable but harsh and even a little cruel – it’s hard to understand how Gudrun’s feelings change for Gerald. Maybe she doesn’t know herself. 

Gerald and Gudrun seem to be characters who don’t understand what they want (Gerald even expressly says it). That’s part of the point of the film (and Lawrence’s book) – a yearning, like both these characters have, for freedom and something different from previous generations, but unable to really put their finger on what this is. Gudrun wants a strong, dynamic man – but she also wants freedom and artistic fulfilment, and can’t find this with Gerald.

The film juggles these themes, of people struggling to reach an expression of (or to understand) their desires. Russell understands this – and for all the highblown eccentricity of some of the shooting, he sticks with a brilliant understanding of these personalities and themes. It remains a very caring movie that understands and relates to its characters. It has a lot of heart under the madness of Russell’s shooting.

And it’s superbly acted. Bates and Jackson are both marvellous, as is Jennie Linden in a (to be honest) rather thankless part as the second sister. But it’s a revelation of what a fine actor Oliver Reed could have been, if he had not decided to become a professional drunk. Reed drips charisma and intensity and he gives Gerald a real frustrated, sensual depth – a confused sexual fear mixed with a determined machismo. It’s a brilliant performance. The rest of the cast are also good, even if Eleanor Bron is (partly deliberately) overdone as Birkin’s first lover.

Women in Love is very dated in its style, but still a fascinating and intelligent piece of filmmaking that engages with and juggles with ideas. Despite all its overblown Russell excess, I actually really liked it, it stuck with me and I’ve been thinking about it since it finished. I’d actually like to see it again and see if it unlocks even more for me – and blimey it even makes me want to read Lawrence again, which after The Rainbow I never thought I’d say…

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson are the feuding queens in Mary, Queen of Scots

Director: Charles Jarrott

Cast: Vanessa Redgrave (Mary, Queen of Scots), Glenda Jackson (Elizabeth I), Patrick McGoohan (James Stuart, Earl of Moray), Timothy Dalton (Lord Henry Darnley), Nigel Davenport (Earl of Bothwell), Trevor Howard (Sir William Cecil), Daniel Massey (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester), Ian Holm (David Rizzio), Andrew Keir (Ruthven), Robert James (John Knox), Katherine Kath (Catherine d’Medici), Frances White (Mary Fleming), Vernon Dobtcheff (Duke of Guise)

So here we are, back in the Tudor history craze of late 1960s Hollywood. Charles Jarrott directed, following up his efforts in Anne of the Thousand Days with this professionally mounted, handsome and rather personality-free film adaptation. It occasionally falls a bit too much in love with its luscious romanticism – and it falls hard for Mary herself, surely one of the worst queens ever – but despite all that, it has an entertaining quality that never lets you down.

The film picks up with the recently widowed Mary (Vanessa Redgrave) essentially being chucked out of France after the death of her husband the King, and swiftly being sent back to Scotland to take up the throne there. Problem is: the very Catholic Mary isn’t exactly the choice of the lords of Scotland – led by her bastard brother James Stuart (Patrick McGoohan). Mary’s Catholicism also threatens to destabilise the relationship with Protestant England – particularly because she is the nearest successor to Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson). But Mary lacks Elizabeth’s tactical understanding of ruling and is guided by her heart – leading her into a disastrous marriage with feckless alcoholic Henry Darnley (Timothy Dalton).

Mary Queen of Scots is a stately picture, which uses its location shots, costumes and production design to tell its familiar story with a sweep and relish that effectively hides the lack of inspiration in its film-making. Just as in Anne of the Thousand Days, Charles Jarrott shows he’s a fine producer of middle-brow entertainment, safe costume dramas that aren’t going to challenge anyone’s perceptions or give you any real wow moments of filming. He’s happy to set the camera up and let the actors do their thing, with the script ticking off the great events.

That’s what you get here. It’s a film that could have been a lot more of an exploration of the rivalries and different life philosophies of its feuding queens. But it doesn’t quite connect with that. This is partly because it can’t quite bring itself to engage with the reality of Mary herself, preferring the popular romantic image. The film doesn’t want to admit that many of Mary’s decisions were, to put it bluntly, completely misguided bordering on wrong. It is in love with her romantic image – and not as enamoured with Elizabeth’s wiser, more pragmatic, manipulative rule. It’s this rule by heart rather than head the film finally holds up for praise.

It doesn’t help that Vanessa Redgrave feels miscast in the lead role. Redgrave is too sharp an actor to convince as someone as easily led and foolish as Mary. She looks too shrewd, she feels too smart. Redgrave compensates by speaking softly and giving a lot of love-struck eyes to various male actors (principally Nigel Davenport’s bluff, masculine Bothwell), but it doesn’t quite work. It’s like she’s struggling to find the character – and to find the balance in a film that doesn’t want her to be seen as too stupid, while the viewer is left slapping their foreheads at every action she carries out.

This feeling stands out all the more with Glenda Jackson’s casting as Elizabeth. Having just finished playing the same role in a landmark six-part TV series, Elizabeth R(which covered a lot of the same ground), Jackson here confirms that she was the definitive Elizabeth. As smart and shrewd an actress as Redgrave, Jackson’s natural firmness marries up very well with these qualities to make the perfect Virgin Queen. There have been so many others who have taken on the role, but Jackson is simply perfect in this role – she becomes Elizabeth. Her Elizabeth is clever, manipulative, cunning but also quick tempered, capable of great wisdom but prone to moments of passionate lashing out.

The rest of the cast is a familiar parade of character actors – British actors of this generation made a living from films like this! Timothy Dalton stands out as a foppish, clearly useless Darnley (here reimagined as a syphilitic bisexual with anger management issues), as does Ian Holm as a cool-headed, would-be power behind the throne David Riccio, who meets a tragic end. Daniel Massey does a decent job as Leicester (though I can’t shake memories of Robert Hardy in the same role in Elizabeth R – was he busy at the time?), Trevor Howard gets saddled with a lot of plot as Burghley. Up in Scotland, Patrick McGoohan has a lot of fun as a scheming Earl of Moray.

All of these actors fit comfortably into the slightly browned, grainy photography style of films of this type, and the screenwriters hammer together plenty of incident alongside dramatic invention. The focus on the soap opera of Mary’s three marriages (she’s widowed in the opening moments of the film) leaves plenty of scope for invention, from Darnley and Riccio’s affair to the inevitable non-historical meeting between Mary and Elizabeth – it seems like every drama going from Schiller onwards has invented a meeting between these two as a dramatic highpoint.

This final scene captures the lack of thematic depth to the film. In a film that had focused more on really comparing the differences between the two, this could have been the culmination of a debate running through the film (can you rule with a brain but not a heart?). Instead it misses the trick, and becomes a final game of one-up-man-ship, which the film allows Mary to win because she is the more romantic figure. 

It’s well mounted and assembled like many other films like this – but it’s not the best of its genre, and you do sometimes wish for something that had a little more meat on its bones.