Tuesday, June 22, 2010


1964, UK, directed by Cy Endfield

Although it's tempting to lump Zulu together with other epics of the empire in its various guises - most obviously David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia - Cy Endfield's film attempts something both more limited, an account of a single military action, and perhaps trickier, that is, presenting that action in a manner that avoids caricature of either side. Of course, the British viewpoint is privileged throughout since the camera, for the most part, remains within the British army post at Rorke's Drift, but the film is a rare account that emphasizes not African savagery or naïveté but rather the tactical and strategic intelligence of the Zulus, who implement a coherent battlefield plan - sketched out for us by an Afrikaner - and who then make a rational calculation about the virtues of continued engagement. The film does, nonetheless, play loose with certain aspects of the historical records, inserting several sequences - most notably a singing "battle" - for dramatic purposes and underplaying some particularly brutal British acts, such as the killing of wounded Zulu.

Endfield provides us with virtually no context for Rorke's Drift beyond an indication that it is a continuation of a battle fought earlier in the day at Isandlwana - a decision which robs the film of any sense of the African motivation for the battle - and focuses immediately on the reactive efforts of the small British garrison to improvise a defense. Endfield shot parts of the film on location, and the outdoor sequences are terrifically impressive, with the tiny outpost dwarfed by the Drakensberg mountains, made more ominous still by the presence of Zulu fighters appearing from on high in several shots. There is, though, an occasional sense of disconnect from the interior sequences, many of which were shot back in England, and which sometimes have a more jocular tone that feels remote from the fighting outside (those inside the buildings, either prisoners or invalids, don't take up weapons until quite late in the film, which seems extraordinary given the numerical disparity between the Zulu regiments and British defenders).

Although Rorke's Drift is remembered as one of the great imperial rearguard actions, a disaster in the making that turned into an improbable victory - the more notable, in both military and propaganda terms, for coming immediately after the comprehensive defeat at Isandlwana - Endfield's presentation, even while enumerating the honors won in the course of the fighting, implies that there's little heroic about any such battle. The camera pans away from the guns and bayonets on the stockade to a carpet of Zulu bodies that must surely have recalled, for anyone watching in 1964, the horrific images of body upon body that emerged when the concentration camps were liberated (the sequence in Zulu is almost in black and white, unlike the vivid colours elsewhere in the film, making the analogy even clearer). It's a fascinating reappraisal of the realities of imperial conquest, a film that undermines conventional propaganda even as it reinforces the standing of Rorke's Drift in British historical memory.

Friday, June 18, 2010

L'Assassinat du Père Noël

1941, France, directed by Christian-Jaque

As with so much of French cinema during the occupation era, L'Assassinat du Père Noël is set in an enclosed community - a snowbound Alpine village in this case - that it's tempting to interpret as a sort of metaphor for occupied France, and particularly for the threat of corruption from within in the form of collaboration. Accusations of collaboration no doubt rang in the ears of director Christian-Jaque (and others, like Henri-Georges Clouzot, then also in the employ of the German-controlled Continental Films), and obviously obliged them to be rather indirect in their critique. As Susan Hayward has written, though, it's almost equally easy to interpret the film, and others of the period, as a paean to a France of the past, in other words to find in it a rather conservative, even vaguely Pétainist viewpoint.* It's perhaps that ability to be all things to all people - and, crucially, to appear innocuous to the German censors - that accounts for the film's substantial success when first released.

Although the film announces itself as a whodunit, the promised plotline is ultimately rather unimportant, with the question of Father Christmas's killer not even raised until well past the halfway point in the film. Instead, Christian-Jaque spends his time serving up a detailed portrait of the village, populated - indeed over-populated - with a variety of eccentrics, not the least of whom is the baron, just returned from many years abroad to cast his sinister shadow over the village. Harry Baur, one of the great stars of the era, and shortly to die in the custody of the Gestapo, plays a local craftsman, a globe manufacturer, who dresses up as Santa Claus each year, and he's especially amusing in the sequences in which Santa comes under the increasing influence of the alcohol with which each and every family rather liberally plies him.

As David Cairns has noted, Christian-Jaque employs a highly mobile, eye-catching camera, moving around within both the village and the interior spaces - a cosy inn, a rather bleak castle, a workshop - to explore both the nooks and crannies and their inhabitants, and he makes good use of the unusual, snowy location, perhaps most obviously in the atmospheric nighttime scenes when two rambunctious boys go exploring. Given the shadows in these sequences, I'm guessing that they may have been shot "day for night," but they're still filled with mystery and a sense of danger - much more than the main intrigue. That plot is the film's weakest element, thankfully balanced by an intriguing group of character actors and the prowling, curious camera.

*Susan Hayward, French National Cinema, revised edition 2005.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Red Riding

2009, UK, directed by Julian Jarrold (1974), James Marsh (1980) and Anand Tucker (1983)

The shot that introduces us to Yorkshire in Red Riding is almost identical to that in The Damned United, also based on a book by David Peace, with a car driving up a rain-soaked road, carrying a man leaving behind experiences in the south for an unpredictable future. Other than the original author, however, the two projects have little in common: where The Damned United focused on one individual's odyssey, Red Riding takes on the police and broader social culture of Northern England in the 1970s.

Peace, and his cinematic adapters, interweave real events – the Yorkshire Ripper murders, and vaguer references to the murder of Lesley Molseed, which led to a miscarriage of justice, among other notorious cases – with fictional characters and plotlines, creating a dark, despairing portrait of Northern culture. There’s nothing celebratory about the North here, except between an inner circle of corrupt policemen who believe they can make their own rules, and even the potential heroes are almost all terribly flawed, with justice compromised at best.

There's an almost complete lack of humour in the first two episodes, which does occasionally make for a rather dour four initial hours. Anand Tucker seems to recognize that there's only so far he can push the audience, leavening his final segment with the occasional flash of mordant wit and also creating some sense of limited redemption, albeit of a very circumscribed kind given what's taken place over the course of the trilogy. Tucker also finds quiet moments that reveal a real humanity between one of his lead characters, a rumpled, sad-sack lawyer, and a young woman with whom he crosses paths, nicely balancing what we slowly realize were much less innocent interactions in the earlier episodes between a priestly character (played by Peter Mullan) and those to whom he ministers.

The three directors shot their episodes on different film stocks (Tucker uses HD video), and each segment consequently has a rather different feel. The opening section, set in 1974, was shot on 16mm and positively reeks with the cigarette smoke and alcohol in which the story is thoroughly embedded, and which are key elements of the retrograde social structure that Peace described in his books, but Jarrold also finds something beguiling and warm in sequences shot both in down-at-heel bars and luxurious homes.

By contrast, the middle section, on 35mm, more of a classic police procedural involving the assignment of a new officer (Paddy Considine, excellent as always) to an apparently stagnant case, has a harsher tone, exemplified in the settings that James Marsh chooses - a grim bunker-like document room, or the toilets in a police station - and he comprehensively undermines virtually every hint of heroism among the police characters who are at the core of the story; it becomes, in the end, a situation in which we're invited to choose we least dislike. That, ultimately, is an idea that is woven through all three films. That the result is compelling - I watched the three films back-to-back in the theatre - rather than repellent is testament to the skill of the three filmmakers in creating an absorbing through-line within a tremendous mass of diverting detail, character, and subplot.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Fantastic Mr. Fox

2009, US/UK, directed by Wes Anderson

Having grown up on Roald Dahl's original book, I was somewhat skeptical of this transatlantic adaptation, which hybridizes the material by inserting American accents into a very English country setting, but after about five minutes of Wes Anderson's beguiling film it occurred to me that linguistic accuracy is perhaps beside the point in a story that features an urbane talking fox.

Anderson has a great sense of the particular charms of stop-motion animation, as though he'd climbed into the mind of Nick Park without losing sight of his own preoccupations, most obviously the fraught dynamics of family. As in The Royal Tenenbaums in particular, the members of this particular extended family (and wider community) have their share of failings - most notably Mr. Fox's rather puffed-up self-regard - but they're chronicled gently, in ways that never lose sight of the characters' ultimate (and paradoxical) humanity, while there are some brilliant moments of visual and verbal humour.

Notwithstanding my initial misgivings about the American above-the-title talent, the voice work is sublime, particularly George Clooney as the slightly world-weary Mr. Fox and Meryl Streep as his oft-taxed partner Mrs. Fox; despite having the physical form of a pair of animated foxes, they conjure up a wonderfully convincing portrait of a marriage with its occasional tensions and intermittent triumphs.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States