You go, girlfriends

Women A Success Story8

This is not a regular film review, as Women: A Success Story is not a regular film. “A liberating tale for a new generation,” inspired by Joanna Williams’s book Women Vs Feminism, it was made by volunteers and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Youth Social Action and the Jack Petchey Foundation; a community project that demands to be seen and shared and discussed, by women and men (there’s more about it here). Directed by Ceri Dingle, it has been put together by 100 volunteers, with 40 talking heads, all women, simply discussing and recalling their lives and experiences over nine decades of feminist progress. Its optimistic conclusion is somewhat foregone. This is not a time to niggle.

Each witness – ranging in age from 16 to 90 – is named in a caption, along with their date of birth, to help place them in their era. The documentary’s oldest participant is Elsie Holdsworth, born in 1928, and one of seven kids. She paints a vivid picture of life at the sharp end of the century, listing “one gaslight, two bedrooms, six children, no radio, no TV, no car, no hot water.” Her memory is pin-sharp and she provides valuable testimony from a pre-enlightenment age when, as a young woman, a job she took at Woolworth’s caused others to say she’s “climbing the social ladder, joining the elite.” (The loaded E-word is being bandied about again by today’s political class in this self-negating age of Brexit, but Elsie’s treatment at the hands of her peers seems almost comical to our modern ears – there’s a touch of “know your place” about such snarky opprobrium.)

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Among the more millennial talking heads is Caroline Cafasso, 21, an American who reflects the #MeToo generation when she observes that in her experience young women “consider many men to be dangerous towards women” and is rueful about being “stuck in hook-up culture.” Further insight from the young comes from Millie Small, 16, who offers another blithely alarming insight: “I don’t think pregnancy is a very big fear for people.”

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The film is split into clearly titled chapters – The Sexual Revolution and Freedom; Contraception: Free at Last; Mind the Gap – and makes sparing use of public-domain archive from patrician public information films to grout the witness footage (some of the more alarmist ones are from the binary certainty of America’s postwar period). This is not a film that dazzles with bells and whistles; it’s all about the content. That it was borne of a collective effort dovetails into the very subject matter. If there is a sisterhood, it might well be found herein.

Among the reassuringly ordinary witnesses, we meet the extraordinary Nadine Strossen, the first woman president of the American Civil Liberties Union (she objects to women who report rape being classed as “victims” in what she regards as a “persecutorial culture”); also Ivana Habazin, a nun who watched Rocky and took up boxing, thereafter becoming IBO middleweight champion; we may not be too surprised to see Joanna Williams herself, at a Suffragette Picnic in East London – where else? Activists abound. Take Mally Best, thrown out of school at 15, she took an engineering course at college, specialising in aviation and navigation (she was the only woman among 79 men). When she took her exam onboard a warship, male seamen were put on a three-hour curfew so they wouldn’t come into contact with a woman.

For ideological balance, there’s a former beauty queen, Miss Severn Diamond, now in her 50s, who discusses the rights and wrongs of calling female friends “honey.” A proud pageant finalist at 22, she embodies a different strain of female empowerment, saying she “never found men intimidating”. (She discusses motor racing’s hot-button “grid girl” issue too, failing to see the harm.) Meanwhile, Hilary Salt, a member of Council of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, declares herself against boardroom tokenism that she thinks is “degrading”. “To me,” she boldly states, “it doesn’t seem be of any advantage for me when I’m sitting on the Council, to be there with my vagina.”

Women A Success Story title

Other, more opaque issues are addressed, from FGM to man-hating and whether or not glamour modelling is simply just “a personal choice” (one participant says she thinks of herself as a woman “from the neck down”).

There’s also a fascinating tour of the now-closed Voice & Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition, where we learn that in 1918 the first woman MP Constance Markievicz, never took her seat in Parliament as she was a member of Sinn Fein and as such “would never take an oath of allegiance to a power I meant to overthrow.” (The first sitting MP was Conservative Nancy Astor in 1919.) Wallflowers are not in evidence.

Shocking facts arise; domestic abuse was not even investigated by the police in the 1950s, and wasn’t until the 1976 Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act – although rape in marriage continued to be legal until 1990s. Within that context it brings you up short to hear a 1967-born West Midlands bank manager stating, “If you see someone brushing your knee as sexual assault you have seriously lost the plot.” Another woman of similar age is strident on the subject: “We didn’t feel cowed, or worried, we just said no.”

All this and the memory of using a mangle to clean nappies in the 1960s. You might optimistically conclude that men have gone a long way towards being house-trained in the interim. You might prefer to come away from the film with the lingering and powerful image of the daughter of an Eritrean freedom fighter who emigrated to the UK in the late 60s and “grew up with the idea that there was no difference between women and men.”

Either way, man or woman, whatever your view, or gender, or vintage, this film gives plenty of food for thought, and deserves to be shared.

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Modern life is rubbish

Saw Greenberg, the new one from Noah Baumbach, the writer-director who found fame with the semi-autobiographical The Squid And The Whale a couple of years ago. He specialises, or seems to, in neurotic intellectuals or bohemians who find human relationships tricky. In Greenberg, our social inadequate is actually a 41-year-old ex-musician turned carpenter who decides to “do nothing” for a while after recovering from a nervous breakdown, moving back to LA from New York, clearly a profound move. He is played by Ben Stiller, who also makes a profound move, from the more wacky, gurning, full-on comedy for which he is still best known to a much more subtle, downbeat, mumbling style.

The way Baumbach writes, and directs, leaves you in no doubt that there are two types of people: those who are always rushing around, and those who move at a more sedate pace. Greenberg is house-sitting for his brother, whose family we see briefly at the beginning, in a rush. Greenberg arrives, without ceremony, and slows the pace down: he’s an inveterate letter-writer, but the letters do not get immediately typed up or sent; he seems bemused by everything around him. Although he’s there to build a kennel for the German Shepherd, Mahler – not a dog that races around either; we assume he is elderly, and when he falls ill it takes Greenberg all day to notice he hasn’t moved – our man does not break a sweat. And when he gets into the pool, he can barely doggy-paddle the length of it.

That he falls in love with the twentysomething au pair/PA Florence played by current indie darling Greta Gerwig, also a languid individual, is preordained. He keeps calling her, as she can run a house, and her own life, but he is incapable. He also exhibits antisocial behaviours – ranting, pushing people away, starting fights, and all the while expecting to be driven home (that he doesn’t drive is Baumbach’s shortcut to describing his fish-out-of-water status). Albert Hammond’s It Never Rains In Southern California becomes the film’s pivot, in that it’s like a theme tune and Greenberg remember when it was always on the radio while Florence, too young, does not. It unites yet divides them. (Later, Greenberg tries to force Duran Duran’s The Chauffeur on a party of twentysomethings, to no avail.) Florence occasionally sings, awkwardly but not without talent, in a small indie club. Greenberg makes her a mix CD of the kind of female singers she likes but does not know. One is Karen Dalton.

Just as the comedy of embarrassment has become a staple on TV, Baumbach – like Woody Allen before him, and Mike Leigh over this side of the Atlantic – delights in awkward. The difficult situations in Goldberg’s life are of his own making; he pretty much forces himself upon Florence back at her apartment on the pretext of going out for a drink with her. They share a single beer and he kisses her. She is willing, but naturally, this being an American indie film, his attempts at physical seduction are gauche and clumsy and too fast. When he pushes up her bra (which she apologises for, and he says is “like a bandage”) and pulls down her tights to prepare for hurried cunnilungus, it’s a moment of social horror where I felt Baumbach was pushing the awkward lever too far. We do care about these fidgety, self-conscious lovers, with their inappropriate anecdotes (she causes him to walk out with one about stripping for two frat boys after a dare), but they are their own worst enemies.

That said, almost miraculously, Baumbach is able to give Stiller and Rhys Ifans (more languid as his ex-bandmate, now fighting for his marriage to “a racist”) that actually brings some truth and passion to their ambiguous, surface-scratching friendship. A band split precipitated by Greenberg 15 years ago proves the inciting incident that still resonates across the lives of these remote companions.

I sometimes find this relatively new vein of US indie cinema predictable, but Greenberg – like The Squid & The Whale – has more than ticks and urbane narcissism and a trendy soundtrack (LCD Soundsystem, Galaxie 500) to offer. In weaving a satisfying story out of all this meandering and all these vignettes of loneliness and disconnection (Greenberg kicks the bumper of a 4×4 that nearly knocks him over, and then legs it when the vehicle stops), he happens upon some profound truths about being in your 40s and not living the life you planned. And Greenberg’s observation that “all the adults dress like kids, and the kids dress like superheroes” at a pool party is nicely phrased.

I won’t go into plot details; needless the say, the dog’s illness is not played for easy bathos, and nor is a later medical matter. I like to be surprised. This film failed to surprise me for quite a long time, and then surprised me more than once. There have been a lot of these this century: Little Miss Sunshine, Sunshine Cleaning, Garden State, Lars and The Real Girl, The Family Stone, About Schmidt, Sideways … I’m a fan, but the more “indie” Hollywood either co-opts or churns out, the easier it is for filmmakers to resort to button-pushing and box-ticking.

I personally found Greenberg to be a cut above. And always good to see Merritt Weaver (Studio 60, Nurse Jackie), albeit wasted in a tiny role, and in danger of being the go-to girl for indie kook.

Film 2001

Rather belatedly, I am drawing your attention to the fact that my weekly film column in Radio Times now goes up online automatically. My role at the magazine has mutated constantly since I became Film Editor in 2001 (bloody hell, that’s almost ten years!), certainly in terms of what goes on the page: my column has been a straightforward extended review of the Film Of The Week, then it became that plus a sort of industry insider piece, then it became a longer, broader-based “themed” piece (and my simpering face appeared at the top of the page), then back to Film Of The Week again – in fact, two: Terrestrial and Satellite, then an opinion piece again, which became unwieldy, then Terrestrial and Freeview, and now, under our dynamic, Fleet Street-schooled new editor, it has expanded to a pretty weighty, 600-word column, based around and spun off the Film Of The Week, with a personal angle built in. Phew. (So when I confessed that I used to hate musicals, but changed my mind in my 30s, the moderately misleading headline was: How I fell in love at 34 – eek!) Anyway, judging by the paucity of comments left after the online version of the column, gathered under the heading Film Watch, its presence there is little noticed. So I’m linking to it. As a public service.

Merry, gentlemen?

Robin Hood has been picking up some rave reviews since it premiered in Cannes. It’s out tomorrow. I saw it yesterday, but not in Cannes, and can thus report back without any chance of being influenced by a) the thrill of being on holiday, or b) the relief at seeing something in English with some exciting bits in it.

Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, it seems to have been greeted as a quasi-sequel to Gladiator, as if Crowe is playing a Blackadder-style Zelig figure whose ancestors crop up throughout history, looking and sound the same, and getting into scrapes. Well, who can blame people for having such expectations: Gladiator was, and remains, a fantastic example of the revivalist historical epic – old fashioned in tone and sincerity, but new fashioned in terms of camera technique and CGI embellishment. Crowe found his brand, and Scott put the seemingly unassailable, paradigm-shifting majesty of Alien and Bladerunner behind him. However, lest we forget, Crowe and Scott have re-teamed already, since Gladiator: for A Good Year, the belated cinematic vision of Peter Mayle’s Provence idyll, made because he and Scott are old Adland pals and neighbours in Luberon. The film was a piece of Sunday supplement froth. The sort of film that even those critics stationed for two weeks in the South of France would find insubstantial and silly.

So, is Robin Hood the new A Good Year? Well, guess what, it’s a massive improvement, in that Crowe plays a warrior rather than a corporate trader, but it’s also not as good as the critics in Cannes think it is. Certainly, you have to admire Scott for steering clear of CGI overkill and seemingly creating as much of the horse- and archery-based action for real. There’s way too much slo-mo, which for me is becoming the shortcut to high drama – you could film a market trader walking to Pret in slo-mo and it would seem more significant – but if an action blockbuster is stylish, who’s complaining. I ask this question: is the story any good? After all, it’s an enduring myth that has inspired filmmakers since the silent days, and indeed provided an excellent Saturday teatime kids’ remake a couple of years ago on BBC1.

So, it’s actually an “origins” story that – NOT REALLY A SPOILER ALERT – ends with Hood being outlawed by King John and with his “merry men” lined up in the trees of Sherwood Forest with their eye on the rich. This is fair enough – Batman Begins was terrific – but with the outcome preordained, does it deliver along the way? Well, there’s a complicated set-up, way too predicated on chance and a runaway horse for my liking, that involves Hood taking the identity of a Nottingham-based knight who has been killed by Evil Mark Strong and his French marauders. This leads him to Maid Marian, who’s as old as he is, and a showdown with the tax-collecting, grain-transporting military-agricultural complex.

If you’re expecting lots of Evil Sheriff of Nottingham, don’t – Matthew MacFadyen is wasted in the potentially juicy part, and only gets two scenes. Indeed, many fine British thesps get little to do, including Robert Pugh, Mark Addy, Gerard McSorley and – literally in one scene as a messenger – Steve Evets from Looking For Eric.

Ingmar Bergman’s old muse Max Von Sydow is imperial as the blind Sir Walter, but then he always is, and in much trashier films that something by Ridley Scott; Eileen Atkins is impeccable as Eleanour; and Cate Blanchett never phones anything in, but if I’m honest, it’s all a bit glum, a bit preoccupied with father-and-son issues and a bill of rights, and escalates in a manner that’s dramatically understandable but not narratively.

Sure, a film like this that trades on noise, bluster and spectacle has to up its game, and thus a few blokes firing arrows at some other blokes will not do in a post-Lord Of The Rings world of sieges and battlements and casts of thousands. Thus, it builds to an actual invasion of England by the dastardly French, all looking like Jay Rayner, which is staged like Saving Private Ryan except made of wood.

I could appreciate the spectacle of this coastal climax, but it felt nailed on, and required us to believe that a ragtag English army, geed up by the wandering English/Welsh/Scots/Irish accent of Robin in a speech designed to conjure Braveheart, could get to Dover in an afternoon. If I’m nitpicking then it’s only because I’d grown a little tired and underwhelmed by about 90 minutes in and there was over half an hour yet to run.

This is serviceable expensive modern cinema, handled with due confidence and frown, and maybe we should be grateful that the average age of its principal cast is so high and not be critical of the creaking bones of Crowe in a role that always spoke of lithe athleticism and Errol Flynn-like spark, but I’m afraid I was led up a path of great expectation by the men and ladies in Cannes that turned out to be muddy and difficult to pass.

Still, funny to see ginger Dr Morris from ER as Will Scarlet, who’s apparently Welsh now, although that’s an accent that’s even harder to pull off than Nottingham. I admire Crowe for attempting the full Shane Meadows by the way [I know he’s from Uttoxeter, but an American/Australian attempting the accent would be pleased if he was in the same land mass], but it’s so inconsistent you wish he’d rolled out the Richard Burton after a liquid lunch he essayed for Gladiator. Ah, another mention of that film.

Was I not entertained? Well, yes, but I wanted more.

You do the maths

That showed ’em. I was down to see a big preview screening of Iron Man 2 tonight at “a West End venue” (as they always put on the tickets until you RSVP for the actual name of the cinema), but I discovered, late in the day, that it was one of those big preview screenings where security is post-9/11 and frankly tiresome. I was politely pre-warned that I would be subject to a bag search and would be required to hand in my mobile phone and any other devices that may be used for recording, to be collected afterwards. Now, this can include laptops. I have no wish to hand over my laptop to security. It is too important an item to lend to a man I have never met for over two hours.

So, I declined the invitation to see Iron Man 2 three days before it goes on general release. I will, instead, pay to go and see it at the cinema, where I will be permitted to take my phone and my laptop into the auditorium with me. This was my decision. I didn’t go there and make a scene; I merely informed the press office I would not be attending. I understand fully why Paramount, like any other major Hollywood studio, would be so paranoid about piracy that they would make journalists feel like criminals, but I opt out of this arrangement. Fortunately, I am not reviewing the film for anyone in advance, so it’s not even a debate I need to engage in.

Instead, I went to a local cinema and watched a new film that is already on general release called Agora, a pretty unsexy-looking, 12A-certificate historical drama starring Rachel Weisz as the “legendary philosopher and mathematician” Hypatia, set in AD 369, when tensions between pagans and Christians in Egypt were running high. Put it this way, unlike Iron Man 2 (which incidentally I was looking forward to seeing, as I enjoyed Iron Man), most of the action is set in a library.

Guess what? I really liked Agora. A Spanish-made film in English and shot in Malta, but cast with a lot of British actors (albeit not famous ones), as well as partially recognisable Middle Eastern ones like Homayoun Ershadi (The Kite Runner) and Ashraf Barhom (The Kingdom), it told me things that I didn’t know about the period, served up a sort of love triangle, used neat CGI in a functional rather than showy way to recreate the ancient port of Alexandria, and made some fairly obvious parallels to modern religious conflicts by having a statue of a bearded man pulled down and treasures looted. Director Chilean Alejandro Amenábar did the smaller-scale drama The Sea Inside, but he adapted well to a bigger canvas. Do you know what, over two hours, I wasn’t bored once. That’s the mark of a decent film.

It could almost have been made 40 years ago and been shown in the afternoon on BBC2, but that’s a compliment. I suspect it will not be a massive box office smash, but I’m jolly glad that I eschewed the heavy handed security of a West End screening and went local, to see a film that’s already out.

Buried treasure

I wasn’t even looking for it, but I found the interview I did with Woody Allen in 2001, broadcast on Radio 4’s Back Row in 2002, languishing on a cached page within the labyrinthine BBC website for a programme no longer on air. It’s not the very best sound quality, but you can listen to it via RealPlayer here by clicking on Listen to the interview.

It was my last edition of Back Row as presenter, as I had just been commissioned to write eight episodes of Grass with Simon Day for BBC2 and couldn’t possibly fit that in with my new teatime job at 6 Music, so Back Row had to go. This was a sad decision for me. I loved my two and a half years at the helm of the weekly film show, and during that time had interviewed many, many fascinating and famous people, from Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Kevin Costner to old timers Ernest Borgnine, Robert Altman and Ronald Neame. But Woody had been my hero since I was 18 and it was a great honour to spend 40 minutes of quality time in his company, covering not just the film he was here to promote, The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, but his whole career and worldview.

The irony was, at the time of broadcast, Jade Scorpion had still not found a UK distributor, but we ran the interview anyway. Anyway, have a listen, if you’re interested. What you need to know is that at the beginning of the interview – we were side by side on a sofa at the Dorchester Hotel – Woody’s body language was such that he clearly didn’t trust me: he was turned away from me and was looking at the carpet. As my questions progressed and he realised a) I knew his work, and b) wasn’t about to ask him about his knotty private life, he gradually turned round to face me, and by the end of it, we had eye contact and he genuinely seemed relaxed, and was having fun. (We had lapel mics, so his answers were audible from the start.)

My successor on Back Row – which has since been rebranded The Film Programme – was, of course, Mr Joe Cornish.

What has Roman ever done for us?

Surprised, but pleased, to find The Ghost showing at the Curzon Soho, ostensibly an arthouse cinema. This film felt like a big, glossy multiplex thriller to me, and now I’ve seen it, despite some Hitchcock references and a director with a certain cachet, it feels even more like one. Roman Polanski was arrested midway through production, adding a certain historical frisson to the finished product (it’s about a British Prime Minister in exile, whiling away his retirement in Cape Cod rather than face the legal music back home in Britain), but for all the director’s reputation, he’s not an arthouse director any more, if he was once. He’s a smart director, and a great image-maker, but on the evidence of The Ghost, adapted from Blair refugee Robert Harris’s novel, he’s still fundamentally a showman.

The film’s been getting some fulsome props, but I fear it is a victim of hype and overcompensatory flattery. It’s not at all bad. Some of the thriller elements are superb. And Alexandre Desplat’s Herrmann-esque score is a corker. But it’s also clunky and silly in parts, and a better director would have sorted his lead actors out – encouraged them to do better accents where applicable (Ewen McGregor’s London accent is spirited, but not convincing; Pierce Brosnan sounded like Pierce Brosnan, whatever that is now), and perhaps pruned some of the more “written” lines from the script (“They can’t drown two ghost writers – you’re not kittens”, “40,000 years of the English language and there’s still no word to describe that relationship” – I’m paraphrasing the last one, but it was not far off being that bad).

I don’t mind a melodrama but this one was so blatantly rooted in reality it jars with what might be flattered as camp: it’s about Tony Blair, all smiles and bonhomie, being fantasy-arrested for war crimes in the wishful brain of Harris, while Cherie plays Lady Macbeth and an imagined conspiracy that goes back to Cambridge unravels by, hmmm, looking it up on the Internet. With CNN on the telly and echoes of the news everywhere, it’s tough to make all this verite gel with preposterous trysts and cartoon bad weather and mysterious old men in shacks giving out convenient clues and characters bumping into other characters at key moments despite being on some fictional Cape Cod in a hellish storm. And if you’re going to allow your back projection to look like back projection, you’ve got to make it more obvious, I think. Otherwise it just looks like iffy back projection, and not a sly homage.

Reviewers have been terribly kind to The Ghost, perhaps as a kind of grateful wave to Polanski for Chinatown and Rosemany’s Baby and Repulsion. (I love those films too, by the way. But it’s more like Frantic than any of the above.) I wouldn’t steer anyone away from it, I would just say approach with caution and a pinch of salt.