They shoot, they score

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My review for Radio Times of the new, feature-length documentary Score (released on DVD 2 April in the UK)

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SCORE (2016)
RATING:
DIRECTOR: Matt Schrader
STARRING: Hans Zimmer, John Debney, Tyler Bates et al
CERTIFICATE: PG
RUNNING TIME: 93 mins
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN: US
AVAILABLE: DVD

 

Matt Schrader’s first feature Score leads the slender field of documentaries about the work of film composers. Anyone whose interest runs deeper than humming the Darth Vader march will delight at the sheer who’s-who lined up for this tantalising insight into an artform that leading light Hans Zimmer reminds us keeps the world’s studio orchestras in work, while director James Cameron refers to the score as a movie’s “heart and soul”. Talking heads seated on swivel chairs on laminate-floored control rooms offer downhome wisdom like, “Bernard Herrmann had balls!” (Guardians of the Galaxy’s Tyler Bates) and “The reverse echo is really cool” (Scream king Marco Beltrami, who’s placed an old piano on the roof of his Malibu studio and wired it to a water tower for The Homesman). With its Kong-to-Jaws potted history out of the way, Score luxuriates in footage of crack musicians at Abbey Road giving life to Duel of the Fates from The Phantom Menace and Patrick Doyle cheerfully bashing out the Harry Potter Waltz on his piano. The notes of a motif from Lord of the Rings appear graphically onscreen, but apart from that, it’s sheer indulgence for audio-cinephiles yearning to see Tom Holkenborg call up the drums from Mad Max: Fury Road and play them on his keyboard. Zimmer speaks for every insecure composer when he imagines panicking, “You’d better phone John Williams, I have no idea how to do this!”

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The abridged version, on the page:

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LPs 2017

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Oops. Forgot to arrange my LPs of the Year into a neat shape. So here it is, for what it’s worth.

With great inevitability, soundtracks and scores have dominated my listening horizon. Curating a two-hour radio show of film music every week for Classic FM means I now habitually listen to a disproportionate amount of orchestral and instrumental music, with the bulk of it written in the 20th century ie. the past. I’m comfortable with this immersion, as I have lost touch with the modern sounds of the charts, and have trouble remembering the names of acts I hear for the first time on 6 Music. I heard a track I really liked yesterday in the car, for instance, by Mr Jukes, but I have no idea who that is.

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I know who Sleaford Mods are, and keep up with their prolific output (the documentary Bunch of Kunst was essential viewing), but it stands so far apart and above anything else I have heard in the last few years, it makes life almost impossible for the other bands! It may seem rather conservative to hold the new material of such established acts as Arcade Fire, Royal Blood, Billy Bragg and – eek! – Sparks, but I have long since stopped trying to impress anyone, and spend my CD money with caution. I probably played the Horrors album V more than any other non-orchestral, non-instrumental this year. It is, like English Tapas, fabulous, if not, like English Tapas, groundbreaking.

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Hold the front page. No, really, hold a newspaper with a front page on it and cherish its existence. For if nothing else, the year from here can once again be read through the front pages of its newspapers. Against all millennial odds, we still have nine national newspapers (eleven if you count the Morning Star and the New European) that arrive in papery bundles every morning across this sad land to be sold for money in shops, read and then folded up and recycled, seven of them essentially right-wing and pro-Brexit, four of them essentially left-wing and pro-Remain. (I’m told the right-wing free-sheet the London Evening Standard is not virulently pro-Brexit, but I don’t see a lot of evidence, possibly because I never pick up a copy.)

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The cover above, from the Daily Mail on Wednesday April 19, is one of the most striking, memorable and terrifying of the year. Not because of the Maleficent-style Disney villainess who graces it, against funeral black, or the aggressive use of the words “crush” and “saboteurs”, but, in retrospect, the hollowness and hubris of its pantomimic pomp. By the 5 October, after May’s farcical, psychosomatic speech at the Tory Party Conference, where she was handed a P45 by the comedian Simon Brodkin, our newspapers were united in hilarity against her. Even the Mail had its cake and ate it, splashing on the PM’s woes but sugar-coating with a quote from toady-in-chief Quentin Letts, who congratulated “the old girl” for essentially not curling up into a foetal ball and rocking back and forth on the podium. The “old girl”? Surely her days were numbered?

But no. We end 2017 with the same ineffectual Prime Minister we started it with, albeit minus three disgraced confidants. May’s story is Brexit Britain’s story: a sleepwalk over a cliff, and a lot of repeated words and phrases that mean very little. If she has an ideology, it’s based on a pathological lack of compassion, despite her weekly visits to church. (Her recent response to the rough-sleeping crisis was typically callous and cold. I can only assume they don’t have homeless people in Maidenhead.)

After last year’s flurry of Trump covers, he seems to have found himself less than front-page news in 2017. The ones I’ve saved and logged this year have generally featured our beleagured Prime Minister, the ghost who haunts Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson’s netherworld and whose response to an opinion she does not like is to laugh, an action which her facial features are completely unqualified to pull off. Her resting expression is one of disgust in any case. As far as I can tell, she is only Prime Minister because, within her party, the notion of Johnson, Gove, Rees-Mogg or – call an ambulance – Hunt is too grim to contemplate, and even more likely to lose them the next election. (Also, because even with Momentum behind him, Jeremy Corbyn struggles to make a case against her, as he doesn’t want to be in the EU.)

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You have to admit, the Mail has an unceasing energy. It shouts louder than the Sun, and has more conviction than the Express, which, like a small baby, is easily distracted by colours and noises. Once it gets a chew-toy between its teeth – “Remainer universities”, Corbyn’s terrorist sympathies, the eleven “self-consumed malcontents” who voted against the party whip – it presses all the right buttons for that considerable swathe of readers who have swallowed a blue-passport, bendy-bananas, overnight-ethnic-cleansing Brexit and see it as nothing less than a return to a Britain that never existed outside of Ealing comedies, when friendly coppers blew whistles, old maids bicycled home for warm beer and women and the coloureds knew their place.

It only very occasionally drops the chew-toy, such as when it allows the insidious misogyny often propogated by female columnists like Sarah Vine to run amok. In March, the paper actually lost its mind over the fact that two powerful women had legs.

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The next day, Sarah Vine told her critics to “get a life,” which is as relevant as saying “Not!” You cannot accuse the Mail of not understanding its readers. This is what one of them says about the return of the blue passport:

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I should credit the anonymous Tweeter DM Reporter, who thanklessly collates Daily Mail comments for the rest of us to despair over without having to give an all-important “click” to the website.

We should be proud of our national press, cherish its continued place in the daily discourse, and even welcome its extremes. We should certainly support it by parting with money for it, rather than greedily consuming it online for nothing. But we shouldn’t always believe it.

 

TV 2017

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The kiss on Victoria (ITV) was the image of the TV year. Not the one between Alfred and Drummond, but the more impromptu one between the Queen’s new puppy and Prince Albert’s wolfhound in Episode 4. As an armchair historian, I’ve continued to enjoy Daisy Goodwin’s royal drama, secure that when something weird or on-the-nose happens, it usually turns out to have actually happened. A similar current of historical accuracy floats The Crown (Netflix), once again my favourite drama of the year, and an absolute life-saver this Christmas. I never want it to end, and we managed to sit on all ten episodes in order to save it for the actual three or four days of Christmas, at no more than two in one sitting. It rewarded this loyalty and restraint with more elegantly plotted sub-plots ripped from the news headlines and reenacted with just the right amount of speculation and dramatisation. It will be sad to lose Claire Foy and Matt Smith as the royal couple, but life moves on, and latex might have been distracting. Now that House of Cards is a tainted brand, The Crown must reign as the safest bet on the streaming service.

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This was the year in which I truly embraced streaming. Without Netflix and Amazon, these would have been a less rich 12 months of screen-time. I think I’d got to episode four of season five of House of Cards when the allegations against Kevin Spacey took any last vestiges of pleasure from it. (I’m glad it’s continuing without him, though – it may be the injection of change it needed.) But other delights have filled the vacuum, not least Strangers Things, which has been a revelation and an unalloyed joy, even if season two is essentially a re-tread of season one. It’s sufficiently charming, nostalgic and Easter egg-filled to keep my interest.

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A big tick, too, for Mindhunter, Medici: Masters of Florence, and RTÉ’s Rebellion, which aired in Ireland in 2016 but on Netflix in 2017.  I’m just realising that it’s been a good year for period dramas. I felt Ripper Street (Amazon/BBC Two) went out in a blaze of glory, too.

Back on regular TV, I won’t painstakingly create a chart, or a list, but drama has been enriched this year with some fine returning series, not least season three of Fargo (Fox), whose dual Ewan McGregors was only one of its singular pleasures, a second helping of Unforgotten (ITV), and season two of The Frankenstein Chronicles on ITV Encore, soon to be pulled, which also gave us Moira Buffini’s Harlots, which I hope re-emerges on another channel. HBO/Sky Atlantic gave us the awards-magnet Big Little Lies, whose principal female cast were exceptional, once again proving that all the best parts are on TV now, more Game of Thrones, which I shall stay with until the very end, and The Deuce from David Simon and George Pelecanos, which is everything the similarly 70s-set Vinyl wasn’t. British drama was ennobled by Steven Knight’s mud-caked Taboo, ripped-from-the-headlines three-parter Three Girls, and Broken, from high priest Jimmy McGovern, giving Sean Bean the best role of his career. And all hail Mark Gatiss for curating and directing Queers (BBC Four), and the similarly anthological Urban Myths (Sky Arts), exemplified by Eddie Marsan as Bob Dylan.

My appetite for non-fiction TV [see: montage above] continues to revolve around war documentaries (highlights: Five Came Back on Netflix, The Vietnam War on BBC Four) and cooking competitions, both the miraculously improved C4 revamp of Bake Off, and the sensibly un-revamped Masterchef (BBC Two) brand extensions. I should note here that, since the Brexit vote, one of my old standbys Question Time has become literally unwatchable. I lament its passing, and the passing of something even more profound. Presenters like Neil Brand and Howard Goodall brought more knowledge and urbane wit to BBC Music, and you  might be surprised to learn that I was a sucker for Carry On Barging (Channel 5), just one of many “reality” formats in which ageing celebrities are thrown together for a merry travelogue. There was one in motor-homes too.

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Oddly, I have found 2017 to be notably weak for comedy on TV, but this may be just me. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight has been joined by Real Time with Bill Maher (both HBO/Sky Atlantic), the only real antidotes to the United States of America as it stands, or rather gropes around on the floor searching for its soul. I mean, I still laugh. Jack Dee’s Bad Move (ITV) was good enough to watch through to the very end, something I rarely do with sitcoms any more, and the quietly devastating Detectorists (BBC Four) was so courageously light on comedy, it was as good as a drama. And I enjoyed seeing Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out (BBC Two), but its very existence felt regressive. I think I’ll go out on a limb and name Frankie Boyle’s New World Order (BBC Two) as my comedy show of the year, even though it’s the dark heart at its centre that makes it unmissable in a pre-apocalyptic age.

Behind the scenes, I have been developing a television project of my own. But that’s for another day. I would like to thank North One and Crook Productions, who have revived my talking head career in fine and constant style on Channel 5. I love talking on camera, about anything really, and they keep asking me to do it. It stops my Mum and Dad worrying about me to see me pop up on a regular basis in a nice shirt.

See you on the other side. No flipping.

 

The best books written by people I know or have sent me one 2017 (and other partial lists)

I can’t pretend it’s been a bonanza book-reading year by the fundamental measure of pages turned and spines bent, but the books I have read, or, crucially, re-read, have been essential. That my carefully calculated Top 2 are both written by old friends of mine (one of them the subject of a book I’ve written) should not be taken into account. Stuart Maconie’s Long Road from Jarrow and Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers form a stout pair and can make decent claims to historical legitimacy. Both delve into history – Stuart’s into twin-timeline British history, Billy’s further back into American history – and both present a humane view, bestowing power to the people and planting a flag for the heroic endeavours of ordinary folk, be it the empowerment of working people protesting against poverty, or the empowerment of young people to get out there and form a band in the 1950s. I couldn’t put either book down, and wished neither to end. Stuart has taken the temperature of Brexit Britain (as he took his journey, Trump was in the process of becoming electable, thus sealing humanity’s doom), while Billy allows the reader to apply the template of punk rock to the skiffle boom, and saves up a final twist that brings it all back home. (I won’t spoil it for you.)

I was sent a copy of Al Pacino: The Movies Behind the Man by its author Mark Searby, and found myself impressed by his doggedness as he set about his labour of finding at least one new first-hand account to accompany each of Pacino’s films, even the duff ones. For instance, he sheds light on the making of The Godfather via an interview with producer Gray Frederickson, Panic in Needle Park with director Jerry Schatzberg, and, well, a magician on Bobby Deerfield. I was also sent Matt Lucas’s memoir to review for the Mail on Sunday, and I gave it a good review, despite its gimmicky A-to-Z format.

As ever, I was moved to revisit old books, most notably A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan, one of the bedrock Vietnam War accounts, published in 1988, inspired to go back into the jungle by Sheehan’s contribution to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s seminal The Vietnam War, shown here this year on BBC Four. I found myself captivated again by Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day (like Sheehan, he was an embedded war reporter). I have a dog-eared 1969 secondhand paperback edition – it was published in 1959 – and it’s only at this time of reading it that I noticed just how ahead of the “New Journalism” revolution Ryan was, personalising the events of D-Day and thus bringing them to life.

For those who follow Billy Bragg, an artist age does not wither, you’ll be happy to hear that I am updating his biography Still Suitable For Miners for publication in spring 2018, its fifth edition, which also happens to mark the 20th anniversary of the book’s first publication way back in 1998. I followed him to Oxford this time, and, over coffee and cakes, we covered the period 2013-17. We were both 20 years younger when we started this book.

Oh, and by the way, as if it needed saying, the New Yorker continues to fill my head with words, opinions, ellipses, poetic sentence construction and big ideas, and that’s why I don’t pick up a book as often as I’d ideally like. Since Trump started to undo America, the magazine – in particular the near-daily bulletins by John Cassidy – has become even more essential. Here’s how my favourite magazine depicted the Baby-in-Chief this year.

To end, a photo I took of myself “method”-reading Stuart’s Jarrow book: by the side of a fairly busy road, on a bench, and eating some lovely fruit loaf out of cling-film. Try it when the weather heats up again.

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Film 2017

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NB: Since first publishing this list on 12 December, I have amended it to accommodate some late entries.

It’s only 12 days into December, but I sense that my films of the year are almost fully formed, so let’s make it official. First, a carefully graded Top 10 that I may reshuffle at any time. These are essentially the ten films that moved me the most in 2017 and stayed with me for any number of reasons. I’m thrilled with the at-the-time imperceptible takeover by UK films, especially those from first-timers like Francis Lee and, further down the roll-call of genius, William Oldroyd.

Ironically, it’s also pleasing to see three singular, low-budget American films in the Top 12 – especially in a year when diverse, independent US cinema did well at the big awards. Also, a Dutch director who usually works in English switching to French to make a French film in France, and an Austrian who usually works in French working in French and English. Talking of which, in the first full year of the Brexit nightmare, or at least the grim prelude to the UK’s disengagement from Europe and the world, I find I feel even more attracted to foreign-language films, represented in the Top 12 by Romania, France, Turkey, Austria and, beyond Europe, Chile, Cambodia, and further down the list, Hungary, Denmark, Germany and Spain.

It can be no accident that my favourite film of 2017 explicitly addresses immigration and shows foreign intervention into English society as a positive force.

  1. God’s Own Country | Francis Lee (UK)
  2. Moonlight | Barry Jenkins (US)
  3. Graduation | Cristian Mungiu (Romania/France/Belgium)
  4. Get Out | Jordan Peele (US)
  5. Dunkirk | Christopher Nolan (UK/US/France/Netherlands)
  6. A Quiet Passion | Terence Davies (UK)
  7. Happy End | Michael Haneke (France/Germany/Austria)
  8. Neruda | Pablo Larrain (Chile/Argentina/France)
  9. A Ghost Story | David Lowery (US)
  10. First, They Killed My Father | Angelina Jolie (Cambodia/US)
  11. Kedi | Ceyda Torun (Turkey)
  12. Elle | Paul Verhoeven (France/Germany)

And the next 30 or so, in handy groups of ten, whose order is at the end of the day random. All films on this list have been marked with an asterisk in my private, ongoing log of films seen, which elevates them from the herd. There are more films than ever now that Netflix is a significant player (there are three Netflix Originals here, for the first time, and not the last). My traditional nod, too, to Curzon Home Cinema, a prestige streaming service that keeps me abreast of films that don’t always make it even to the arthouse, and if they do, don’t stay for long.

Land of Mine | Martin Zandvliet (Denmark/Germany)
The Levelling | Hope Dickson Leach (UK)
On Body and Soul | Ildikó Enyedi (Hungary)
El Pastor | Jonathan Cenzual Burley (Spain)
Blade Runner 2049 | Denis Villeneuve (US)
Good Time | Ben Safdie, Josh Safdie (US)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi | Rian Johnson (US)
La La Land | Damien Chappelle (US)
Jackie | Pablo Larrain (US)
Manchester by the Sea | Kenneth Lonergan (US)

The Lost City of Z | James Grey (US)
Free Fire | Ben Wheatley (UK)
The Salesman | Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
Lady Macbeth | William Oldroyd (UK)
Heal the Living | Katell Quillévéré (France/US/Belgium)
Prevenge | Alice Lowe (UK)
Mudbound | Dee Rees (US)
Baby Driver | Edgar Wright (UK/US)
A Man Called Ove | Hannes Holm (Sweden)

City of Ghosts | Matthew Heinemann (US)
Bunch of Kunst | Christine Franz (UK)
The Big Sick | Michael Showalter (US)
I am Not Your Negro | Raoul Peck (France/US/Belgium/Switzerland)
Frantz | Francois Ozon (France/Germany)
Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond | Chris Smith (US)
War for the Planet of the Apes | Matt Reeves (US)
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) | Noah Baumbach (US)
The Ghoul | Gareth Tunley (UK)
London Symphony | Alex Barrett (UK)

Countryside alliance

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As we slowly trudge into October and the last quarter of 2017, I find myself in analytical mood. What have been the best films of the year? I’ve seen a lot. Getting on for 200 at the end of September, which won’t be as many as an indentured national newspaper critic, but it’s enough to get a clear view, especially with all the smaller, independent, arthouse and foreign-language pictured that enhance my life. But I’m delighted to find that UK films have given me a particular thrill this year, many of them debuts. Two of them about farming.

Warming to my theme, let’s stick with films made by British filmmakers. These are not debuts, but they all speak of the fertility of homegrown writers and directors: Free Fire, the latest formal provocation by Ben Wheatley, struck me as personal and audacious; Terence Davies, a veteran, produced arguably his best work, A Quiet Passion; Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver felt like a gift to the world and a personal triumph; Roger Michell (South African-born but works here) bounced back with My Cousin Rachel, and Mick Jackson produced Denial, a strong, sure, wordy David Hare-adapted piece from another veteran long since thought lost to Hollywood. At the other end of the career scale, thrilling, idiosyncractic, varied debuts came from William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth), Alice Lowe (Prevenge), Gareth Tunley (The Ghoul), Mark Gill (England is Mine) and Christine Frantz (Bunch of Kunst). Welsh documentarian Jonny Owen’s Don’t Take Me Home, his second film, also showed talent, while Alex Barrett’s first feature-length doc London Symphony established his, and Daniel Draper’s Dennis Skinner: Nature of the Beast was clearly a labour of love.

The view, you have to admit, is pretty bracing. Which takes us to Yorkshire.

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The snapshot above was taken by director Francis Lee while shooting his debut, a deeply personal love story God’s Own Country. Actually, it’s his own country. His debut feature is based on his own life, brought up a family farm and forced to decide: should he stay or should he go? The story is built, though, around a gay male love affair, when a Romanian migrant Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) is hired to help farmer’s son Johnny (Josh O’Connor – best known to me as one of ITV’s The Durrells) when his father (Ian Hart) is disabled. It’s shot – beautifully, by Lee and cinematographer Joshua James Richards – around Keighley, and the very real lambing scenes were on the director’s father’s farm. It’s gathering laurels apace – Sundance, Berlin, Edinburgh – and ploughing its own critical furrow wherever it’s shown. (See if it’s still showing near you here.)

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It’s my film of the year so far. A beneficiary of its setting, visually and metaphorically, it’s a small-scale story set against boundless fields and skies whose intimacy is twofold: it’s based on Lee’s own experience, and it depicts the eventual intimacy of two men. Some early devotees of the film thumbnailed it as Brokeback Mountain transposed to the Dales, but this comparison quickly sputters out, like a quad bike out of petrol. Johnny isn’t explicitly closeted – he enjoys hook-ups at the only pub for miles and his female friend (Patsy Ferron, recently seen in Jamestown on Sky) knows – but if his taciturn father knows, he would rather die than face up to it, and if his grandmother (Gemma Jones) keeps her own counsel.

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It’s not a “gay” film in the militant sense. The two men’s relationship is far more than about sex, and they spend most of their time alone together, repairing a dry stone wall or involved in animal husbandry for days at a time, sleeping in sleeping bags in a remote shed, living on nothing but Pot Noodles and cans of beer. They are free to do whatever it is they want to do, with no disapproving eyes on them. The problem is not “society”. (Indeed, Gheorghe is the one who’s not welcome at the pub because of his ethnicity. At least Johnny is “from round these parts” – his transgressions are hidden from the eyes of bar-stool bigots.) Before Gheorghe’s arrival – his “welcome” is almost comically bluff, as Johnny shows him his shitty caravan and slams the door shut – Johnny is already at a crossroads about his future and his family, and dealing with it by self-medicating. The unexpected promise of a loving same-sex relationship is clearly more than he can deal with, emotionally.

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The Levelling (above) is an approximate and unintended companion to God’s Own Country in terms of its agricultural setting but also its generational conflict. In the former, daughter Ellie Kendrick, who left to qualify as a vet, returns temporarily to the family farm to bury her brother after his apparent suicide and finds herself at odds with their father, who had expected to pass on responsibility to his son, a handover made difficult by a failed insurance claim after the floods and dire financial straits. In Lee’s film, Johnny dreams of escape but cannot bear to leave his father, whose stroke has immobilised him. (Brilliantly subtle acting from Ian Hart in this supporting role: he is a tyrant but one you can empathise and sympathise with.)

Of the two films, God’s Own Country feels more real – and less melodramatic – than The Levelling, which to be fair aims for a much more Gothic pitch, full of wild flashbacks and never far from going up in flames. But both get their hands dirty and the farming feels totally authentic in both.

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It feels good to have a film of the year brewing in October. Certainly a whole gang of films made or financed in the UK are giving 2017 a perhaps pertinently vivid sense of British identity in a year when we seem hell bent on tearing ourselves away from Europe and going it foolishly alone. Who knows where it will lead. But God’s Own Country might well be a film for Brexit, whether intended or otherwise. It’s certainly Gheorghe, the Romanian, who saves the rejected lamb from being culled using techniques he has brought with him to this country. Farming today, eh?