Sunday, September 21, 2014


(after the film by John Sayles)

“Welcome to Matewan. This here’s
a company town, and the company
is your benefactor and your god,
your pious mother and stern father.
Boys, think of yourselves as tools,
implements for the extraction of coal.

“We pay ninety cents per ton of coal,
but listen up: your train ride here,
your housing and clothing and tools –
them’s a debt you owe the company:
honour it like you honour your father,
pay it from your first wages, by God!

“There’s a meeting house for God
and prayer. But hear me, boys: coal’s
your cathedral, coal’s Your Father
who art in the mine, ninety cents, here
in the darkness as it is in the company,
ours is the profit and thou art the tools.”

You son of a bitch! Men ain’t tools,
doesn’t matter if they’re lost to God
or chosen to sit in His company
come the day this dark pit of coal
and all the corruption that’s here
on earth is the fuel for Our Father’s

prophecy: the last shall be first. Father,
deliver us. That, or give us the tools
to do the job ourselves: now, here,
in the face of men whose only god
is the ledger book written in coal-
black ink and tallied by the company

accountant. Deliver us from company
enforcers with clubs and guns. Father,
deliver us from the price of coal.
Or shelve forgiveness, give us the tools
and look away. In some places God
and man work differently. Like here,

in this company town. Down tools.
stand with father and brother. God’s
absent where coal is. In Matewan. Here. 

(This sestina was inspired by John Sayles's film. The stanzas in quotation marks are not verbatim from the movie, but my re-imagining of the voice of the company man who, in an early scene, "welcomes" a new workforce to Matewan and informs them in no uncertain terms that they're pretty much owned by the company.) 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Kathleen Ferrier: An Ordinary Diva

In a career that lasted just fifteen meteoric years, Kathleen Ferrier went from prize-winning amateur at the Carlisle Festival to giving the definitive performance of Gluck’s ‘Orfeo ed Euridice’ at Covent Garden under Sir John Barbirolli, by way of still-unsurpassed professional relationships with Benjamin Britten (her Glyndebourne debut was in his just-written ‘The Rape of Lucretia’), Sir Adrian Boult and Bruno Walter. Ferrier’s recording with Walter of Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ is not only the most moving performance of the piece you’ll ever hear, but kickstarted a revival of interest in the composer following the blacklisting of his work under the Nazi regime. (Ferrier’s New York performances of Mahler with Walter and the New York Philharmonic were attended by Alma Mahler, the composer’s widow.)

Suzanne Phillips’s documentary, produced by the BBC under Lottery funding, keys into the importance of Ferrier’s discography, the sheer comet-like intensity of her career (in one single month, she gave 17 performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – 17 performances of a taxing three hour oratorio in one freaking month), and the calibre of the conductors and orchestras she worked with; but the focus is always on Kathleen Ferrier as a person. And what an amazing, unpretentious, warm-hearted person! Drawing deeply on Ferrier’s correspondence – to friends and family she wrote witty, vivacious and conversational letters which she invariably signed “Kaff” – ‘An Ordinary Diva’ embraces its subject’s inherent likeability.

Indeed, there are times when the documentary almost seems like a puff piece. No-one has a bad word to say about her, and there’s almost a sense of a guilty secret finally breaking ground when soprano Adele Leigh recalls that Ferrier enjoyed reciting risqué limericks. Elsewhere, a letter dating from her 1947 collaboration with Fritz Stiedry (a conductor who is now almost forgotten) records that she recuperated from his bullish behaviour in rehearsals by taking herself off to the pub for “a dirty great pint”. This alone, even I wasn’t already in love with her recordings, makes me wish I could avail myself of a time machine, bugger off back to the late ’40s and sink a couple of pints with Ferrier. Put simply, she comes across as bloody good company.

Ferrier’s Amsterdam appearances in late 1946 marked the first time she travelled abroad and her letters capture the wide-eyed delight of the first-time tourist (albeit tempered by the working-class pragmatism of her Lancastrian upbringing). Her first concert appearance drew a small audience. A radio broadcast and a review so incandescent with praise that it made the front page of a Dutch newspaper turned the tide and successive performances sold out. Ferrier’s incursion into America was similarly bittersweet: the first tour saw her footing her own accommodation and expenses and ending up in debt as a result; next time round, she dictated terms and pocketed the proceeds instead of haemorrhaging them.

Add to the globetrotting (a seriously big deal for an English artiste in the first decade after the end of the war) a massively popular series of recordings on the Decca label and Ferrier looked set to conquer the world. Fate stepped in to dictate otherwise. In 1951, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. A mastectomy and chemotherapy (then called “radiation therapy”) seemed to keep the disease in check and Ferrier continued touring and recording. Secondary cancer proved terminal, however, with the cells moving to the bones. Under a sentence of death, Ferrier fought to complete two career-defining achievements. The first was a recording, with Walter, of ‘Das Lied von der Erde’. A beautifully understated archive interview with Ferrier’s personal assistant yields a telling memory: Ferrier, Walter and a few others listened to the master tape playback for the first time. As the last note faded, there was absolute silence. Then Ferrier turned to Walter and asked, “Was I all right, love?” That was the part of the documentary where I broke down and cried.

The second, her remission worsening, was ‘Orfeo’ – full staged performance – at Covent Garden. During the second night, her femur broke rendering her immobile on stage (and it can only be imagined in what degree of pain). Her supporting cast, including Leigh, tailored their performances to disguise her suffering and Ferrier insisted on a curtain call before being carried to a waiting ambulance. This is something worth remembering next time you watch a football match and some ponce-haired nobody plays to the gallery, clutching his leg and wailing after a tackle. Kathleen Ferrier was harder than your average professional sportsman.

Ferrier was only 41 when she died in her sleep. Ten years earlier and her career might have missed the golden age of recorded classical music. Ten years later and enough archive footage might have existed to render ‘An Ordinary Diva’ twice or three times its length. But speculation is pointless. The fact is, Kathleen Ferrier was taken from us on 8 October 1953. Her legacy is impossible to overstate. If anyone with even the vaguest interest in the repertoire can listen to her Mahler and remain dry-eyed, they’re possibly sociopathic. Decca have honoured her recordings and kept them in the catalogue. The 10-disc box set released to mark the fiftieth anniversary of her passing was a thing of beauty. Suzanne Phillips’s documentary – narrated by Robert Lindsay and with her letters read by Patricia Routledge – was not only timely but gave us the woman at the heart of the artist; the human being who embodied the passion.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pride (in the name of mediocrity)

During 1984 and 1985, the LGBT community – marginalised, ill-represented by the media, and denied their basic human rights by the Thatcher regime – demonstrated a remarkable socio-political stance and display of solidarity with the striking miners. They marched, they raised funds, and they battled a two-pronged assault by middle England: against homophobia, and against the anti-strike, anti-union fervour drummed up by the government and perpetuated by a media in the government’s pocket.

 Plus ça motherfucking change, huh?

Early in Matthew Warchus’s film, Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) points up the parallels as he rallies a group of militant protestors who centre around a gay and lesbian bookshop in London: both groups are hated by the Tory party, the police and a brainwashed society who belief what a biased media tell them. “The only problem we’ve got that they don’t is Mary Whitehouse,” he concludes. It’s a decent line and it got a good laugh at the screening I attended this afternoon. And that’s one of the problems. Stephen Beresford’s script is full of moments like this. Yeah, he makes a point. But in a throwaway manner. Too much of ‘Pride’ is reductive: a jokey line here, a cutesy moment there, a snippet of archive footage to remind us that all of this really happened.

IMDb bills ‘Pride’ as “comedy / drama / history”. The drama takes a back seat to the fuzzy feelgood moments and the zippy lines. History doesn’t seem to feature at all. ‘Pride’ reminded me a lot of ‘Made in Dagenham’: both are based on true stories, both are set in a very specific period of the recent past, and neither convinced, aesthetically, as period pieces. Whereas, say, ‘The Damned United’ utilizes cinematography and production design that conjures a convincing and evocation recreation of the 70s, ‘Made in Dagenham’ and ‘Pride’ just look like a bunch of people wearing more or less the fashions of the day filmed in bland BBC ‘Play for Today’ style against locations that haven’t even been set-dressed.

The bits of archive material that ‘Pride’ drops in – most notably the shocking image of Lesley Boulton in the split-second before she was clubbed by a mounted police officer at Orgreave – only serve to point up what the film is missing. There is no real sense of oppression by government; or of divided communities; or of hunger, deprivation and desperation; or of police brutality; or of … well … striking. In a film that clocks in at damn near two hours, there’s but one scene of picketing and it’s over in seconds.

The importance of the story told by ‘Pride’ is impossible to overestimate. Even after the strike ended, a massive contingent of Welsh miners arrived at the 1985 gay pride event, NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) banners aloft, and led the march in a show of solidarity. Subsequently, the Labour party moved to enshrined LGBT rights in its constitution, the motion powered through by block vote from the NUM. Additionally, women who had previously experienced little outside of their traditional roles as wives and mothers suddenly found themselves organising, fundraising, protesting, forming support groups, speaking to the media, addressing rallies, finding their voices and speaking out against Thatcher’s government. It’s a tragedy that Thatcher essentially betrayed her gender politically, but the immediate and damning response by a generation of working class women spoke for itself.

The miners’ strike remains a reactionary, searing and viscerally dramatic moment in British social, economic and politic history. And yet the great British movie on the strike still hasn’t been made. American cinema has given us the hammerblow of John Sayles’s ‘Matewan’; French cinema has given us both Yves Allégret and Claude Berri’s adaptations of Zola’s ‘Germinal’. Thirty years down the line, British cinema is still treating the miners’ strike as some sort of colourful backdrop to feelgood stories of self-expression, be it a brass band contest in ‘Brassed Off’ or no-son-of-mine-sensitive-lad-who-just-wants-to-dance in ‘Billy Elliott’. It’s as if no-one has had the balls to tell the real, gritty, gruelling story.

Fuck’s sake, British cinema, grow a pair, take a side, step up. Where the biopic of Arthur Scargill (imagine Andrew Scott, wasted in a nothing role in ‘Pride’, juggling with cinematic dynamite in the lead role)? Where the conspiracy thriller movie about the government’s machinations against the NUM, drawn from Seamus Milne’s ‘The Enemy Within’ (the creative team behind ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ would ace this)? Where the underdog drama of the Nottinghamshire striking miners or the “dirty thiry” in Leicestershire holding the line against overwhelming numbers of scabs and media muck-racking (a Meadows-Consodine re-teaming waiting to happen)? Where the fearless, visceral, fuelled by white-hot righteous anger account of the events at Orgreave (Ben Wheatley: your cue, sir)?

Fuck’s sake, we have the talent, we have the passion, we have truth on our side. Please, British cinema, please: the hour is still to come.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


"They said I can choose my own name, any name?" says Eric Wilson, a.k.a. Jack Burridge, in the opening scene of 'Boy A'. It's a line that immediately establishes what the film is questioning. Identity. Who you are, who you don't want to be, who you can become.

Originally screened on Channel 4 in 2007, the film is an adaptation of the novel by Jonathan Triggell and it's easy to see why it's compared to the James Bulger case. But it shouldn't be. What 'Boy A' does is use the Bulger case to haunt the film, rather than be a version of it. 'Boy A' is essentially a coming-of-age story.

Jack Burridge (Andrew Garfield) has just been released from a young offenders' institution for a monstrous crime that he was involved in as a child, the details of which are gradually revealed as the film progresses. Terry (brilliantly played by Peter Mullen) is a probation officer who guides Jack into civilian life. What is apparent from the very beginning is how little Jack knows about real life: he doesn't know how to spend his wages, or what a panini is.

The relationship between Terry and Jack is almost father and son like, and it becomes obvious that Terry is proud of Jack as he becomes more independent in his new life. Terry introduces Jack as his nephew to Kelly (Siobhan Finneran), an acquaintance of Terry's who takes Jack in as a lodger. Terry helps Jack to secure a job at a local firm; it isn't clear what his duties are, but minor details are irrelevant. What is so fascinating is Jack's reactions to normal occurrences. He befriends his work colleague Chris (Shaun Evans) and begins a relationship with the office receptionist Michelle (Katie Lyons).

When Jack is invited out on a night out with his colleagues, he worries he may drink too much and reveal his past. During the evening, his colleagues keep encouraging him to relax and it is only when he is given a tab of E that he finally does so, cutting loose with some manic dance moves along the way. When the group enter the nightclub, there is an almost dream-like feel to the scene which emphasises Jack's innocent exploration/perception of his new surroundings. It is as if he can't quite believe what is happening to him, not just as a result of the drug, but the more natural high of enjoying his new life. He might be wondering if it is all a dream.

The evening ends, however, with a violent altercation that results in Jack nearly beating someone up, giving a glimpse into what he might be capable of and providing a reminder of his past. There is a flashback sequence of a young Jack - or Eric Wilson as he was then - and his friend Philip in an argument with a gang of older boys. Philip is depicted as the more violent of the two, aggressively laying into one of the gang members, and it is clear that he is the instigator in the pairs' misdoings.

The flashback sequences work very well throughout, every so often revealing a bit more of Jack's past, leaving the audience guessing as to the nature of his crime. Cumulatively, this makes for uncomfortable viewing, particularly in a sequence towards the end of the film where Jack's past catches up with him. The dream-like quality is also emphasised in these scenes. Sunlight suffuses the screen, lending a hazy feel to the outdoor scenes. Frequent scenes of Philip and Jack outside sets up a counterpoint to their future life of restraint in the young offenders' institution.

It is the denouement where Garfield really excels. Ironically, an act of heroism, rescuing a child from a crashed car, brings Jack to the attention of the local press. This precipitates a jealous response from Terry's son, disgusted at his father's drunken declaration that he sees Jack as a son, and the media focus suddenly turns upon Jack's hidden past. After being sacked from his job and Michelle's phone turned off, the realisation kicks in that the people he knows have found out about him. His breakdown is intense. Walking the streets in a hooded top, he becomes a fugitive and essentially a victim of his own crime. Unpredictably, he ends in a Blackpool where he sees Michelle on the pier and she tells him she would have forgiven him. This, however, appears to be another of the dream-like scenarios that have filled the film, and 'Boy A' leaves the audience to guess whether Jack, having left voicemail messages saying goodbye to Terry and Chris, is going to take his own life on Blackpool pier.

In what is easily Garfield's finest performance (it's a real shame he went down the Hollywood route rather than delivering more work of this calibre), he brings a boyish, fractured quality to his portrayal of Jack. He is awkward and innocent. There are moments in the film where you really care for him and it is practically forgotten why he essentially has to grow up at the age of 24 when he has already had three different lives: Eric Wilson, Boy A and finally Jack Burridge.

Amy Clarke

Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Raid

Reviewing ‘Dredd’ in May, I wondered if its lacklustre box office performance was due to the fact that it “came at the tail-end of two years’ worth of claustrophobic genre movies set in high-rise apartments, from grungy French zombie flick ‘La Horde’ to urban Brit horror ‘The Citadel’ by way of ‘Attack the Block’, ‘The Raid’, ‘Tower Block’, ‘Rammbock’ and however many others”.

And the point remains: every subgenre will eventually become overcrowded and spawn audience indifference. But by the same token, every subgenre will find its exemplar. ‘The Raid’ is the best tower-block-as-battleground movie you will ever see.

That it’s the best of its kind is probably a good thing, since much of it is clichéd, derivative and predictable. If it didn’t power through its gossamer-thin narrative with such demented energy – if it slowed its breakneck pace for even a second – the risk of outstaying its welcome would be palpable.

Here’s some of the hoary old tropes that ‘The Raid’ goes flaunting about with as if it truly were doing something new: the everything-to-lose hero introduced taking his leave of his pregnant wife; the nervous new recruit; the grizzled old-timer with a hidden agenda; the edgy, paranoid, unpredictable gang boss; the sadistic enforcer to said gang boss; the ease with which minor characters are massacred; the improbable injuries the major characters sustain and get back to their feet to fight some more; the predisposition of all parties to get into protracted bouts of hand-to-hand combat when there’s a perfectly functional small bore fireman within reach.

Plotwise, it never extends beyond cops storm tower block, crims bring the pain, an ulterior motive’s revealed, a double-cross takes place, a fuckload of people die. In fact, it’s pretty much interchangeable with ‘Dredd’ (except that ‘Dredd’ bothers to have a female character) right down to the crystal meth lab in one of the mezzanine levels. Because there’s always a crystal meth lab in a tower block, right? Never a counterfeiting operation or a fake fag house or a chop shop in the underground garage. No, it’s always a fucking crystal meth lab.

But I digress. And I’m also spending rather a lot of words banging on about the flaws in a film that I introduced as the exemplar of its subgenre. Which brings me back to the essential point: all ‘The Raid’ has to do to eclipse all other tower block based action movies is deliver more action. Be harder, faster, more relentless. And relentless is certainly the right word. It takes director Gareth Evans – a Welsh-born Jakarta-based filmmaker – just a few minutes to get his tooled up and eminently expendable squad of cops to the tower block. The tension is simmering away nicely by the ten-minute mark and things all go to hell only a few more minutes after that. There is not a dull moment in the whole 97 minutes. There isn’t a wasted frame or a moment of stasis. Everything that happens in ‘The Raid’ happens in order to perpetuate the momentum, to keep the characters on the move, to hyperlink from one violent or suspenseful scenario to the next.

The sequel is apparently a sprawling two and a half hour crime saga. How that will compare to the taut, claustrophobic setting from which Evans wrings every bit of action and suspense possible remains to be seen.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014


A Guardian review quoted on the DVD cover blurb breathlessly labels John Michael McDonagh’s ‘Calvary’ a “rich, ripe and altogether delicious whodunit with a difference”. Which is, to varying degrees, accurate. Although a better description might be a “who’ll-do-it”. A stark, single-take pre-credits scene sets the tone: Father James (Brendan Gleeson) takes confession from an off-screen antagonist who recounts how he was sexually abused by a priest as a boy, and how he intends to kill Father James – in the full knowledge that the latter is a good priest – a week hence in retribution against the church entire.

McDonagh’s script never states it explicitly, but the parallel is clear: Jesus, innocent of worldly corruption dies for the sins of the world; two thousand years later, one good, idealistic, genuinely caring priest will die for the sins of the church. The film’s called ‘Calvary’ for a reason.

Having said that, the cinematic template that informs its increasingly doom-laden aesthetic is not so much ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ as ‘High Noon’ … or at least a ‘High Noon’ where Will Kane wears a cassock instead of a sheriff’s badge, Frank Miller’s identity is kept hidden until the last ten minutes and there’s seven agonising days to the showdown instead of a fraught hour and a half. Again, the parallel is evident without being hammered home: both Will and Father James leave town at a critical point, only to turn back and face up to their date with destiny; both spend the finite time left to them in crucial interactions with the townsfolk. Both receive rejection from various quarters. Both benefit from the friendship of a wise elder who is nonetheless too old to be of any practical assistance – in ‘High Noon’, the retired marshal who was Will’s predecessor; in ‘Calvary’, an octogenarian novelist (M. Emmet Walsh) who is also waiting for the inevitable, but in his case via natural causes.

And both, eventually, face their enemy alone. The ending is where the similarities peter out, but again the title speaks for itself. Another difference: while Will petitions the townsfolk seeking help, Father James sets out to minister to them, to try to make a positive difference to their lives, one last time. An under-the-gun attempt to save someone’s soul; to justify the decision he made, in reaction to the death of his wife years earlier, to enter the priesthood. A decision that has complicated his relationship with his emotionally unstable daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly).

Thus it is that Fiona returns to Father James’s parish for a few days while he makes his rounds and waits for the inevitable. His rounds bring him in contact with cynical hospital medic Dr Harte (Aidan Gillen), soulless businessman Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), smart-talking gigolo Leo (Owen Sharpe), and jovial butcher Jack Brennan (Chris O’Dowd) whose joviality masks the horns of a cuckold – his flirtatious wife Veronica (Orla O’Rourke) is carrying on with mechanic Simon (Isaach De Bankolé). Rounding out the trouble souls are Milo Herlihy (Killian Scott), a socially awkward young whom Father James is trying to talk out of joining the army, and convict Freddie Joyce (Domhnall Gleeson) who summons Father James not so much for absolution but a bit of company and time out of his cell.

If the Catholic church’s ignoble history of child abuse hangs heavily over the film like a storm cloud – nowhere more poignantly than in a scene when Father James strikes up a perfectly innocent and good-natured conversation with a young girl holidaying in the area only for her father to furiously bundle her away from him based on nothing more than the fact that he’s wearing a black robe – then its other key theme flows quietly below the surface like an underground spring: the church as anachronism, the role of the parish priest an exercise in redundancy. None of Father James’s flock have any use for him, except to mock. Or terrorise.

‘Calvary’ mines the vignettes that constitute its loose narrative – some profound, some satirical, some just plain absurd – from a pretty heavy thematic seam. A late-in-the-game meditation on forgiveness sets up a final scene fade-to-black designed to force the audience to take a thorny question away with them and spend some time wrestling with it.

All told, ‘Calvary’ comes very close to greatness. There are some awkward tonal shifts – a problem that afflicted McDonagh’s debut ‘The Guard’ – and the script often seems to stumble as it reaches for a spiritual profundity that’s clearly beyond it. Nor is McDonagh particularly well served by some of his cast. While Gleeson and Walsh are as good as they’ve ever been – and Moran is a revelation, reining in his smartarse comic persona to create a portrait of bored insouciant arrogance with a dead-eyed void at the centre of it – Reilly, O’Dowd and Gillen flounder, unable to bring to their performances what the script requires of them. I almost want to say that none of these things really matter – because when ‘Calvary’ works, it works – but the truth is, there’s nothing as frustrating as engaging with a work that truly has magnificence within its grasp but falls short.