The dark tower

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On Friday, I was given a lift to Barry Norman’s funeral in the Hertfordshire village where he lived for many years. We drove north from the Radio Times office in Hammersmith, West London, and although I wasn’t looking for it, I saw the corpse of Grenfell Tower for the first time. Forgive me for taking a picture of it, but it stopped me short; it was like glimpsing the Hollywood sign for the first time in Los Angeles, or Guernica in the Reina Sofia in Madrid (neither of which landmark did I attempt to photograph, incidentally – one occurred before the ubiquity of camera-phones, the other would have been inappropriate and they were selling postcards in the gift shop). My photo of Grenfell, as we all now know it, was taken quickly, on a bad, old phone, and in motion on a roundabout, but even in this non-prizewinning form, it still it chills my blood.

Unlike the other two famous towers that were destroyed, Grenfell still stands. And in this, is it powerful. It is a constant – if not, one assumes, permanent – reminder of what went on here, in my city, in a borough I often have cause to visit, one of the wealthiest boroughs in the world, not just in London. What actually went on here, the tragedy itself, happened in a relatively short space of time. The Twin Towers in New York were destroyed in approximately an hour and three quarters, between the first impact, and the second collapse (although thousands of tons of toxic dust, comprising asbestos and other contaminants, not to mention human tissue, lingered for days, weeks, months – in fact, 18,000 people are said to have been made ill by the dust and pre-9/11 air quality did not return until June 2002). Grenfell took around 60 hours to burn itself out, having started after a fridge freezer caught fire at around 1am. There is no point in pressing any further comparisons. The towers in New York were built in the 1970s predominantly for private enterprise and were designed not to collapse, or kill anybody. Grenfell Tower, and others like it, were built as social housing, and were run and maintained by the state.

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Ironically perhaps, the Trade Center was not properly fireproofed, and in September 2001, replacement cladding was in the early stages of being replaced: only 18 floors of WTC1 had been improved before the planes hit and made that immaterial. (A fire in 1975 had affected six floors of one tower before being successfully put out.) The World Trade Center was clearly named. It was built to regenerate Lower Manhattan and around 40% of it would be leased to private, business tenants, with rent going to the Port Authority. (The rest would house government and federal offices.) Many who objected to the project felt it shouldn’t be “subsidised” (they hate that, messing with the market) and disputed the notion of a state body moving into private real estate at all. But the Port Authority, which basically controls everything that comes in and goes out of New York and New Jersey, runs on rents, fees and tolls for tunnels and bridges. It’s complicated, in other words.

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Grenfell Tower, a mere 24 storeys high, was completed a year after its taller, more aggressive New York cousins, in 1974. (The ribbon was cut on the WTC in April 1973, which meant it was up and running in time to replace the Empire State Building in a brash, oil-embargo Hollywood remake of King Kong, with the giant ape misleadingly able to put one monkey foot on either Tower and straddle it in the publicity materials.) Grenfell, named after an adjoining road, itself named after a Field Marshall who fought in the Anglo-Zulu War, was built in the Brutalist style, which I happen to rather like, as a style. (I wouldn’t want to live anywhere above three floors though.) It was nicknamed “the Moroccan Tower” by locals to reflect the ethnic bias of those who lived in it in the mid-70s. In the mid-80s, Margaret Thatcher encouraged council tenants to buy their flats and then vote for her. Only 14 of Grenfell’s 120 flats were privately owned when it burned down.

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When I ghoulishly but instinctively took a photo of the husk of Grenfell from my friend’s car on Friday I didn’t need to. The husk is on the news – certainly Channel 4 News, and London Tonight – every night. It is now almost five weeks since the fire, but just as the charcoal parody of a tower block refuses to stop sticking a middle finger into the London skyline on a round-the-clock basis, the story will not go away. Nor, inconveniently, will the surviving residents, who seem to have solidified through community spirit into a permanent working party action group on behalf of all people who live in towers in this country. Many Grenfell residents raised concerns about safety, not least fire safety, in the months before the fire, but were dismissed by Kensington and Chelsea Council as trouble makers. (This is the Tory-run council that took £55 million in rent in 2016 but invested less than £40 million in council housing.) It is not forced or wishful to view the horrific demise of at least 80 people – a figure kept lower than the assumed 100-plus by lack of DNA evidence – as a class issue. (Some found it intrusive but I didn’t when Victoria Darbyshire hugged a grieving, shellshocked eyewitness, resident and survivor live on the BBC. For me, it melted away barriers.)

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By “class” I don’t mean middle-class, or upper-class, or working-class, I mean a much starker divide: the one between people who can afford to live in London and people who frankly can’t, but stick it out and hope for the best as they have no other option on account of family, friends, local links, workplace and other fanciful factors that affect actual human beings. Suspicion was aroused among aggrieved and grieving Grenfell refugees when retired Appeal Court judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick was appointed to lead a public inquiry that even he forewarned wouldn’t satisfy everybody. (In November 2014 he’d upheld a judgment that Westminster Council could offer housing to a woman who, with her children, had been evicted from privately rented local housing and offered alternative accommodation 50 miles away. Not a great omen.) The killing joke about Grenfell is that its “refurbishment” had only ever been external; a way of improving the view for other residents ie. private ones.

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Theresa May, apparently still Britain’s Prime Minister, called Grenfell “a failure of the state,” as if perhaps “the state” was nothing to do with her, or her cabinet. It was a failure, but one that has killed over 100 people who had done nothing to deserve it except try to scrape a living in a part of London that neatly represents the poles of social experience within one arbitrary boundary. There are residential units owned in Kensington and Chelsea by billionaires in Singapore who will never step foot in them. They do not take advantage of local facilities, nor engage in local activities, for they do not live in their properties. They do not contribute to the local economy like the residents of Grenfell Tower, not even buying a packet of chewing gum from a local shop. This is the obscenity of capitalism. Not a failure of the state, but a failure of the private sector, with its tentacles into everything and its empathy for nothing. Capitalism is the bottom line. Grenfell Tower fell below that line: too full of people on the breadline, and from foreign countries, to care too much about with their petty complaints about exposed gas pipes, blocked fire exits and the “stay put” advice on each floor that might have had some credibility had the cladding used to smarten the building up from the outside not been made of petrol-soaked kindling, or something.

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Some experts and one or two Hollywood scenarists had predicted a plane crashing, accidentally, into a skyscraper. But nobody saw two hijacked passenger jets being deliberately flown into towers by synchronised suicidal madmen with pinpoint piloting skills, just after breakfast on a balmy September morning. A whole lot more people predicted a fire in Grenfell Tower.

We can only hope that the inquiry and the inquest, and whatever has to come next to compensate for the lack of clear answers and blame after the inquiry and the inquest, don’t drag this out for as long as Hillsborough. The Grenfell Action Group don’t even yet have a figure to put on their tragedy; a number to hammer home to anyone seeing their banners, or hearing their angry pleas on Channel 4.

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People don’t regard the 1970s disaster movies as progressive, or socialist. But The Towering Inferno, released in 1974, the year Grenfell opened, and based on a combination of twin novels about the tallest skyscraper in the world going on fire, had a very simple moral: if capitalism insists of building taller and taller buildings, because that’s all that capitalism has the wit to do, it must improve fire safety at a similar rate. In The Towering Inferno, dedicated to firefighters with a righteous pride in the nation’s working men and women, the 138-floor Glass Tower in earthquake-prone San Francisco lights up on the night of its gala opening because economies have been made to cut costs in its construction. It’s not quite down to poor-quality cladding bought in on the cheap while scrubbing up the outside of the building in order not to offend the eye of the rich neighbours, but the warning from history is identical.

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When good-guy architect Doug Roberts (Paul Newman) discovers “duct holes that weren’t fire-stopped … corridors without fire doors … sprinklers won’t work, and an electrical system that’s good for what? I mean, it’s good for starting fires! … What do they call it when you kill people?” (Mind your inflammatory language, John McDonnell!) As with many Hollywood disaster movies made for profit at a time when faith in authority was ebbing away after Vietnam and Watergate, it’s a fable of the little man, or the lone voice, against the big corporations. Ring any bells?

It would be chilling watching the film again now. (I wonder how long before a TV channel in this country will dare to show it, in actual fact.) Forget that it’s future criminal OJ Simpson playing the part of the Chief Security Officer, at one point he is asked for a “complete list of tenants,” something he seems unable or unwilling to access. We live in an age where any borough council in the country ought to be able to supply a full list of tenants in any building on their watch, at the press of a computer key. The fact that this still hasn’t happened speaks volumes about the cladding of obfuscation surrounding this issue.

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According to a report quoted in Fire magazine: a third (35%) of the lowest income households renting flats say they have been given information on the emergency fire plan for the building where they live, compared to 88% of tenants on incomes over £100,000 a year. Those on incomes of £25,000 or less are much less likely to feel completely safe from fire (27%) than those on incomes above £80,000 (44%). But two out of every nine (22%) households with incomes under £25,000 living in rented flats who have concerns over fire safety are unable to move because they can’t afford to. It’s no wonder Kensington and Chelsea have emerged even more strongly than our weak Prime Minister as the villains of this piece. The council are the ones who contracted the £10m refurbishment of Grenfell to private construction firm Rydon, who, typically for a public sector contract, in turn subcontracted some of the work, in “an illustration of the rewards on offer to private firms from social housing projects”, according to a piece in the Guardian. Rydon, who will have to account for themselves and others in the parodic food chain, landed £8.6m to “upgrade” Grenfell, including the external cladding being investigated as a potential factor in the fire’s rapid spread. (It really did spread like wildfire.)

In the disaster movie version, when the fire’s been put out by geligniting the water tanks in the roof to create the world’s biggest sprinkler (at least the Glass Tower had sprinklers, they just weren’t working), Roberts muses to Fire Chief O’Hallorhan (Steve McQueen) of the burned-out tower, “I don’t know. Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.”

O’Hallorhan gets the last word. “You know, one of these days, you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and bringing out bodies until somebody asks us how to build them.”

Vote Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson prepares to speak at the group's headquarters in London

You will have been reminded by social media, if not the MSM, that when he was Mayor of London, Boris Johnson told a Labour member of the London Assembly Andrew Dismore to “get stuffed” when he questioned fire service cuts that were on a par with planned manslaughter. On his watch – a phrase purloined from the emergency services and NASA – ten fire stations were closed, and 27 fire engines taken out of service.

 

Beach bodies

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It’s rare that I write down an appreciation of a film that I’ve already said to the face of the film’s writer, director and producer, in person. But when I was lucky enough to sit with Christopher Nolan last Thursday for a full 20 minutes for an interview that went out on Classic FM on Saturday (you can Listen Again to the two-hour show until next Saturday, July 22), I began by stating for the record that I believe he has reinvented the war movie, and that his images and sound design fuse with his loyal composer Hans Zimmer’s music in a totally innovative way. He said thank you. I meant it. (I’ve said disingenuously positive things to famous film directors – and actors – in the line of duty before, although I’ve always tried to find honest positive things to say to break the ice, rather than lie, as I am a bad liar. I once held back from telling the still-insecure Christian Bale that I thought he was brilliant in American Psycho because I didn’t want to come over as a brown-noser, but he was a stiff interview and when I told him afterwards that I thought he was brilliant, he immediately thawed, and I wish I had told him before.)

So, we have established that Christopher Nolan really has – in my opinion – made what is essentially, and technically, and generically, a war movie, in that it concerns a military misadventure that took place in Northern France between 26 May and 4 June 1940, and yet, he has turned the war movie on its head. In fictionalising the human stories that tell the bigger picture, he has made a true-life wartime thriller whose lives are not true, and yet which tell broader truths about fear, and mortality, and communality, and youth, and survival. Instead of faithfully providing historical context and individual backstory, Nolan drops us into the action without a briefing. We barely find out the characters’ name, never mind where they come from, or what their hopes and dreams are – other than to get “home.” (We are reminded often that, on the vast, characterless beach at Dunkirk, you can almost “see” or “smell” home, which is only a few miles over the Channel.)

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As well as “home”, the other big theme of Dunkirk is “time.” (In a previous collaboration with Zimmer, Inception, there is a track called Time. Themes tend to tendril much further than one film with Nolan.) Dunkirk is – and was – a race against time. In the pure terms of Nolan’s near-mathematical vision, that’s all it is, even though it’s not all it was. As a war movie, it is more notable for what’s not in it, than what is in it. No politicians. No maps. No lengthy captions explaining where in the war we are, other than 330,000 British, French, Belgian, and Canadian soldiers are on a beach waiting to come “home.” A couple of soldiers are allowed to stand out from the shivering, alert-eyed khaki mass on the beach; they are all played by appropriately-aged relative unknowns. (Unknowns, that is, unless, like me, you watch every drama that’s on telly, in which case you’ll recognise Fionn Whitehead from ITV miniseries HIM, Jack Lowden from BBC’s War & Peace, Aneurin Barnard from Cilla, oh, and War & Peace; Barry Keoghan from Love/Hate, and so on.)

There are big names, too – Mark Rylance as the skipper of one of the “little boats”, Cillian Murphy as an unknown solider, who refuses to even give his name (and remained unnamed in the credits); Kenneth Branagh, channelling Noel Coward as the Commander; and Tom Hardy, as an RAF fighter pilot who – as part of some cosmic in-joke between him and the director of The Dark Knight Rises – acts behind a full face mask for the whole film, rendering him almost Bane-like in his inaudibility.

But nobody in a Christopher Nolan film is as big as the film. Them’s the rules. Even Heath Ledger couldn’t quite eclipse The Dark Knight, except in death. Al Pacino and Robin Williams were bit-part players next to the ice floes in Insomnia. Even Leo, doing his best to impress, in Inception, was lost in time. The star of Dunkirk is Christopher Nolan, or, to be more egalitarian, Christopher Nolan’s loyal crew: his composer since Batman Begins; his cinematographer since Interstellar, Hoyte van Hoytema; his editor since Batman Begins, Lee Smith; and so on. In interview, even though he was happy, relaxed and fully briefed to talk about his relationship with Zimmer, Nolan found it difficult to answer a “crew” question without naming all of those who contributed to any success that might be mis-credited to him alone, right down to Benjamin Wallfisch, who conducted the score. When I asked him about certain key decisions along the way, he said, “some of those I’m copping to, some of them I’m not.” He also smiled, which is rare. He is a very serious filmmaker, and Dunkirk is a very serious piece of entertainment.

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I loved the 1958 original Dunkirk as as boy, directed by Barry Norman’s father, Leslie, and produced by Michael Balcon. But that was a war film in the strictly traditional sense, and the evacuation of Dunkirk formed its climactic third act, after a suitable build up through France. When John Mills, Kenneth Cope and the other stranded Tommies finally reach the beach, we’re a good way through the film.  Much of what happens thereafter is replayed in Nolan’s Dunkirk, but we have no “relationship” with the principals yet, and to an extent, never do. Photos of loved ones are not passed around. Bernard’s character literally does not speak when he and Whitehead “meet” on the sand; they communicate with nods and glances. When a group of young men we have latterly come to identify – one of them played by Harry Styles of the boy band One Direction – are shot at in a boat, Nolan doesn’t show us where the bullets are coming from, or who is firing them; we are with the soldiers, and that is the only POV that matters.

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Incidentally, on the matter of the lad Styles, I can confirm that his star-dusted presence does not topple the narrative boat. He’s just another Tommy with sand in his clothes and salt on his eyelashes. But I do wonder why Nolan allowed himself to cast him – even if, as he claims, he didn’t know of the boy’s baggage when he turned up for the audition. What good can come of it, except in marketing terms? Maybe Nolan is so intelligent, and so clever, it’s a ruse and he has double-bluffed us all! Though Harry doesn’t come off badly onscreen – and many old, non-parents in the audiences won’t recognise him – he owned the fan-thronged premiere in London’s Leicester Square on the evening of our interview and that, to me, seems a shame when you’ve put all that academic thought and collective human effort into a film.

Though I don’t give ratings here, Dunkirk is a five-star film by anyone’s stellar judgement. It’s spectacular and intimate at the same time – and short, too, for an epic; Nolan’s second shortest feature since his no-budget debut Following, and a whole hour shorter than Interstellar. Nolan and Zimmer are now fused; inseparable: it’s impossible to say where the stunning, predominantly CGI-free visuals end and the “music” begins. It’s only in the aftermath of seeing Dunkirk that you start to realise how much has been left out in terms of the traditional war film: no enemy, hardly any exposition, no backstory, no prologue, no epilogue, barely a name, no blood, almost no women (in itself a particularly brave but justifiable jetty to isolate yourself at the end of in these gender-rendered times). I was struck – again, afterwards, not during – that this is something approaching pure cinema.

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Nolan has created something visceral and clear and gripping that speaks of human endeavour and sacrifice without prodding the viewer in the chest like a schoolteacher. He has fought convention on the beaches and on the landing grounds and has said no surrender to expectation. And that pounding, race-against-time cacophony from Hans Zimmer begins with the delicate, sampled ticking of one of Nolan’s watches. So it all comes back to time again, in the end. A spinning top. After Interstellar, Nolan gave Zimmer a watch, which was inscribed:

Now is not the time for caution.

In Interstellar, it was said by a robot charged with saving the human race.

★★★★★

 

The Virginian Suicides

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Another enjoyable Wimbledon Tennis Championship draws to a close. Each year, as a racquet-ball widower, I draw upon the alternative entertainment on offer at the Curzon cinema – and by digital extension, Curzon Home Cinema – to help me through the fortnight of tennis. I’ve already reviewed The Midwife and A Man Called Ove; here’s the second rally, effected over two days. (As an embargo prevents me from reviewing Dunkirk until tomorrow, I feel I should honour the smaller films on offer.)

The “biggest” of the five films I’ve chalked up is The Beguiled, in the sense that it was directed by Sofia Coppola, who picked up an award at Cannes for the painstaking trouble she went to in remaking an ancient Clint Eastwood film for the Millennials. It’s certainly not the longest of the five pictures that entertained me over the weekend: at 94 minutes, it’s nine minutes shorter than Don Siegel’s 1971 version, but then, Coppola has chosen to excise the black slave character Hallie (Mae Mercer) for fear – I have assumed – of muddying the waters of the story for white liberal viewers. It really is gorgeous to look at. Coppola’s films tend to be. Shot in Louisiana, for Virginia (It was set in Mississippi in the original), it’s a fecund setting, all shafts of light and trailing fronds, a wall of natural beauty between the virginal/celibate, starched female inhabitants of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies (two adult tutors, five remaining young ladies) and the outside world ie. the grim reality of the American Civil War, fetchingly hinted at by photogenic wisps of smoke in the far distance and tiny thrums of gunpowder igniting. Colin Farrell plays Clint’s Corporal John McBurney, the injured Union soldier taken in by the seminary to convalesce and to ruin the hormonal balance of the plantation house.

I don’t object to beauty for its own sake. Film is a visual medium, after all. But The Beguiled lacks freight. It is almost weightless. Even when Farrell’s sap rises, it’s as glimpsed and hinted-at as the plumes of war. He has one outburst – the one with the pet turtle if you saw Clint in 1971 – but even that’s cauterised. His fate will come as no surprise to anyone who saw the original film on TV, as I did as a kid , or who saw this remake’s trailer, which gives the whole game away. It’s an oddly neutered version of the original film. When Nicole Kidman’s headmistress washes the war-filthy body of an unconscious Farrell (something the slave did in the first version), he looks like he’s already been pre-washed. When the ladies do what it’s clear they’re going to from the trailer, it’s all off-screen. A tale of violent coming-of-age in a violent era it may be, but the violence is not even worth mentioning on the BBFC classification card (only “infrequent strong sex” – if you insist!) It reminded me of Coppola’s delectably moody debut, The Virgin Suicides (which shares Kirsten Dunst with The Beguiled, now all grown up) – but that really was beguiling. It’s like she’s moved from art to home decorating.

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Get Out (released earlier in the year and out on DVD next week) is the polar opposite of The Beguiled in terms of squeamishness around race. Written and directed by feature debutant Jordan Peele – half of an acclaimed sketch double-act Key & Peele, yet to be exported here – this is a horror film about race. It comes on like a laser-guided post-Girls satire on the terror of white liberals around black people, with Chris (British export Daniel Kaluuya), the “black boyfriend” of Rose (Allison Williams), who’s taken to meet the rich parents in their cloistered suburban enclave, where the only black faces belong to “servants”, about whom Mom (Catherine Keener) and Dad (Bradley Whitford) are wracked with progressive guilt. (Rose tells Chris she never told them he was black, and why, as a colourblind liberal, would she?) From the get-go, Get Out is different. On first inspection, though drawn as figures of fun, the parents aren’t racist. The subservience of their black maid, and the compliance of their black groundskeeper, give cause for concern, but Chris is as blindsided by his own desire not to be reactionary to the casual stereotyping. (One white guest at party of Mike Leigh awkwardness actually hints at a black man’s fabled sexual prowess, while a golf fan claims to be a huge fan of Tiger Woods, as if that absolves him.) Without giving the game away, things turn nasty, and disturbing, and you won’t see the twist coming, I swear. It’s funny and terrifying, and has so much to say, it ought not be this fleet of foot. But it is. Peele treads on toes without tripping up. One of the most original films of the year.

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We’ve already seen Elle Fanning in The Beguiled, and although I understand why her willowy presence is so fashionable right now, it’s a dangerous game to appear to be in everything. (I guess when you’re that thin you slot in easily.) She’s in 20th Century Women, a film you’d be certain from its title and its publicity was written and directed by a woman. It’s written and directed by Mike Mills, the one who isn’t in REM and who gave us the memorable Beginners, a film about men, a son and his gay dad. This is, inevitably, more female. Set in 1979 and appealingly soaked in punk and post-punk including Talking Heads, The Damned and The Clash. Fanning is a willowy occasional patron of Annette Bening’s free-for-all hippy boarding house in Santa Monica. Another tenant is Greta Gerwig’s pretentious cancer patient who discovers she has an “incompetent cervix” from her gynaecologist, dances to exorcise her anger, and, we’re told in voiceover, “saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and dyed her hair red.” Bening had her son (Lucas Jade Zumann) late and feels she’s too old to meaningfully steer him to young adulthood, recruiting the other women in her orbit to do it in shifts. So, it’s a coming-of-age, like The Beguiled, except the women are in charge of a teenage boy, not a wounded man. Ironically, he seems old beyond his years, confused that Fanning rejects him since he got “horny”. (“We don’t have sex!” she assures an adult who finds them in bed together.) Billy Crudup, another tenant, also a carpenter who’s renovating the tumbledown hotel California, is too obsessed with wood to find any traction with the kid.

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Pregnancy, cancer, menstruation, feminism, all are fit subjects for his ad hoc home-education, and you sort of envy him, as he drowns in radical thinking. I felt that the reliance on narration in the recent Bryan Cranston film Wakefield eventually did for it (it was adapted from a New Yorker short story, much of it word for word). But in 20th Century Women, it suits the quirky, episodic, Wes Anderson-indebted style. When the narration mentions a particular brand of fertility medication, we see a rostrum shot of a single pill from above; when Gerwig talks of a photography project, we see the Polaroids in sequence. That kind of caper. Mills also slots in genuine photos from the period (of Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols, that kind of caper), and it reminded me of the original of The Beguiled, which set its scene with genuine photos of the Civil War. There are no rules against it. I also loved Bening’s line about smoking: “You know, when I started, they weren’t bad for you.” Such economical signposting of age. She says, in narration, that she will die of lung cancer in 1999. It gives you quite a start: she’s suddenly omniscient. Bold writing, and worthy of its Oscar nomination.

In Get Out, Chris is lured into something unpleasant by psychotherapists. In 20th Century Women, everybody is either in therapy, or should be, or offers amateur psychoanalysis at the drop of a hat. If Get Out if post-Girls, this is pre-Girls. Jamie is artistically bullied by Black Flag fans – who spray-can his mother’s VW (“ART FAG”) – because he likes Talking Heads! (“The punk scene is very divisive,” observes Gerwig.) Jamie ends up telling his mom, “I’m dealing with everything right now. You’re dealing with nothing.”)

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My Cousin Rachel is the second big-screen adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel that’s actually a kind of “reverse Rebecca.” (Why wasn’t that on the posters?) Adapted and directed by Roger Michell, it’s as perfectly poised as The Beguiled, but its dramatic tableaux carry freight, emotional and narrative. Rachel Weisz was kind of born to play the title role, as she is also called Rachel, when Olive de Havilland wasn’t in the 1957 version. Sam Claflin in well cast from the neck up, in that he convinces as the orphaned heir of a wealthy cousin who inherits a Cornish estate and discovers another claimant on his inheritance, the titular cousin, half-Italian and suspected of foul play. When I say Claflin – who takes the role etched by Richard Burton in the 1957 one – is well cast from the neck up, I mean it literally. His face acting is first-rate – although when he has been a gullible fool throughout and finally admits, “I’ve been a fool”, one gentleman in the Curzon quietly exclaimed, “Yes, you have!” and other patrons laughed without malice. But at one point when, as in all costume dramas, he is forced by a sexist orthodoxy to take off his shirt, we see that his shoulders are not shoulder-shaped but triangular, as if perhaps this country fop was a bodybuilder. (In real life, like all young male actors, he presumably feels duty-bound to work out to within an inch of his life, and this often breaks the spell of costume drama. I mean there’s no way Ross Poldark got like that by cutting the grass.)

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Look at the above still. It’s a fabulous bit of location scouting in Devon, costume design, lighting, framing and cinematography. They have done Du Maurier proud.

I relish this Catholic spread of cinema. The most generic of all was Berlin Syndrome, a film I took to be German, as it’s set in Berlin, but turns out to be Australian, the third film of Cate Shortland, whose entire output I have seen without trying to. (She also made Somersault, set in Australia, and Lore, also set in Germany.) In it, an Aussie backpacker, Clare (Teresa Palmer) goes back to the flat of a German teacher, Andi (Max Riemelt); they sleep together; he goes off to work the next morning; she finds herself accidentally locked in his apartment. He gets home; she discovers that he has no intention of letting her out. (Imagine the torture of being a globe-trotting Australian traveller being locked into a flat with reinforced, acoustically soundproofed windows so no-one can hear you scream!) This film is a thriller, a chamber piece, and a very effective one. A touch of Rear Window about it, and a bit of hobbling that recalls Misery and The Beguiled.

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It’s not deep, but it is lyrically shot by Shortland, showing scenes of “normality” outside the flat that becomes Clare’s cell in slow motion, as if to underline the freedom of ordinary existence. There’s gore and terror, and more than a hint of Stockholm Syndrome – or is it? – to keep the otherwise claustrophobic story going. Andi is well played – he really is charming enough to convince girls back to his flat, and to keep his workmates in the staff room from suspecting (until he starts to unravel) – but it’s Palmer’s triumph. She is the victim, but does not play the victim. You’re willing her to get out.

The tennis is literally just finishing as I finish typing (Jamie Murray and Martina Hinglis are being interviewed after the doubles final). Five worthwhile films, two at the cinema, three at the laptop in coffee shops. If you’ve seen any of them, let me know what you thought.

Love film. Film love.

International rescue

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As a long-established tennis widower, I feel very fortunate to have a Curzon cinema in a workable radius, especially during Wimbledon fortnight. This week, I took advantage of clement weather and a free afternoon/evening to forge my own European foreign-language double-bill. (In fact, one of them was a bit like a tennis match between two champions.) Both films I saw are, as it happens, available on Curzon Home Cinema, which means if you don’t live in a decent radius of a Curzon, or other arthouse chain, you can stream them for a tenner for 48 hours: A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove), from Sweden, and The Midwife (Sage Femme), from France/Belgium.

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I actually saw them in reverse order, and I’m glad that I did, as I preferred Ove. The Midwife, directed by Martin Provost, whose previous work I’m not au fait with, is notable for its pairing of two celebrated French actresses, the regal 60s icon Catherine Deneuve, now 73, and Catherine Frot, a decade or so younger and less well known to me, but showered with awards in her prolific career. Their uneasy reunion – Deneuve was the lover of Frot’s father, a champion swimmer, who committed suicide when she dumped him – is the engine that drives the film, with the elder, boozy floozy bringing the tight-arsed, dedicated midwife out of her celibate shell – ironically, she’s the one with the teenage son, but he’s never home. The relationship between the two women is tragi-comic as Deneuve has only looked her onetime stepdaughter up because she’s got a brain tumour and has no actual family.

There’s no doubting the fun Deneuve is having, playing a feckless, dishonest, gambling goodtime girl, but Fort’s is the more interesting character, if rather one-note. (We see her successfully and lovingly delivering gooey baby after gooey baby, as if her job is an act of sainthood.) I have a lot of time for contemporary French films, because I’m shallow enough to aspire to the lifestyle, and enjoy seeing grown-ups sit down at a bar for a single glass of red wine or a chalice of beer and a fag (or, in Deneuve’s case at one point, a lovely looking omelette and fries). I quite enjoyed Frot’s allotment neighbour and love interest, played by Olivier Gourmet, but after Deneuve’s operation on the tumour, The Midwife becomes a little idealised and gooey.

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A Man Called Ove, from Swedish director Hannes Holm and adapted from a popular novel by Fredrik Backman, also hinges on a suicide, albeit an unsuccessful one. Rolf Lassgard, usually seen with a fine mane of hair (he’s best known as Wallander), plays the bald widower of the title, initially presented as a grumpy, interfering busybody and self-styled caretaker of a pleasant neighbourhood estate. He locks up bicycles that are improperly parked, shouts at a woman with a Chihuahua, rages at a new neighbour backing a trailer up a path not designated for motor vehicles, refuses to accept that a single bunch of flowers costs more than one in a two-for-one offer, and so on. But Ove is not just angry, he is sad. We see him talking to his beloved wife Sonja’s grave (“I miss you”), while replacing the flowers, and he assures her that he will join her soon. (After 43 years at the same company, he has recently been let go, another act of cruelty by a world that seems to have left him to rot.)

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It has a certain, deadpan, Amèlie-like storybook quality, especially in the flashbacks, through which we learn of Ove’s life. You may find some of it a little twee, and that the more prosaically daft details – such as Ove’s feud with a neighbour based exclusively in their opposing choice of car make – Ove worships the Saab, his nemesis Rune drives a Volvo, and heinously replaces it with a BMW – undercut the grave seriousness of both Ove’s suicidal tendencies, and the tragedy in his backstory, but I rather liked the incongruity. When – no spoilers – a tragic event happens in one of Ove’s early flashbacks to childhood and encroaching young-adulthood, it’s almost played by Holm in the same off-the-cuff style, and for me it makes the mortality all the more portentous.

There’s a Hollywood remake in here waiting to happen. Re-stage it in Omaha, or Cleveland, or Westchester, stick a curmudgeonly Bryan Cranston in a bald wig in the main role (the Sight & Sound reviewer suggests Jack Nicholson, but he’s way too old; Ove is only supposed to be 59), and there’s a diversity-friendly sidekick waiting to balance it all up. Ove is initially irritated by his new neighbours – Swedish husband, Iranian wife Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), two adorable kids – but it’s clear that Parveneh will be his salvation, with her no-nonsense attitude and refusal to play Ove’s game of one man against the world. He will learn to love the kids, and get over himself, and it will be Parveneh – terrible driver, scatty householder – who teaches him. The foregone conclusion has surprises along the way, though. This is a story that rewards. (People tell me they loved the novel.)

I’ve thought a lot about Ove since seeing it, and him. The Midwife, less so.

I have seen a lot of foreign-language films I loved in the first six months of 2017: Elle, The Salesman, Graduation, The Handmaiden, Neruda, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Toni Erdmann, El Pastor, The Other Side of Hope, Frantz, Heal the Living … But also, some exceptional films in the English language, both UK-made and American: Prevenge, Manchester by the Sea, Christine, Moonlight, The Lost City of Z, Free Fire, Baby Driver, A Quiet Passion, Lady Macbeth, The Levelling … I also liked Personal Shopper, a French film largely in English, and starring an American, and two of the most celebrated, and decorated, films from Hollywood: Moonlight and La La Land. All are welcome in my tent.

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It doesn’t matter, but I think my Top 10 have been (in a fairly casual order):

  1. The Levelling | Hope Dickson Leach (UK)
  2. El Pastor | Jonathan Cenzual Burley (Spain)
  3. A Quiet Passion | Terence Davies (UK)
  4. The Lost City of Z | James Grey (US)
  5. Neruda | Pablo Larraìn (Chile/Argentina/France/Spain)
  6. Graduation | Cristian Mungiu (Romania)
  7. Baby Driver | Edgar Wright (UK)
  8. Heal the Living | Katell Quillévéré (France/US/Belgium)
  9. David Lynch: The Art Life | Rick Barnes, Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm (US)
  10. The Handmaiden | Park Chan-wook (South Korea)

Another week of tennis to go. Love all.

I read the news today, oh f**k

In Woody Allen’s Hannah and her Sisters, the great Swedish actor Max Von Sydow channels Bergman as Frederick, the older, existentially curmudgeonly artist. When his younger partner Lee (Barbara Hershey) gets home from an illicit liaison one night, she discovers him in a characteristic funk, having watched a “very dull TV show on Auschwitz.” He continues:

More gruesome film clips, and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question “How could it possibly happen?” is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is “Why doesn’t it happen more often?”

This line has never left me. It’s the wrong question. Why doesn’t it happen more often? Even if it was placed in the mouth of a fictional pretentious grump to satirise him and his sort, I detect Allen’s own voice in this declaration. It’s also a clearly loaded statement, as it was written by a Jew.

The reason I bring up this minor diatribe from a mid-80s Woody Allen film (one of his later, funny ones) is that I keep repeating that line over and over in my head. Our holocausts come in shorter, sharper blasts, with more imaginable numbers of casualties, but they really do seem to be happening more and more often. The toxic dust has barely settled on the previous attack or atrocity before the next one flares up in another part of London, or another part of the country, in a street that looks like every other street, except for the police tape and the news vans and the community spirit.

As I type, a “Day of Rage” protest is taking place across the capital city I happen to live in. That’s not its official title, it’s something to do with the Queen’s Speech, which this year came on a the back of an envelope. But barely a day goes by without me feeling some degree of rage about something or other. We’re having a heatwave in the South of England, too, which reminds me of the mid-80s Siouxsie and the Banshees album Tinderbox, one of whose standout tracks was called 92°, a reference to the temperature on the Fahrenheit scale at which human beings go mad  (“I wondered when this would happen again/Now I watch the red line reach that number again/The blood in our veins and the brains in our head”).

You wonder if the heat got to the dumb-f*** Islamophobe from Cardiff who drove his hired van into Muslims at prayer in Finsbury Park, North London. I mean, who does that? And why don’t they do it more often? Well, in fact, Frederick the fictional character, they now do. I can’t remember a time when I was more nervous about hired vans. (I was like this about planes flying overhead in the months after 9/11.)

These surges in negative cosmic energy, often leading to death or injury, and always leading to panic and overreaction, are not Holocausts. Instead we have major incidents, geographically labelled, and thrown into the 24-hour news cycle like it’s a tumble drier: Westminster Bridge, Manchester Evening News Arena, Borough Market, Finsbury Park Mosque. It’s the cumulative dread and the speed at which they line up that really take the breath away. I feel breathless as a kind of default setting in this escalating age of catastrophe. One death toll rises, when another, new death toll is started before the previous one has been finalised. (We have no idea how many people perished in Grenfell House, other than it’s more than we are being told.) I guess there’s no better word for what many of us feel in these special circumstances than terror. (The terrorists have won, by the way, whether they come in networks or cells, as martyrs or “lone wolves”. But maybe the tide will turn and we will win in the end.)

London skyline

I have lived in London since 1984. I arrived in the city full of hope and dreams. Those hopes and dreams have long since migrated away from London. It’s too crowded. It’s too divided. It’s too vulnerable. Also, it’s full of high-rise buildings that do have safety features, like sprinklers, because they are soulless stacks of glass units sold to foreign investors, who generally don’t even live in them, and who can blame them? Who would choose to live in a tower? If you take an overground train into Central London and pass the Thames, you can no longer see the Thames. All you can see is ugly, protruding glass and metal tubes. They block out the gorgeous old buildings on the other side of the river, and monstrosities nicknamed things like “the Walkie Talkie” and “the Cheese Grater” stand testament only to the excess testosterone coursing through the pinched veins of male architects who have no intention of living in them. (Grenfell Tower is not like these buildings.)

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I have a longtime fascination with disaster movies, in particular those made during the genre’s first cycle in the 1970s, when glamorous movie stars were half-drowned for our delectation and amusement. It was interesting to me that one of Grenfell Tower’s luckier residents – ie. one who got out with his life – spoke of wrapping his children’s heads in wet towels before they fled their flat. This is more than likely something learned through watching dramas about fires. I will never forgot Robert Wagner’s philandering PR Dan Bigelow adopting the wet-towel survival technique in The Towering Inferno – fruitlessly, as it happened, as the fire had got out of control due to corners cut with wiring and safety features, so he burned to death, while his lover, Lorrie (Susan Flannery) threw herself out of the window. The Towering Inferno was critical of cheaply built skyscrapers, and showed the dangers, but this was Hollywood fantasy, not the news, right?

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When Huw Edwards sat in total silence at his large, round, glass desk last night, unaware, due to a technical issue, that News at Ten had started and filled the air with silence, it was a blessed relief. For four silent minutes and eight silent seconds, with no news. And no news is good news.

We may soon have to start planning moments of silence in advance, maybe every Thursday. There’s a daily need to stop and think and remember those who’ve suffered.

I’m sick of all the violence, and the hate, and the murder, and the name-calling, and the corporate greed, and the municipal incompetence, and the political dismantling of the public sector and the good it does for ordinary people when properly funded and looked after, and I’m sick of people in government being terrible at their jobs, whether it’s looking after the economy or having an empathy at all or knowing what the inside of Lidl or Aldi looks like. Some Tories are clearly just cruel, and uncaring, and mean. Some are merely useless at their jobs. Many of them are both. One of them, Theresa May, is what Frankie Boyle described her as on his New World Order show for BBC Two: “a f***ing monster.”

I hate it when politicians accuse other politicians of politicising terrible atrocities, the kind that happen on a weekly basis currently. Tragedy is political. Terror is political. Neglect is political. And greed is certainly political.

I am not on the Day of Rage, but I’m having one privately. I rage at 22-year-old men who are disaffected and bored, just like most 22-year-olds, but who choose to vent that disaffection and boredom by taking innocent lives. I rage at people who see harm done by individuals from one religious group on individuals from various religious groups and surmise that it’s all the fault of just one religious group, because a man or a woman with thin, purple lips and a tumour growing inside their soul said so in a newspaper opinion column, which, if written by a different man would see him accused of hate speech. I rage at the disparaging term “snowflake”. And I rage at members of UKIP still being asked onto BBC political discussion programmes, despite having no MPs. They made this mess and I would rather they f***ed off while the rest of us got on with clearing it up.

I have no answers. I’m like the beautiful short-sleeved bowling shirt bearing a Chinese dragon design worn by a contestant on a recent Pointless and met with admiration by Alexander Armstrong. He said, “It asks more questions than it answers.”

But let’s keep asking them. The right questions.

 

 

++++++STOP PRESS+++++

One national newspaper has found a way of cheering us all up! By ignoring all the terrible news and offering combined monarchism, voyeurism and objectification of women.

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X

Here is the news. On 1 May 1997, I voted Labour.

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This seems a long, long time ago now. It would be the last time I would vote Labour for 20 years.

Tomorrow, I will vote Labour again, with my head and my heart. I hope you will vote with yours, too.*

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*I cannot, nor would not, speak for my friend. But he has just re-traced the Jarrow March.

 

Choose life

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I have been eligible to vote in eight general elections, two referendums and five mayoral elections in London. I voted in all of them. I have placed my cross next to a number of parties in that time. I have voted with my heart, generally, aligning with the party whose policies most accurately reflect my own. (I even gave my second-choice vote to Mark Steel in the 2000 mayoral election when he stood for the London Socialist Alliance and increased his vote from 1,822 to 1,823.) On Thursday I will vote with my head. I do no necessarily agree with all of the policies of the Labour Party, and I have had my doubts about Jeremy Corbyn, but Labour is the only party who can realistically unseat the Tories, and that, for me, is the priority.

This is what we are up against: a Prime Minister who thinks that people use food banks for “many complex reasons”, while Dominic Raab, MP for Esher and Walton, believes people use them when they have “a cashflow problem.”

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If you are of voting age and don’t vote on Thursday because of apathy, fear of terrorism or fear of getting wet (showers are predicted in some parts of the country), please think again. It was Labour leader Neil Kinnock, cover star of the NME in 1987, who summed up the dangers of Margaret Thatcher’s bulldozer free-market economics and her disdain for ordinary people lacking the entrepreneurial ruthlessness to become rich and successful, with a speech that is as resonant now as it was over 30 years ago:

If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. And I warn you not to grow old.

Look at the faces of May, Raab, Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Davis, Karen Bradley. Look at their disgust. It causes their nostrils to flare and their eyes to narrow, their foreheads to shine and their smiles to disintegrate.

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Apathy is no excuse. This is the big one. The country is poised to leave the EU, thanks to the will of 51.9% of the electorate, and even optimistic economists seem to agree that the initial effects will not be desirous. We can’t carry on cutting public services, cutting taxes for the rich, driving the NHS off a cliff to prepare it for privatisation, cutting tax for corporations behind the fig leaf of austerity, and driving the ordinary, the young, the ill and the old deeper into debt and despair.

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Despite negative briefing against Corbyn by his own party and a priapic right-wing press, he has found his tone and his feet during the rushed campaign for this snap election (called, lest we forget, by a PM who promised not to call one). A Labour candidate on the left – or what the right calls “the hard left” – is on a hiding to nothing before he or she starts, and Corbyn has targets on his back. However, his steady, approachable, non-violent campaigning style has seemed increasingly attractive as Theresa May has stumbled, blathered, stonewalled and u-turned, rocking up in a Jag by the back door and taking questions from plants, and Tory arrogance might just be their undoing. (She won’t even criticise that abomination Donald Trump for calling the Mayor of London “pathetic” days after the horrific London Bridge attack.)

Nobody would take any satisfaction from a terrorist atrocity affecting an election, but let’s face it, May has been exposed by her own record as Home Secretary, during which she called out the police for “crying wolf” and “scaremongering” when they predicted that her cuts and the reduction of police numbers would lead to attacks just like the ones in London and Manchester over the past three weeks. (“Enough is enough,” was the PM and former Home Secretary’s assessment. Did she mean three deadly attacks was enough? That rather suggests that two was acceptable.) For Tory thinking, try this, from former Health Secretary Edwina Currie.

TweetEdwinaCurrieApril17

I’ve gone into elections with hope in my heart before, and I’m realistic enough now to distrust my own optimism. But as the gap has narrowed in the polls, and I’ve read about how many people have registered to vote since April 19, I’ve dared to dream. In the month after it was called, almost 1.2 million voters between the ages of 18 to 35 signed up. About half of them were 24 or younger.

The young are our Obi-Wan Kenobis this week. It’s the old who voted for Brexit, the old who think Theresa May is strong and impressive, the old who think bringing back fox hunting is a splendid idea, and the old who fear Jeremy Corbyn’s socialism of the heart. Help us, young voters – you’re our only hope!

PS: Corbyn rally, Gateshead, yesterday (courtesy Paul Mason):

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