Countryside alliance

GodsOwnCountrypair

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.

GodsOwnCountryview

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.)

GodsOwnCountryposter

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.

GodsOwnCountrybath

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.

TheLevellingEK

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.

GodsOwnCountryduo

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?

Advertisements

Beasts; burden

Here’s a thing. Beasts Of The Southern Wild opens in cinemas today. I saw an advance London preview of this film in August, which is unusual for me, as I’m happier waiting for a film’s release, but my interest was piqued by a rave review in the New Yorker back in June by the reliable David Denby, in which he hailed it as “the first classic of the Long Recession” and “a joyous movie”, praising its “exciting palpability”, its “oxygen-sharp sense of the present tense” and describing it as “raucous and alive.” That it has no star names, was shot on location on the Louisiana coast using many locals and non-actors, and is the feature debut of 29-year-old director Benh Zeitlin and co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar pushed it right to the front of the queue for me. What was this film Beasts of the Southern Wild?

Well, I, like many other critics who’ve been fortunate enough to see it in advance (it showed at Cannes and Sundance, and, this week, the London Film Festival), was totally bowled over by it. I have reviewed it for Radio Times and given it five stars. Now, I am very careful when handing out five-star reviews. I’m not a film critic who has to see every film that’s released every week, and I like to think this makes me less jaded and broken by the sheer weight of chaff, and gives me a level head. It’s dangerous to rate a film when you walk out of the cinema or screening room, and since August I have reconsidered and regrouped, and I still think it’s worth five stars.

However, there’s a problem with five-star reviews: they can be “quoted” on a film’s publicity without any supporting language. My five stars have indeed been included on print ads for Beasts, alongside many others. The ads are lit up by a veritable constellation of stars. This is a film that seems to stand apart from the herd – magical and heartfelt, yet dark and foreboding; naturalistic due to the involvement of untrained actors and the tactile bayou setting, but hyperreal at the same time, with fantasy and overstatement thrown in – which means it won’t delight everybody. That’s usually the yardstick question you must ask yourself as a critic before handing out five stars: will anybody be able to enjoy it? Is it the equal of Casablanca?

Who can know for sure? Not everybody would like Casablanca! (It’s in black and white!) Wanting to see a film again, soon after seeing it for the first time, is a good gauge for me. And I can’t wait to see Beasts of the Southern Wild again.

So what is it? It’s a fable set on the wrong side of the flood defences in New Orleans, where the dirt-poor subsist, literally, off the fruits of the sea, and barter not just crayfish and crab, but stories and mythology and camaraderie. This is an ecosystem, and it’s viewed through the eyes of the six-year-old Hushpuppy, played by newcomer Quvenzhané Wallis, who also narrates. I thought she was a boy at first, but she’s a girl. Her lone parent Wink, a functioning drunk with a good heart that’s also a bad heart, is played with dignity and depth by another non-thesp, baker Dwight Henry. And there’s a storm – another storm, as this seems to be post-Katrina – brewing.

What is already a ramshackle shanty town looks all the more precarious with a hurricane looming, but these people have nothing, and thus have nothing to lose. If you’re worried that this is “class tourism”, a gap-year view of poverty, don’t be. I never felt that Zeitlin or Alimar were patronising these resilient people; rather, offering them up as a lifeline out of the apparently “civilised” mess the rest of us on the other side of the wall are in.

The image that dominates the trailer and the posters is the one where Hushpuppy runs through exploding fireworks. This is not typical of the film, certainly not the bulk of it. The stampeding prehistoric aurochs – giant boar – are another image that should not be overplayed. They’re key, but do not dominate. It’s more about survival, and family, and hope, those unfashionable kinds of things. I love the way Hushpuppy holds animals and birds up to her ear, so she can hear their breathing – just to reassure herself that they are alive. It could have been hokey, but for me, it’s not. It feels warm and vital and real.

I’m just concerned that a film which actually deserves to be discovered is now being rammed down people’s throats. It may not be able to live up to the hype. It has big ideas, but it’s a small film. It’s not The Help. It’s not Driving Miss Daisy. It’s not The Color Purple. It’s not really about “color” at all. Neither, closer to home, is it HBO’s syncopated New Orleans-set Treme, whose defining local/political point of view feels conventional by comparison. It’s a bit like George Washington and The Wizard Of Oz, if either helps, but it’s mainly not like much else.

Nick Pinkerton, reviewing in Sight & Sound, pulled it to bits; more importantly, he called out all the critics who had given it five stars, and accused us all of being hoodwinked. (Somebody on Twitter called me “conceited” for suggesting that the rave reviews for Killing Them Softly were a bit over the top, but I never accused my fellow critics of being duped, which is, you might say, a bit conceited. I simply thought a five-star film by some consensus was more of a three.)

I would love to know what people think of this unlikely film. I’ve been living with my five stars since the first week of August, and now they’ve been pressed into service to promote the film, I’m feeling responsible. It’s my Beasts burden.