Tag: Tom Courtenay

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif are star cross’d lovers in Lean’s epic but flawed Doctor Zhivago

Director: David Lean

Cast: Omar Sharif (Dr Yuri Zhivago), Julie Christie (Lara Antipova), Geraldine Chaplin (Tonya Gromeko), Rod Steiger (Victor Komarovsky), Alec Guinness (Lt General Yevgraf Zhivago), Tom Courtenay (Pasha Antipov/Strelnikov), Siobhan McKenna (Anna Gromeko), Ralph Richardson (Alexander Gromeko), Rita Tushingham (The Girl), Bernard Kay (Bolshevik), Klaus Kinski (Amoursky), Noel Willman (Razin), Geoffrey Keen (Professor Kurt), Jack MacGowan (Petya)

Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is one of the seminal 20th century novels. Smuggled out of the USSR after being refused publication, it became an international sensation and led directly to Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize (although the USSR insisted he turn it down). A film was only a matter of time – and who else would you call but David Lean, master of the pictorial epic, to bring the novel about the Russian Revolution to the screen. Lean – with his masterful Dickensian adaptations – was perfect in many ways but Doctor Zhivago, for me, is the least satisfying of his ‘Great Films’. It’s strangely empty and sentimental, lacking some of the novel’s strengths zeroing in on its weaknesses.

Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is training to be a Doctor in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. Married to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of his father’s old friend Gromeko (Ralph Richardson), Yuri is part scientist, part poetic free-thinker. Events throw him together with Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman whose fiancé Pasha (Tom Courtenay) has ties to the revolutionaries, while she is trapped in an abusive relationship with the amoral Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). But are all these troubles worth a hill of beans in a country about to tear itself apart?

There are many things you can’t argue with in Lean’s film. It is of course unfailingly beautiful. Ironically filmed in Fascist Spain, it’s gorgeously lensed with a luscious romanticism by Frederick Young (who won his second Oscar for a Lean film). It’s not just pictorial beauty either: Young frequently makes wonderful uses of splashes of Monet red to dapple the frame. From poppies in a field to the ubiquitous communist imagery on uniforms and walls. There are some wonderfully cool blues employed for the snow, while slashes of light pass across eyes with a gorgeous lyricism.

Romance is the name of the game, with everything working overtime to stress the star cross’d lovers plot. Maurice Jarre’s score – in particular its balalaika inspired Lara’s Theme – mixes Russian folk inspirations with an immortal sense of longing. It plays over a film that, while very long, often feels well-paced, even if (just as the novel) its episodic and at times rambling. Lean’s direction of epic events revolving around personal loves and tragedies is still exquisite in its balance between the grand and intimate. The film is wonderfully edited and a fabulous example of long-form storytelling.

So, what’s wrong with Doctor Zhivago? In a film with so much to admire, is it possible Lean and co spent years working on something only to bring the word but not the spirit to the screen? The key problems come round to Zhivago himself. This is man defined by his poetic soul. His poetry becomes a sensation after his death. His balalaika is a constant companion, and his playing of it an inherited gift (which even has major plot implications). Inexplicably, the film has not a single word of poetry in it (when it had Pasternak’s entire back catalogue to work with) and Zhivago never so much as strums the strings of his balalaika. It’s like filming Hamlet and then making him a mute.

The problem is, removing the character’s hinterland makes him a rather empty character. Zhivago is a liberal reformer, in sympathy with the revolution but not it’s methods. This should be at the heart of understanding his character, but like his poetry the film has no time for it. Instead, Zhivago is boiled down into a romantic figure, nothing more. He has no inner life at all, a blank canvas rather than an enigma.

Suddenly those long lingering shots of Sharif’s puppy-dog eyes end up carrying no real meaning. They aren’t the windows to his soul, only a big watery hole with not much at the bottom. Sharif is awkwardly miscast – and lacks the dramatic chops O’Toole bought to Lawrence – but it’s not completely his fault. His character has had his depth removed. When we see him struggling at the front, trapped on a long train ride to Siberia or forced to work with partisans, he’s not a man who seems to be considering anything, but just buffeted by fortune, neither deep or thoughtful enough to reflect on the world around him. That’s not really Pasternak’s intention.

Instead, the film boils the novel down to his plot-basics and, in doing so, removes the heart of what got the book banned in the first place. Lean misunderstood the future of Soviet Russia so much, he even chose to end the film with a romantic rainbow at the foot of a waterfall. The horrors of the civil war and the revolution are largely there briefly: a gang of deserting soldiers unceremoniously frag their officers and Zhivago frequently stares sadly at villages burned out by Whites or Reds (or both). But the film is more of a romance where events (rather than politically and social inevitability) gets in the way of the lovers – like Gone with the Revolution.

By removing the more complex elements – and the poetic language of Pasternak – you instead have the rather soapy plotline (with its contrivances and coincidences) left over. Again, it’s Hamlet taking only the events and none of the intellect or language. (And Pasternak’s novel didn’t compare with Hamlet in the first place.) Both Zhivago and Lara are shot as soft-focus lovers, with Julie Christie styled like a perfectly made-up slice of 60s glamour. It’s a grand scale, but strangely empty romance, because both characters remain unexplored and unknowable – in the end it’s hard to care for them as much as we are meant to do. For all the epic scale, small moments – such as an aging couple sharing a cuddle late at night on a train floor – carry more impact. How did the director of Brief Encounter – a romance that speaks to the ages for its empathy – produce such an epic, but empty, posture filled romance as this?

Julie Christie does fare better than Sharif – she’s a better actor, and her character has a bit more fire and depth to her. But she’s not in the picture enough, and Lean quietly undersells the terrible trauma of her eventual fate. Ironically, the smaller roles are on surer ground. Geraldine Chaplin is rather affecting as Zhivago’s wife, a dutiful and caring woman who her husband loves but is not besotted with. Ralph Richardson is witty and moving in a tailor-made role as her eccentric father. Tom Courtenay landed the films only acting Oscar nomination as the reserved and conflicted Pasha. Rod Steiger is very good as the mass of greed, selfishness and barely acknowledged shame as Komarovsky. Alec Guinness is bizarrely miscast as Sharif’s younger brother (!) but handles some of the film’s duller scenes well (Lean’s decision to have him never speak on screen except in the film’s framing device works very well).

There is a lot of good stuff in Zhivago, but this is a neutered and even slightly shallow film, that’s far more about selling a romance than it is telling a true adaptation of the themes of the novel. In Lawrence, Lean showed us multiple aspects of a conflicted personality to leave us in doubt about who he really was. In Zhivago, he just presents a rather empty person and seems unsure if he wants to use to ask who he is. The film concentrates on making the romance sweeping and easily digestible. What it doesn’t make us do is really care for them as people.

Summerland (2020)

Gemma Arterton is a misanthrope with a buried heart of gold in Summerland

Director: Jessica Swale

Cast: Gemma Arterton (Alice Lamb), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Vera), Penelope Wilton (Older Alice), Tom Courtenay (Mr Sullivan), Lucas Bond (Frank)

As London is suffering under the Blitz, in a sunny village in Kent reclusive writer Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) has her world turned upside down when she is forced to take in young evacuee Frank (Lucas Bond). Depressed and lonely after the collapse of her relationship with the glamourous Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) at college, Alice has shut herself off and leads a solitary life. So it surprises her when she finds her heart thawing for Frank – though not as much as she will be by other revelations.

Jessica Swale has a successful career as a playwright. Several of her plays look at the place of women in history. Blue Stockings was a fascinating (and highly popular) story of female undergraduates in the late Victorian era, smart enough to excel academically but seen as second-class citizens in Cambridge. Nell Gwyn rehabilitated Charles II’s mistress as an intelligent and caring woman and a talented writer and actress. Summerland follows some of these themes – focusing on a lonely lesbian in the 1940s who, with her unconventional interests and academic leanings, is out of touch with her time. But Summerland softens this up by covering the whole story in a dreamy, luscious warmth where everything works out fine and acceptance and reconciliation is the name of the game. It’s both far less interesting than Swale’s stage work and also just as enjoyable.

Not there’s anything wrong with a a bit of cosiness in film. But Summerland is so relentlessly feel-good you end up missing a little bit of bite. Could there not be one character who questions Alice’s sexuality (which even by the 1970s, where Penelope Wilton plays an older version of the character, was hardly welcomed with open arms)? Surely in this seaside town of Kent there would be whisperings of a sort around the village’s multicultural population? Would the colour of Vera’s skin cause no comment from anyone at Cambridge or elsewhere? There are darker societal issues that could have been explored here that just aren’t touched on. I suspect the film is going for a “colour blind” casting, which works in theatre and with older time periods, but seems a bit more awkward when applied to a time period when race was a very real issue. You’d get a ton more social commentary from an episode of Call the Midwife which somehow feels a bit wrong.

But then the film isn’t trying to make a social comment, but is trying to be a bit of escapism. On that score it works very well indeed. With gorgeous Kent scenery, wartime Britain looks like the sort of idyllic Sunday tea-time drama-land you’d love to live in. The fundamental decency of everyone is somehow rather reassuring – even town gossip and busybody Sian Phillips has a heart of gold – and the film bubbles along through a series of events that are both utterly predictable (and at times hugely implausible) and also strangely reassuring. Because you could figure out most of the film early on, you never need worry.

It’s given a great deal of energy by Gemma Arterton’s performance of bad-tempered misanthropy, which of course hides great reservoirs of love and warmth for humanity. Arterton has some beautiful comic timing (an early scene where it appears she is using a ration coupon to buy chocolate for a child without coupons, only to trouser it herself is perfectly done, and probably the film’s highpoint) but also really succeeds in demonstrating the emotional trauma and pain Alice is experiencing. There is a beautiful lightness about how she opens up to Frank (scenes that are of course hugely predictable but still delivered with a genuineness and sweetness that really works).

The flashbacks allow a sun-kissed romance between Alice and Vera to play out, and leave enough questions to keep us guessing (for a bit) as to how this relationship failed to flower. (Needless to say, despite a brief line about flying in the face of society, we never see for a fraction of a second that anyone has any problem with this completely public relationship). Vera is warmly played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who brings a radiant life to the part. (A fun moment for Swale watchers – Arterton and Mbatha-Raw both played Nell Gwyn in Swale’s play.)

Summerland throws in a bit of thematic depth around a hunt for Fata Morgana mirages – the focus of Alice’s latest book – and the possibility that these cloud-based mirages of castles carry some sort of spiritual message from the afterlife. But this also serves as part of the film’s easy solving of problems. Any obstructions to the characters’ happiness are swept aside, either by not being mentioned or by the narrative swooping in (one offscreen “character” is easily dispatched, so that we feel no conflicted guilt at their existence getting in the way of the resolution). But this is a film that is offering a light, simple, gentle, escapist story. Nothing remotely challenging – or even really hugely dynamic – happens in it, but for those looking for Covid escape, Swale’s escapist, sweet film debut is worth a look.

The Aeronauts (2019)

Redmayne and Jones go up, up and away in The Aeronauts

Director: Tom Harper

Cast: Felicity Jones (Amelia Rennes), Eddie Redmayne (James Glaisher), Himesh Patel (John Trew), Tom Courtenay (Arthur Glaisher), Phoebe Fox (Antonia), Vincent Perez (Pierre Wren), Anne Reid (Ethel Glaisher), Rebecca Front (Aunt Frances), Tim McInnerny (Sir George Airy), Robert Glenister (Ned Chambers), Thomas Arnold (Charles Green)

When you have found two actors with such natural and easy chemistry as Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne, it makes sense that you would seek other projects for them to star together in. Let’s try and recapture that Theory of Everything magic in the bottle! The Aeronauts brings these two actors back together, but the law of diminishing returns applies in this impressively mounted but rather uninvolving epic that has more in common with Gravity that it does Theory of Everything.

James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) is a scientist, one of the first meteorologists, determined to prove that man can predict the weather. While his theories are laughed at by fellow members of the Royal Society, Glaisher raises the cash for a private balloon trip to the heavens to take meteorological readings. But he needs a pilot: who better than Amelia Rennes (Felicity Jones) a famous balloonist and show-woman, the widow of a fellow balloonist (Vincent Perez) who fell to his death in an attempt to break the record ascent. Will the two mismatched aeronauts – the uptight scientist and the freespirit with tragedy at her core – reach an understanding amongst the clouds?

If you got the sense that the story of the film is rather predictable from that paragraph well… you’d be right. It’s the sort of film that has bookend scenes: an early one where our hero desperately tries to make himself heard during a speech at the Royal Society while his colleagues walk out in contemptuous laughter, and then another near the end with the same hero being applauded to the rafters by those same colleagues. Even his harshest critic claps politely – because it’s that sort of film. Meanwhile our other hero overcomes her survivor guilt by heading into the skies. Whenever the story, written by workaholic Jack Thorne, focuses on these personal stories, the film falters into cliché and dull predictability.

It’s told mostly in real time, following the just over 1 hour and 40 minutes of the pair’s ascent in the balloon, with flashbacks to their first meeting and their own backstories plugging the gaps in conversation. No major revelations happen in these flashback sequences, and a host of respected actors go through the motions, filling in the paint-by-numbers stories of bereavement, scientific isolation, an inspirational father with early onset dementia, and pressures to just conform to what women are expected to do. The two leads do their very best to animate these rather dull and tired plotlines but with very little success.

In fact, both actors are largely struggling the whole time to add breadth and depth to thinly sketched characters. Tom Harper leans heavily on their pre-existing chemistry and there is certainly very little in the characters to challenge them, particularly Redmayne who can play these stiff-necked, all-business, shy science types standing on his head. Felicity Jones has by far the better part as a natural adventuress who has locked herself in isolation and guilt (and in a dress) due to her guilt at her husband’s death. Jones gets the best material – and also the best vertigo inducing action sequences – in a film that is most successful when it is far away from the ground.

Harper’s film is by far at its most interesting when extreme altitudes, cold temperatures and reduced oxygen induce crisis in the balloon’s ascent. As Amelia has to go to extreme and dangerous lengths in order to force the balloon to begin its descent, the film finally comes to life. With several terrifying shots of the huge drop to the ground (they certainly made me squirm in my seat) and a compelling feat of bravery and physical endurance to force the balloon to start releasing gas (combined with some horrifyingly close slips and falls) the film works best from this moment of crisis, through to the hurried and panicked attempt of both aeronauts to control the descent of the balloon safely to the ground. The sense of two people struggling with the very outer reaches of mankind’s connection to the Earth – and their terrifying distance from the safety of the ground – really brings Gravity to mind far more than any other film.

It’s a shame then that I came away from the film to find most of it is not true. Glaisher did take to the skies – but with a male companion, Henry Coxwell. Amelia Rennes never existed (and most of the events in the sky never happened), although she is heavily based on a real female aeronaut and professional balloonist who had no connection with Glaisher or science. It shouldn’t really matter, but it kind of does as the film doubles down on Glaisher’s tribute to Rennes at the Roya Society and its general attitude of female pioneers in science. As one critic said: there were genuine pioneering women in science, why not make a film about one of them?

But it’s an only a minor problem really for a film that is impressively made when it is in the air, but dull and uninvolving when it is on the ground. At heart it’s an experience film – you can imagine as one of those immersive rides at Disney it would be amazing – but as a piece of storytelling it’s dull, predictable and uninvolving and largely fails to make the science that was supposed to be at the heart of it clear or significant. Jones and Redmayne do their best but this story never really takes flight (boom boom toosh).

King of Thieves (2018)

Michael Caine leads the Old Lags on one last hurrah in the misjudged King of Thieves

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Michael Caine (Brian Reader), Jim Broadbent (Terry Perkins), Tom Courtenay (John Kenny Collins), Charlie Cox (Basil/Michael Seed), Paul Whitehouse (Carl Wood), Michael Gambon (Billy “The Fish” Lincoln), Ray Winstone (Danny Jones), Francesca Annis (Lynne Reader)

In 2015, a group of old lags robbed a safety deposit company in Hatton Garden. Over the Easter weekend, the gang broke while the facility was empty, drilled through a wall, climbed into the safe and cleared out almost £14 million in cash, diamonds and other goods. The crime captured the public imagination largely because the robbers, bar one member of the gang, were all over 60. This country has a certain nostalgia for rogues, and a tendency towards a condescending affection for the aged. In real life, the only thing remotely charming about these hardened criminals, many of them with extremely violent backgrounds, was their age.

James Marsh pulls together a great cast of actors for his heist caper. Brian Reader, the brains behind the operation, is played with gravitas by Michael Caine. Terry Perkins, the man who cuts Reader out of the profits, is played by Jim Broadbent. Tom Courtenay, Ray Winstone, Paul Whitehouse and Michael Gambon play the rest of the lags while Charlie Cox is the young tech expert who brings the possibility of the heist to Reader’s attention. With a cast like this, it’s a shame the overall film is a complete mess from start to finish.

I watched this film after first watching ITV’s forensically detailed four-part series, Hatton Garden, covering the heist in full detail. That drama was far from perfect, but it was vastly superior to this. The main strength of Hatton Garden was that it never, ever lost sight of the fact that this was not a victimless crime. Real-life small businesses went bust due to property lost in the heist. Families lost priceless, irreplaceable heirlooms. Items of hugely sentimental value have never been recovered. Lives were damaged. On top of that, Hatton Garden stresses the grimy lack of glamour to these thieves, their greed, their paranoia, their aggression and their capacity for violence. Far from charming rogues, they are selfish, greedy old men who fall over themselves to betray each other and are clueless about the powers and abilities of the modern police force.

King of Thieves occasionally tries to remind people that these were hardened career criminals. But it also wants us to have a great time watching actors we love carry out a heist against the odds, like some sort of Ocean’s OAPs. James Marsh never manages to make a consistent decision on the angle he is taking on these men or the crime they carried out. It’s half a comedy, half a drama and the tone and attitude towards the burglars yo-yos violently from scene to scene. The end result, basically, is to let them off with a slap on the wrist.

“It’s patronising” rages Reader at one point at the media coverage of the crime, annoyed at how it stresses their age as if that somehow makes it a jolly jaunt. Never mind that the film does the same. The score contributes atrociously to this, a series of jazzy, caperish tunes that echo the 60s heydays of these violent men (Reader and Perkins had both stood trial for murders, and were lucky to get off) punctured with some cheesily predictable songs. Tom Jones plays as our heroes comes together, and Shirley Bassey warbles The Party’s Over as things fall apart. The old men banter and bicker about the confusions of the modern world like a series of talking heads from Grumpy Old Men and the general mood is one of light comedy.

The film does try and darken the tone in the second half, post-robbery, as things start to fall apart and tensions erupt in the gang. Here we get a little bit of the mettle of the actors involved in this. Jim Broadbent, in particular, goes way against type as Perkins’ capacity of violence (even at a diabetes-wracked 67) starts to emerge. Tom Courtenay’s Kenny Collins emerges as manipulative liar, playing off the robbers against each other. Ray Winstone sprays foul language around with a pitbull aggression. Even Michael Caine roars a few death threats, furious at being betrayed by the gang.

But it never really takes, because the film never throws in any sense of the victims of this crime. Blood is never drawn in this slightly darker sequence of the film. Even the clashes between the gang are played at times for light relief. Anything outside the gang is ignored. The victims? Who cares. The cops? There is barely a policeman in this film who has a line.

The film undermines the whole point it might be trying to make – that these were dangerous men – by succumbing to romanticism at its very end. As the captured old lags await trial, we first see them laughing and joking with each other as they prep for court and then, as they walk towards the dock, the film throws up old footage of the actors from the 60s, 70s and 80s, stressing their romanticism. Look, the film seems to be saying: these were criminals, but they were old fashioned criminals, remember when Britain used to make its own underdog crims instead of being awash with hardened, violent gangs? It’s hard to take. And it’s like the whole film. A tonal mess that finally absolves the robbers who ruined lives and who still haven’t returned almost £10 million of ordinary people’s goods. King of Thieves isn’t charming. It’s alarming.

45 Years (2015)

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling excel in a successful marriage suddenly going wrong after 45 Years

Director: Andrew Haigh

Cast: Charlotte Rampling (Kate Mercer), Tom Courtenay (Geoff Mercer), Geraldine James (Lena), David Sibley (George), Dolly Wells (Charlotte)

What would you do if you found out, after 45 years, that there were huge things you never, ever, knew about the partner you had shared your life with? That the very basis of your marriage is completely different than you believed? How would that change everything you remembered before that? How could that change where your marriage may go in the future?

That’s the situation Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) a retired teacher in a quiet country house outside Norwich finds herself in. Five days before their 45th wedding anniversary party, her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter from the German police notifying them the body of a girl who died 50 years ago, Katya, has been found. Katya had been lost falling into a crevasse on a climbing holiday with Geoff. Geoff is profoundly shaken and distracted by the news – and over the next week, it emerges his relationship with Katya was far more profound and important to him than he has ever mentioned to Kate (and in fact he has never mentioned Katya to her before).

Counter as it runs to spoiler territory, I’ll say off the bat that Geoff did not murder Katya (the obvious, knee-jerk, twist we expect from years of films). Instead this is a far more complex and engaging story about the impact profound, emotional revelations can have on relationships that seem as strong and long-lasting as between Geoff and Kate. The film follows a single week as long since buried feelings, emotions and resentments begin to simmer and burst out – and as Kate begins to question everything she has ever understood about her Geoff and her life.

And how shocking would that be if you learned things about the person you loved that suddenly made them feel like a completely different person? And how could you ever begin to compete the with the romantic image your partner has in their head of someone who died 50 years ago, before they ever met you, but whom you start to feel everything you have ever done or said has been quietly, maybe even subconsciously, judged against?

45 Years is a hugely intelligent, acute and engrossing film. Virtually a two hander, it relies on the actors – shot by Haigh with an intimacy that immediately establishes their own long running and secure relationship – the film is a series of carefully structured conversations, many of which have the surface appearance of normality that hides far deeper emotional currents of angry, loss, grief, doubt and resentment. The film brilliantly taps into our own fears of having secrets kept from us, of being betrayed in some way – even if the betrayal is far more complex than expected.

And it understands completely that time here is not a healer. Instead, like some sort of monolithic ghost, Katya invades Kate and Geoff’s life. For Geoff it brings back a flood of feelings that he had long since repressed and pushed to one side. For Kate, these age old events have all the pang of newly discovered revelations. For them both Katya’s death may as well have been a few days not fifty years ago. Suddenly, her memory begins to permeate every inch of their home and every second of their (previously) happy marriage.

All this is played with expert compassion and humanity by Tom Courtenay and a possibly career-best Charlotte Rampling. Rampling (famously cheated of a BAFTA nomination like Courtenay but honoured with an Oscar nomination) mines untold depths of vulnerability, emotional doubt and insecurity that solidifies into barely acknowledged feelings of anger, pain and resentment. The final sequence of the film – set at that celebration party we were waiting for – rests on her brilliance at wordlessly reacting as she slowly processes the things that she has discovered in the last few days, and how they have changed her perception of both her, her husband and the decisions she and he have made in their lives.

Tom Courtenay is equally good as Geoff, becoming increasingly distant, withdrawn and anger, but (in that very British way) trying to pretend nothing has changed. He throws in flashes of carefree fun and moments of trying to jolly on, but it’s never really real. The two actors are also brilliant at suggesting the lived in comfortableness of a long term relationship, every scene of theirs having a careful short hand of intimacy. Two sublime performances.

The whole thing is brilliantly packaged by Andrew Haigh’s subtle and careful direction into something that haunts the imagination long after it finishes. It’s the sort of film you’ll be desperate to discuss with people as soon as it finishes, to try and understand and interpret what you’ve seen in it. That final sequence is a perfect pay off for everything you’ve seen before, a brilliant sequence of uncertainty and hesitation. Fabulous film making and a very good film.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

Will Lily James and Michiel Huisman find true love in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? You have one guess.

Director: Mike Newell

Cast: Lily James (Juliet Ashton), Michiel Huisman (Dawsey Adams), Glen Powell (Mark Reynolds), Jessica Brown Findlay (Elizabeth McKenna), Katherine Parkinson (Isola Pribby), Matthew Goode (Sidney Stark), Tom Courtenay (Eben Ramsey), Penelope Wilton (Amelia Maugery)

Every so often I get challenged to write a really short review. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is the sort of film where I could almost write a review that was shorter than the film’s title. Look at the poster – everything you are now expecting from this movie, it completely delivers. It’s as warm, unthreatening, comfortable and familiar as Sunday dinner at your Gran’s.

In 1948, novelist Juliet Ashton (Lily James – so winning you overlook the fact that she’s clearly too young for the part) receives a chance letter from Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman), a farmer in Guernsey. Adams tells her about the book club that sprang up between himself and other islanders during Guernsey’s occupation by the Nazis, where reading books gave them a chance to escape the horrors of the occupation. Leaving her slightly put-out American fiancée (Mark Reynolds) in London (one guess as to what romantic pairing we’ll end the film with, by the way) she heads to Guernsey to meet the group and write an article about them – and finds herself swept up in a mystery around missing member of the club Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findley). 

It’s a film that virtually writes itself, the sort of predictable Sunday-afternoon, British film where the 1940s look impossibly glamourous and everything turns out wonderfully happily in the end. You won’t be challenged by anything in it, you can simply sit back and enjoy it. Everyone involved in the film does clearly understand what they are making here though: it’s light, fluffy and unchallenging but it’s professionally made and everyone gives it their all.

Perhaps it’s a sign of how much the film is pitching for the Downton Abbey audience that it has no fewer than four actors from that show in key roles. Lily James is radiant and charismatic as Juliet – sweetly earnest and also with a determination to wrestle out a truth once she senses a story. It doesn’t take a genius to guess that she is going to be won away from her dull Yankee pilot (Glen Powell in a totally thankless role of blandness) by the earthy, romantic, caring and intellectually stimulating charm of Game of Thrones’ Dario Naaheris, Michiel Huisman (the sort of role an actor can play standing on his head but he’s still very good).

Penelope Wilton does some good work as a widow clinging to happier memories that she can’t bear to see affected by harsher truths. Jessica Brown Findley has little to do, but to be honest it’s not a problem as the part is such a straight re-tread of her Lady Sybil role from Downton she could probably do it in her sleep. The last Downton alumnus, Matthew Goode, is rather funny as Juliet’s sweet but good-naturedly exasperated publisher. For the rest of the cast, Katherine Parkinson oscillates between comic timidity and soulful sensitivity and Tom Courtenay gives a playful old man performance which can’t have stretched him.

Not being stretched is what the film is all about. Even the mystery at the film’s centre isn’t particularly gripping or – even when the truth is revealed – something that really has much impact on anything. And it’s hardly the focus anyway. It’s really a film that wants you to enjoy the photography and landscapes, and to root for the two leads to fall in love with each other. It wants you to feel little else, and carefully avoids getting you to invest your emotions in other aspects of the story so you can’t get upset. It’s the sort of film that you could call “lovely”, that passes an hour or two perfectly well, and at the end of it you’ll tell people it was fine. Then you’ll never think about it again. Ever.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Tom Courtenay runs for himself in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Director: Tony Richardson

Cast: Tom Courtenay (Colin Smith), Michael Redgrave (Governor), Avis Bunnage (Mrs Smith), Alec McCowen (Brown), James Bolam (Mike), Joe Robinson (Roach), Dervis Ward (Detective), Topsy Jane (Audrey), Julia Foster (Gladys), James Fox (Gunthorpe), John Thaw (Bosworth)

In the 1960s British film made waves when it started to turn away from upper-class, costume-laden dramas, and accents started to be heard that weren’t cut-glass and RP. Few of these films ran (literally) further from this than The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

After the death of his father, Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), a working-class young man, is drawn into a life of petty crime. Sent to borstal for his re-education, his skill at long-distance running catches the eye of the Governor (Michael Redgrave). The Governor hopes to use Colin to win the five-mile cross-country run in the joint sports challenge day he has arranged with the local private school. But will Colin play ball, or will he stick to his own principles of never playing “their” game?

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is in many ways a sort of British Rebel Without a Cause, but without the glamour. Instead, Colin is a council house lad, angry at the world (but not quite clear why) and brought low by the theft of £70. The film showcases Colin as a sort of anti-authority hero, a man who just simply doesn’t want those bastards telling him what to do. He’s not violent or dangerous, he’s more sullen, fed-up and laced with anger and contempt at a world that short-changed his father. 

He finds himself in the confines of borstal, an institution all about rules, regulations and changing people to match what society expects of them: everything Colin hates, and spends the film pushing against. Unlike the anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s other seminal kitchen sink drama, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Colin isn’t out for what he can get – while that film’s lead was more frustrated the system didn’t work enough for him, Colin wants no system at all. He wants freedom to make his own choices and define his own life – and his rebelling is all about that.

What’s intriguing about Silitoe’s story is Colin has a genuine gift for running. Richardson shoots the sequences of Colin running through the country (granted special permission to go unattended by the Governor) with a lyrical freedom. It’s as if, while running, Colin can put the world aside for a moment, to focus on his own independence. Silitoe gives Colin the means to move up in the world – but to do so he has to fall in with the desires of his “betters”. Therein lies the film’s conundrum.

It helps a great deal that Michael Redgrave is terrific as the Governor – the very picture of hypocritical and self-serving authoritarianism, interested in the boys only so far as they can serve his ends. The slightest misdemeanour and punishment is absolute – with the boy banished back to the bottom rung of the borstal, and ignored by the Governor. 

Richardson shoots the borstal as a confining series of small spaces, a real contrast to the broad, open spaces Colin runs through. The flashback scenes that showcase Colin’s life of petty crime are shot with an intense realism, on-location in Nottingham streets. These scenes are perhaps slightly less engaging and interesting than those at the borstal: their content is pretty similar to other kitchen-sink dramas, and they seem more predictable (for all their engaging direction and acting) than other parts of the film.

The real success of the film is largely due to Tom Courtenay, making his film debut. It would be easy to be annoyed by Colin, an inarticulate and chippy lad who hates the system without actually being engaged enough to understand why. But Courtenay brings the part a tenderness and surly vulnerability, and for all his childish rebellion, his barely expressed feelings of grief and anger at his father’s death strike a real chord. Given a sum of money in compensation, largely frittered away by his mother (Avis Bunnage also excellent) on her fancy man, Colin symbolically burns part of it, then spends the rest taking himself, a friend and two girls to Skegness. Colin’s relationship with Audrey is sweetly, and gently organically grown – and Courtenay brings a real vulnerability to a confession of his own virginity.

Courtenay makes Colin’s principles and issues understandable to us – and relatable – even though it’s tempting to encourage him to play along with the Governor, win the race and seize and opportunity to better himself from that. But what Courtenay makes clear, is that doing that would be a sacrifice Colin’s own sense of self – and that would be a defeat.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a terrific kitchen-sink drama, built around an empathetic lead performance, that gives you plenty to think about. It’s shot with a poetic beauty by Richardson and photographer Walter Lassally. Finally, some credit must go to the casting director – not only Courtenay, but James Bolam and (uncredited) John Thaw and James Fox fill out the cast in prominent roles. Keep an eye on those guys: they might have futures ahead of them y’know.

The Golden Compass (2007)

How did it all go wrong? The disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz

Cast: Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra Belacqua), Nicole Kidman (Mrs Coulter), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Sam Elliott (Lee Scoresby), Eva Green (Serafina Pekkala), Jim Carter (John Faa), Clare Higgins (Ma Costa), Tom Courtenay (Farder Coram), Derek Jacobi (Magisterial Emissary), Simon McBurney (Fra Pavel), Jack Shepherd (Master of Jordan College), Ian McKellen (Iorek Byrnison), Freddie Highmore (Pantalaimon), Ian McShane (Ragnar Sturlusson), Kathy Bates (Hester), Kristin Scott Thomas (Stelmaria)

After the success of The Lord of the Rings, bookshops were stripped of all epic fantasy novels with a cross-generational appeal by film producers, their mouths watering at the prospect of having another billion-dollar licence to print money. Nearly all of these projects bombed, but I’m not sure any of them bombed harder than this, an attempt to kick-start a trilogy of films based on Philip Pullman’s both loved and controversial His Dark Materials books. What went so completely wrong?

Pullman’s trilogy is set in an alternative-Oxford, where people all have Dæmons, part of their soul that lives outside their body in animal form. It’s a world where the Magisterium, a powerful organisation, suppresses all free thought, in particular all investigation into the mysterious particle dust. Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan raised in Jordan College, who saves the life of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is investigating Dust in the North. Leaving the college with the mysterious Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who may or may not be involved in a series of child kidnappings, she eventually finds herself drawn more and more into setting right the problems of her world.

The Golden Compass is a film that pleased no-one. Fans of the book generally hated it. The people who hated the books hated it. The people who hated what they had been told the book was about hated it. Why did the studio decide to make a film in the first place about a book series they seemed to know was controversial from the start? If they didn’t really want to embrace the themes of the books, why bother? Pullman’s books are partly adventure stories, partly intricate world building, partly spiritual discussions – and yes partly atheist tracts with a strong anti-Establishment-church bent (with a more general regard for genuine faith). To put it bluntly, that’s a lot of ideas to try and squeeze into a film – particularly a film well under two hours.

So The Golden Compass is a mess that feels like it’s been put together by committee. It’s been cut to within an inch of its life – scenes jump incredibly swiftly from event to event, often with the barest of clunky explanation voiceover (“We’re going to see Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians”) to tell you what’s going on. Pages and pages of dialogue and character seem to be lost. We are constantly told Lyra is “special” but never shown anything that supports or explains this. An Eva Green-voiced infodump opens the film: clearly the producers were thinking about Peter Jackson’s masterful opening to The Fellowship of the Ring, which skilfully introduces everything. This introduction though is about removing all the mystery and magic of the story as soon as possible by stating it bluntly up-front.

The biggest mess is of course the way the film avoids all reference to Pullman’s religious themes. No reference is made at all to the Magisterium being a church. No reference is made at all to religion or faith. Iorek is clearly being held in a Russian Orthodox painted church – but the building is referred to throughout as an “office”. Derek Jacobi plays one of the principal Cardinal antagonists of the third book – no reference is made to his office. The Magisterium is instead just a “shady organisation” – a controlling gestapo-type organisation, with black uniforms and creepy Albert Speer style buildings. The questions of Dust and original sin – so central to the motivations of the story – are completely unexplained, meaning the child kidnapping and sinister intercission the villains are carrying out makes no sense at all. How on earth they planned to continue not talking about religion in their planned third film is a complete mystery.

This rushing is the problem throughout the film. Stuff just happens really, really quickly for no real reason. Characters pop up to introduce themselves for later films, or to drop clunky exposition. Tom Courtenay explains what an aleitheometer is for us (the film constantly brings up this “Golden Compass” and its future-telling properties, without ever really making them feel important for anything that happens in the film). Eva Green flies in to say she’s a witch and how pleased she is to meet Lyra and promptly flies off. Daniel Craig name checks Dust, gets captured then disappears. Sam Elliott introduces his rabbit Dæmon and shoots a couple of things. None of this gets any chance to grow and develop – and you end up not caring about any of these characters. Nearly every plot event from the first book is kept in – but so rushed you don’t give a toss.

The structure of the film has also been changed from the book, and not for the better. The film (probably thinking about later films) increases the presence of the Magisterium throughout – but without really making their antagonist role clear. Lyra and Iorek’s defeat of Iorek’s usurper Ragnar is moved to before the final defeat of the Gobbler’s ice base – this doesn’t make a lot of sense. If Iorek now commands an army of bears, why doesn’t he bring them along for the final battle? Lyra instead wanders up to the base like an idiot, and the film extends the release of the children from the ice base into a big battle in order to give us a Lord of the Rings style finish. It doesn’t matter that nothing in the film feels like it’s building plotwise or dramatically towards this battle – it’s there you feel, because Lord of the Rings had battles and people loved that, so let’s get one in here. 

In fact the film builds towards nothing, because it has been cut so poorly, and is such a terrible compromised product, that everything the books are building towards has been removed from it. So the entire thing makes no bloody sense. The clash with the church and organised religion doesn’t work because all reference to faith has been cut. There are mutterings about a “war” coming, but no one says what it might be about. There is a loose crusade to save the kidnapped children – but we don’t understand either side of this. The cruelly ironic ending of the book, with Lord Asriel’s real plan revealed, is deleted altogether from the film – because the studio didn’t want a “downer” ending. As a result the film just suddenly ends (after a clunky “We’ll go home one day after this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and after we’ve solved all the problems of the world” speech).

Studio interference reeks off this whole film. It’s been cut to ribbons. Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee were parachuted into the cast in order to make the film feel more like Lord of the Rings. McKellen sounds completely wrong as a mighty armoured bear (original casting Nonso Anozie would have been perfect). Lee chips in a single line in what is painfully obviously an addition from re-shoots. Anything potentially different or interesting is cut out. In fact anything that was unique about Pullman’s original books is cut out: as much is done as possible to make Pullman’s story as identikit and standard as hundreds of other bland fantasy dramas. As if they hadn’t realised the book was potentially really controversial in the more traditional parts of the US market, it seems like the studio only really read the books once the film was shot, suddenly realised they had made a massive mistake, and tried to reduce the danger as much as possible by making the film as bland as they possible could.

Chris Weitz is completely unsuited for directing it – and he actually feels like a hostage the more you read about the film’s turbulent production – but it’s not all bad. Dakota Blue Richards is actually pretty good as Lyra – she’s got a certain magic charisma. The set design is pretty terrific – even if it is a lot more steampunk than I pictured the novel as being. The special effects are pretty goods – the Dæmons are well done, and the puff of gold Dust they turn into when someone dies is striking. Some of the adult casting is pretty good – Kidman is just about perfect, Craig is pretty good, Sam Elliott stands out as Lee Scoresby. There are some neat cameos as well – I would have liked to see Jacobi get to tackle the third book, Eva Green is wasted, Tom Courtenay is pretty good. It just all rushes by so quickly. You don’t get the chance to get to know anyone fully. If the book was a bit episodic, this takes that worst element of it and ramps it up to eleven.

The Golden Compass tanked. It tanked so hard, New Line Cinema didn’t really recover. All plans for future films were scrapped. However, it is important in another way. In presenting such a horrifically neutered, stripped-down version of the story, it persuaded a lot of people that books rich in world building and content like this needed much longer than a traditional film to be brought to life. It helped persuade George RR Martin that TV was the way to go when selling the rights for Game of Thrones. And His Dark Materials will now live again as a 10 part TV series in the near future. For all its many, many failures – we owe it something.