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.

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So, 2016 then. Everybody begins everything they say now with the prefix “So …”, as if perhaps what they’re about to say is a continuation of a previous statement, but actually isn’t. I can’t be the only person to have noticed this. You hear correspondents doing it when asked to comment on the news. You hear contestants doing it when they’re asked to describe the dish they’re about to prepare on Masterchef. Young people seem unable to start a sentence without it. It’s a tick; more like a punctuation mark than a word – a deep breath if you like. Like “like” it has crept into common verbal usage (you’ll note that nobody uses it in written text) and it means literally nothing, as with so much in contemporary dialogue.

So … it was way back in that prelapsarian age that was the second week in January when Squeeze, a band whose original members are around 60 years old, used a performance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show to protest against fellow guest, then-Prime Minister David Cameron.

They changed the lyrics of hit Cradle to the Grave to sing the line: “There are some here who are hell bent on the destruction of the welfare state,” with that preening waste of space Cameron watching. Glenn Tilbrook also slipped in the line: “I grew up in council houses, part of what made Britain great.”

It did not bring down the venal Tory government. In fact, the Tory government continued to destroy the welfare state, along with much else when it held a referendum without at any point thinking through what might happen if the British public voted “Non!” to staying in the European Union. Cameron did way more than kill the welfare state, he sleepwalked the electorate into an abyss, and then resigned five minutes after the votes had been counted so that he could spend more time with his money. The political picture has largely been dominated by quitting, and not quitting in the case of Jeremy Corbyn, who is Westminster’s mystery man. They seek him here, they seek him there. I stuck with him for way longer than he deserved, if only to disavow his fellow Labour MPs who sought only to stab him in the back while Rome burned all around them. It has been a shoddy display from them all.

You’ll note that 10 January, the day Squeeze made their valiant protest, is also the day David Bowie died, and with him, the universe. This year has been fucking awful. From Brexit to Trump, via Brietbart, post-truth, alt-right, fake news, black lives not mattering, saying that ice cream is gay, and acts of terror that almost became business as usual amid more unexpected deaths of the supremely talented than any other in living memory, the only response to the passing of 2016 is to say, “Fuck you!”

So, here are my books of the year.

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What was once a refrain has hardened into a truth. Most of my reading happens between the covers of the New Yorker magazine, which has the temerity to arrive on a weekly basis on my doormat (and which feels even more vital since Trump was voted in). However, a nice man at the Mail on Sunday called Neil took it upon himself to send me three books to review in 2016, all of which I enjoyed. They are almost half the books I read. Of the other four, two are by people I know, but both stimulating in their particular fields. And the sixth and seventh are by people who write for the New Yorker, with roots in work they did for the New Yorker: Jeffrey Toobin and Clive James (one of the chapters in the delightful Play All is reprinted verbatim from the New Yorker).

I almost wrote a cover story for Radio Times, but – typically for 2016 – it was rightly superseded by a last-minute tribute to Victoria Wood, who had died. Interestingly, they left Peaky Blinders on the cover in the Midlands, and here it is.

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Which takes us to the best telly. With Telly Addict cancelled by the Guardian in April, and revived by UKTV in June, I have spent a lot of the year watching television professionally. And these have been my personal TV shows of the year. Firstly, in pictures.

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And here they are, in pointless list form.

1. The Crown, Netflix
2. Fleabag, BBC3/BBC Two
3. Versailles, BBC Two
4. Westworld, Sky Atlantic/HBO
5. The Young Pope, Sky Atlantic/HBO
6. Masterchef: The Professionals/Celebrity Masterchef, BBC Two
7. Line of Duty, BBC Two
8. Dickensian, BBC One (cancelled by idiots)
9. Happy Valley, BBC Two
10. The Missing, BBC Two

11. The People Vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, FX/Fox
12. Peaky Blinders, BBC Two
13. Trapped, BBC Four
14. The Great British Bake Off, BBC One
15. Gogglebox/Gogglesprogs, Channel 4
16. The Code, BBC Four/ABC
17. National Treasure, Channel 4
18. First Dates, Channel 4
19. Modern Life is Goodish, Dave
20. The Night Of, Sky Atlantic/HBO

Oh, come on. It’s self-evident from here that these brilliant shows could be in any order:

Game of Thrones, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Thirteen, BBC3/BBC Two
The A Word, BBC Two
The Knick, Sky Atlantic/Cinemax (season two aired at the end of 2015, but early 2016 here)
Deutschland 83, Channel 4
Mr Robot, Universal/Amazon Prime
Planet Earth II, BBC One
Taskmaster, Dave
Grayson Perry: All Man, Channel 4
Billions, Showtime, Sky Atlantic
Ballers, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Hypernormalisation, BBC iPlayer
The Durrells, ITV
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Sky Atlantic/HBO
Hillsborough: The Truth, BBC Two (updated after the inquest verdicts)
Brief Encounters, ITV (cancelled by idiots)
Rillington Place, BBC One
Parks & Recreation, Dave (ended in 2015 in the States, but this year, here)
Victoria, ITV
NW, BBC Two
Ripper Street, Amazon Prime/BBC Two

And a special nod to Escape to The Country (BBC One/BBC Two), the show whose 15 series exist forever on a loop, providing harmless dreams to people in towns and cities. Also, Top of the Pops (BBC Four), whose interrupted loop continues apace, racing through 1981 and 1982 this year, and giving constant pleasure to the musically disillusioned.

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So … from music on TV to the best LPs. Like books, a finite field.

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It’s been a slow year for albums. Once again I’ve relied on 6 Music and Later for information and inspiration, with the added input this year of subscriptions to both Mojo and Uncut, whose compilations have been a source of joy, and helped create this Top 12 in no order. No single album put all the others in the shade, but without C Duncan’s A Midnight Sun (and his previous album Architect, which we only cottoned on to this year; likewise Julia Holter’s Have You In My Wilderness), Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and Black Star by David Bowie, a few car journeys would have been less enjoyable. Nick Cave’s beautiful, personal, dissonant dirge Skeleton Tree was hard to listen to, and hard to stop listening to. The Kills did it again. And Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos has proven impossible to listen to on headphones while simultaneously reading, as it demands your full attention. I like that about it. Dickensian was my favourite TV score LP of the year (the show sadly cancelled), and A Tribe Called Quest’s We Got It From Here … comeback the only hip-hop record I’ve listened to from one end to the other.

For self-evident reasons, I spent much of my waking life listening to film scores, old and new, and doing so has brought peace to my soul. If you’re interested in my Top 10 Film Soundtracks of 2016, and my Top 10 Videogame Soundtracks of 2016, click on these Classic FM links.

Now, my other day job: films.

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I’m always torn as to whether or not to put my favourite films in a numbered list. It always seems so arbitrary. My ongoing system is this: I put an asterisk next to every film I see that’s in some way exceptional, and of the 223 films I’ve seen for the first time in 2016 (not all of them films released in 2016), around 80 are starred, although my Top 10 was easy enough to cordon off. The bulk of the films I see as a rule are in English, but the ones that often stand out and stay with me are not. Six out of the Top 10 are English-language (one of them, The Witch, in 17th century English); the others are not. It’s good to see so many unfamiliar names of directors so high up; I don’t believe I had ever typed Grímur Hákonarson, László Nemes or Robert Eggers in previous years, and they made my Top 3 films – and two of those are debuts! Pete Middleton and James Spinney, who co-directed the unique Notes on Blindness, a stunning film, don’t have Wikipedia entries, and neither does their film. I have to say, without Curzon cinemas and, more pertinently, Curzon Home Cinema, this list would be considerably less colourful and varied.

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1. Rams | Grímur Hákonarson (Iceland/Denmark)
2. Son of Saul | László Nemes (Hungary)
3. The Witch | Robert Eggers (US/Canada)
4. Spotlight | Tom McCarthy (US)
5. I, Daniel Blake | Ken Loach (UK/France/Belgium)
6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story | Gareth Edwards (US)
7. Mustang | Deniz Gamze Ergüven (Turkey)
8. Embrace of the Serpent | Ciro Guerra (Colombia/Venezuela/Argentina)
9. The Clan | Pablo Trapero (Argentina)
10. Notes on Blindness | Pete Middleton, James Spinney (UK)

11. The Childhood of a Leader | Brady Corbet (UK/France)
12. Fire at Sea | Gianfranco Rosi (Italy)
13. Life, Animated | Roger Ross Williams (US)
14. Hail Caesar! | Joel Cohen, Ethan Coen (US)
15. The Survivalist | Stephen Fingleton (UK)
16. Victoria | Sebastian Schipper (Germany)
17. Arrival | Denis Villeneuve (US)
18. I Am Not a Serial Killer | Billy O’Brien (Ireland/UK)
19. Paterson | Jim Jarmusch (US)
20. Chi-Raq | Spike Lee (US)

21. The Revenant | Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (US)
22. The Hateful Eight | Quentin Tarantino (US)
23. I Am Belfast | Mark Cousins (UK)
24. Wiener-Dog | Todd Solondz (US)
25. Cemetery of Splendour | Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand)
26. Sully | Clint Eastwood (US)
27. Julieta | Pedro Almodóvar (Spain)
28. Green Room | Jeremy Saulnier (US)
29. Things to Come | Mia Hansen-Love (France/Germany)
30. Room | Lenny Abrahamson (Ireland/Canada)

Thanks to my continuing tenure at the helm of Saturday Night at the Movies on Classic FM once again I was lucky enough to speak at length to these people about film music this year.

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It has been a terribly busy year, and I did not get out to art exhibitions. Which makes Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern a rare and thrilling treat. In the perfect pairing below, you can see O’Keeffe’s painting of the same Manhattan view captured in a photograph by her then-husband Alfred Stieglitz, one of the many illuminations in the way the exhibition was laid out.

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I went to the theatre twice and loved both productions I saw.

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Hangmen at the Wyndhams in London’s shittering West End by Martin McDonagh (whose film In Bruges I loved), a terrific black comedy about the last days of hanging, with David Morrissey as Britain’s last hangman, now running a boozer. The cast was further ennobled by Craig Parkinson, Andy Nyman, Johnny Flynn and Sally Rogers, and newcomers Bronwyn James and Josef Davies – not to mention the ingenious set. Because I know David and Craig, I met them for a drink afterwards in a theatre hangout and bathed in the cast’s glow. It must be tough doing the same thing at the same level of intensity every night. Mind you, they may not have any lines to learn, but we must give thanks to the dancers from Matthew Bourne’s company who threw themselves hither and thither in the name of bringing that beloved Powell and Pressburger film-about-a-ballet The Red Shoes to Sadlers Wells and turning it back into a ballet-about-a-ballet. This was our Christmas treat. It may not have been Christmassy – in fact, as you may know, it’s a tragedy – but it lit advent up all the same. I love watching dance. It’s not just the sight, it’s the sound of their physical exertion that makes it so special. Watching it on telly just doesn’t capture it. theredshoessadlers-com

In terms of live entertainment, I was privileged to see Billy Bragg and Joe Henry premiere their Shine A Light album at St Pancras Church in London in August. It’s a fine item to own, but seeing and hearing it essayed up close and personal was a rare pleasure. I’ve hosted a number of panels and Q&As, which means I was lucky to meet a whole host of interesting people in the arts: James Buckley, Paul Kaye, Louise Emerick and Ken Collard from the Dave sitcom Zapped; Maxine Peake and the original stars of The Comic Strip Peter Richardson and Nigel Planer for their latest escapade Red Top, also featuring Stephen Mangan and Eleanor Matsura; plus, the entire cast and crew of Peaky Blinders on two occasions: at the press launch and at the BFI (greedy!), an association with an ongoing show that I’ve loved being an ephemeral part of.

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It was a hell of a year. Enough to turn your hair grey. George Michael, Liz Smith and Carrie Fisher finished off the year in the manner in which it began. I was glancing down the UK “trending” topics late on Christmas Day and felt warm inside when I double-checked that all ten were related to telly programmes, on the telly. No capital cities, no celebrity names, no hashtags that began with #PrayFor. I went to sleep before 11pm satisfied that we’d made it through one day at least without the death knell tolling. I woke up on Boxing Day to the news that George Michael had been found dead, alone, at his home, the previous afternoon.

Feast, if you can, on all the amazing art and culture that was produced by the still-alive in 2016. It has to give us hope that perhaps the human race en masse isn’t hellbent on self-destruction, just a toxic few.

I am slightly fearful of pressing the “PUBLISH” key with three days left to go. But nobody ever won Masterchef that way.

 

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Inevitable Postscript: Debbie Reynolds, died a day after her daughter, on December 28, aged 84.

Being human

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There’s a clear and present danger we’re becoming inured to newsreel footage and images of migrants from as far afield as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Albania, Kosovo and Nigeria squashed into boats, risking death as human contraband in waterways between North Africa and Italy, and Turkey and Greece. It has felt like a weekly, sometimes daily experience for those of us watching: frightened faces, capsizing vessels, the spinning radar of a coast guard ship, life jackets, hoodies, backpacks, helicopters, children, babies, bacofoil blankets, corpses in the surf. Which is why I think the Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi is making such a splash with his latest film Fire At Sea (which, if you’re not fortunate enough to live near an arthouse cinema, is now available to stream on that constant lifeline for cinephiles, Curzon Home Cinema).

I’m not au fait with Rosi’s previous work, but can’t wait to seek it out, if this is how he rolls. Fire At Sea is one of those documentaries that tells its tale not through narration or captioned talking heads (although some participants are clearly being interviewed by Rosi for the camera), but fixed shots of a landscape, or neatly composed glimpses of everyday life, which cumulatively build a bigger picture – or, you might say, a smaller or more intimate picture. It ostensibly presents a free-standing slice of life on the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where desperate migrants from Africa and the Middle East arrive each year hoping for a new life in Europe; a rare caption tells us that, unbelievably, 400,000 have passed through in the last 20 years. This is an island with a population of around 6,000, essentially a way-station, and the Italian coast guard is shown diligently and humanely processing what seems to be a constant flow of migrants. But this is not a film about the migrant crisis.

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Rosi is not here to provide answers. He merely presents the facts as he, or his camera, sees them. If anyone is our guide, it’s 12-year-old Samuele, something of a tyke, the son of a fisherman, an artisan of the homemade catapult (with which he and his pal fire stones at cactuses and, we suspect, local birdlife), a proficient mime when it comes to the firing of imaginary assault weapons, and a kid with an old head on young shoulders. We see him explaining his symptoms to a doctor – the doctor, in fact, as the island appears only to have one – and not only does he use his hands and arms to express himself like an Italian man, he even seems to suffer from the hypochondria of a patient six times his age. (The doctor tells him that it’s stress-related, a very grown-up diagnosis. This is the doctor who later confesses his horror at having to cut off the finger of a dead migrant for reasons of later identification.)  You might say that in Samuele, Rosi has discovered “a star”, but again, it’s not about him, or any one person. That our boy seems to lead a relatively self-contained life among the scrub and low trees of his immediate landscape – as far as this film’s viewpoint suggests, utterly untouched by the boatloads of refugees being numbered, photographed and examined by the coast guard – illustrates the potential joy of a simple life.

Although the sheer number of foreign migrants passing through the lens of this film – many are dead, or on the point of death through dehydration – means that we do not get to know them with anything like the same intimacy with which we commune with Samuele’s father, his grandmother, an unnamed diver, the doctor, and a local DJ who plays the song Fire At Sea as a request for a fisherman’s wife – but that, I guess, is the point. The local people are fully integrated into their environment. The fisherman catches a squid (we see it breathe its last on the deck of a boat); the squid is de-inked and chopped into a stew by Samuele’s grandmother; then eaten as a hearty, life-giving meal by a family of three generations. The circle of life. The grandmother, who keeps reminding Samuele he’s still young, asks only for “a little health” when she kisses the heads of her icons of the Virgin Mary and a saint in her spartan bedroom. The people who “belong” on Lampedusa – as opposed to the migrants who fundamentally don’t, but are welcomed, temporarily, with compassion and without argument – do not ask for much. Samuele is happy with a twig from a tree. His father is happy to be home from sea. His grandfather is happy to be served a mid-morning espresso at the kitchen table, gone in one sip. The migrants have little more than the t-shirt on their backs, or the scarves wrapped around their heads, but they are grateful for a sip of water when they are unloaded onto the rescue ship, some of them also potentially breathing their last, like the squid.

FireAtSeadoc

There are a number of especially profound sequences in Fire At Sea, chanced upon by Rosi in the time he spent on the island: one of Samuele literally having to acclimatise himself to life at sea by facing down his seasickness: a creature of the land attempting to adapt to the ocean, in a perhaps cruel echo of the Africans forced off terra firma onto barely seaworthy boats, not to fish to survive, but to survive. In many ways, his options are limited; following in his father’s footsteps is a prescriptive path, and he’s not a natural seafarer (he’s sick over the side of his dad’s boat and turns the colour of paste). The options on Lampedusa are few, and the modern, interconnected world far away (the modernity of the doctor’s Apple monitor jars). This 12-year-old might understandably wish to leave for the mainland one day. He would, indeed, hop on a boat to achieve that. But he will be a willing migrant, not a refugee. It’s not necessarily a revolutionary visual and thematic link to make – refugees coming in, a native heading out – but it’s typical of Rosi’s sense of visual poetry.

FireAtSeaSamueleland

Another profound image is that of Samuele’s lazy eye. Again, it’s an accident that Rosi captured this milestone in a young boy’s life. But when he is prescribed a flesh-coloured eye patch to help “correct” the eye that’s not functioning properly, it’s actually impossible not to read all sorts of subtext into it. Do we, in the comfortable West, view the migrant situation with half an eye? We see the constant news footage – footage nothing like as aesthetically beautiful and patiently composed as Rosi’s, by the way – but do we actually process it? Or does it go by in a blur? Is anyone fooled by the fleshy illlusion of the rubber patch?

Fire At Sea is a film about seeing. Samuele uses his trusty slingshot with the patch fixed to the inside of his new glasses and he misses the target. He must adapt to survive (if we take his weapon as an ancient tool of survival, rather than a toy), but his adaptation is intimate, personal. The adaptation of the North Africans fleeing their country is more profound, and more deadly. Their boy is no toy. They are fleeing the weapons of others.

FireAtSeaposter

I loved this film. Some critics have questioned the balance of its gaze. While Samuele and his family are viewed in close up, we never hear from the migrants, who are presented en masse. But that, I feel, is the point, and a fair point. We see them, exhausted, confused, thirsty and yet relieved, being photographed by the Italian coast guard (all wearing masks and gloves for fear of infection, which makes them anonymous), and each migrant is assigned a number, which is held next to their head in the photo for identification. They are a number and yet they are “free” in the sense that they have left a war zone or persecution behind. If this “dehumanises” them, then it is not Rosi who does this, it’s the world. Also, he takes care to include a frankly joyous scene in which African migrants in the concrete yard of a detention centre, awaiting the next stage of transit to what they hope is a better life, play football against a team of Syrians – with, poignantly, two empty water bottles as goalposts. They cheer and shout, united by the international detente of sport. They are free, but they are also locked up. Contradictions fall from the sky.

The image that moved me the most was towards the end, when Samuele goes out hunting by the light of the moon (hunting not for food, but for sport). He seems to lure a tiny young bird by imitating its tweets. But by torchlight, as he gently approaches the bird, he either changes his mind, or he was never hunting it in the first place, and he gently strokes the bird on the head. Humanity is on the doorstep. Just look for it.

There’s been a murder

Broadchurch

This time last Monday, ITV premiered a major new drama, Broadchurch, the first of an eight-part whodunit set in a small, close-knit English community revolving around the death of a child. What I’m supposed to say now is that, on the same night, at the same time, in the same slot, ITV’s arch ratings rival BBC1 broadcast what was the second episode of a five-part whodunit set in a small, close-knit English community, Mayday (shot I believe in Dorking, but never specified as Surrey). Actually, it’s impossible not to the say all of that, because it is factually correct. If I add that both major new dramas were produced by Kudos, the production powerhouse whose reputation was built on Spooks, Hustle and Life On Mars (and with whom I have worked in my capacity as Q&A host and, once, as TV presenter), again you won’t need to hold the front page. These facts are now self-evident, and old news.

Mayday

However, I’ve worked up some kind of unifying overview now. I watched Mayday through to its bitter end – it ran over five consecutive nights, which is always a risky strategy, as to exploit boxset-binge orthodoxy you’d better have the goods to back it up – and saw the new, award-winning British film Broken over the weekend, which isn’t about a child murder, but hinges on our grim fascination with children in peril.

Now, the murder mystery dates back to the 19th century in literary terms, with a boom in the whodunit in the first half of the 20th, and has been a fallback option in film since the silents. There is nothing new in a TV serial being predicated on a crime being solved. Indeed, take away the crime and police drama from contemporary and you’re left with a pretty patchy looking set of listings for the terrestrial channels, and a blank screen with a white dot in the middle on Alibi and ITV3.

The publicity for Broadchurch has been very effective, from hoarding to cinema advertising (a brave excursion into the dark for any TV show), making the most of its largely original setting, Dorset’s magnificent Jurassic Coast – which I know well from visits to Billy Bragg’s house and walks along the fossil-filled beach with his old dog, Buster. The limestone cliffs make a thrilling backdrop for David Tenant, Olivia Colman and the rest of the fine cast, plus some police tape. (We are also initially led to believe that the victim, 11-year-old Danny, fell to his death from the cliff.) Chris Chibnall, the writer, who was instrumental in Law & Order UK and wrote the superb single drama United, has lived in Bridport for ten years, which has acted as a template for Broadchurch itself (although filmed in Avon, not Dorset).

With Danny, and the pivotal disappearance of 14-year-old “May Queen” Hattie in Mayday, this was TV drama risking that all-too-common hazard: the news overtaking fiction. Had a boy or girl gone missing in similar circumstances, or been found murdered, it’s feasible that both “major dramas” would have been pulled from the primetime schedules for reasons of sensitivity, or over-sensitivity, arguably. (Ghoulishly, a 16-year-old girl, Christina Edkins, was stabbed on a bus in Birmingham, but this happened on the Thursday morning, and was clearly adjudged to be different enough from the more ethereal events in Mayday, where pagan ritual was certainly implied in the build-up to the reveal of the murderer.)

I guess that “every parent’s worst nightmare” is frequently used as a hook for popular drama because of the fact that children are all too often victims of violence or abuse or abduction. It seems to me – and I’m not an expert – that the “classic” literary whodunits generally involve the murder of an adult, and not a child. But there’s nothing more dramatic than an “innocent” in danger. Why else would the disappearance of Madeleine McCann capture the world’s imagination so? Why else would we all have heard of a place called Soham? Or named a law after Sarah? We live in a world where the spectre of school shootings in America are matched here only by an all-engulfing paranoia about marauding paedophiles, grounded or otherwise.

Broken, directed by Rufus Norris and written by Mark O’Rowe (Boy A, Perrier’s Bounty), hints at this, as a grown man with unspecified mental problems is – in the opening scene, and in the trailer, to be fair – attacked by a next-door neighbour while cleaning his car in the suburban London cul-de-sac the main characters share. This, to borrow a phrase from screenwriting manuals, is “the inciting incident” and it happens almost before anything else has been established, other than a young girl lives on the same street at the childlike man.

I won’t divulge any specifics, as Broken has only just been released, and it’s better if you don’t have too much foreknowledge. But the protagonist is a 14-year-old girl, Skunk, one seemingly much less “adult” than Hattie the May Queen in Mayday (who is played by a 20-year-old actress, and at no stage convinces as a 14-year-old – she plays her surviving twin sister, too). Skunk is played by the actually-14-year-old Eloise Laurence, a real find, and she conveys as much as anything else a sense of sensitive resilience, which is handy, as the street she lives on seethes with resentment and violence. Where Mayday revolves around a creepy forest (the screenwriting manual, or meta-manual, I am currently reading is called Into The Woods, after the Joseph Campbell mythic concept of the dramatic “journey”), where all manner of unsavoury events either occur, or are rumoured to occur – voyeurism, dogging, assault, murder – Skunk’s refuge is a vacant hulk of a caravan in the back of a breaker’s yard. No picturesque woodland or limestone cliffs for her, although this publicity shot suggests otherwise.

broken

Because Mayday has finished, I will mention some of the specifics of its plot, so if you haven’t seen it, please look away now. Hattie disappears, and her body is not found until over halfway through – there’s a red-herring item of clothing in a lake, but that’s all it is – so the absence of a body absolves the writers of having to deal with the usual, formulaic procedural detail, and one assumes this was a deliberate de-cluttering of the form. It’s clever, as the mystery of abduction is in many ways more potent than the mystery of who murdered her. There’s also a red-herring “sighting” of her, alive, on the news, which again is a simple sleight of hand, and a bit of a swiz. There are plenty of false leads and loose threads in Mayday, which is a shame, as five nights of your life is a big commitment, as I’ve stated. Also, without a detective – except for Sophie Okonedo’s retired policewoman, who doesn’t really count – there’s no plodding investigator to tie up the leads.

Broadchurch, of which we’ve only seen one episode, looks far more conventional, and Chris Chibnall told me it was “aggressively plotted” to every ad-break, and it already shows. I’m guessing Mayday was commissioned as a five-night feast, as one-a-week series don’t usually get commissioned in fives, and it’s an unforgiving brief, as there’s no time for audiences to forget anything, hence higher expectation about continuity and pay-off. It had some really nice writing in it, not least the opening scene in which Lesley Manville’s developer’s wife found out that her husband, Peter Firth, wasn’t in fact walking their fat dog for two hours each night after the dog had been subjected to tests at the vet’s. What an original and clever way of her suspicions that he was “up to something” to be aroused.

Because we know that Danny in Broadchurch was out at night, on his skateboard, when he should have been tucked up in bed – or, at least, the police currently think he was – we don’t yet know what to think about his death. Forensics already shows that he didn’t fall at the point where he looked to have fallen from. So murder is suspected. (Unlike Madeleine, he wasn’t abducted from his bedroom window; we always think of Madeleine now.) In the unnamed village in Mayday, no reporters descend, and the police take a seemingly peripheral role, while the villagers search the woods and threaten lynch-mob justice. In Broadchurch, it’s already all about the media, local and national, and their muddying of the waters of truth.

We fear our children going into the woods, or out onto the cliffs, or, in the case or Broken, into derelict caravans in breaker’s yards. We are told we must always know where they are, but we don’t. Do we mollycoddle our kids and wrap them in cotton wool, and thus leave them unprepared for the big, bad world they will inevitably have to enter? (The symbolic “woods” we must all at some point have to enter, like Campbell’s mythic protagonist.) There are three sisters in Broken who are worldy and streetwise, and yet disruptive and abusive, and old before their time. They bully and they swear and they shout across the cul-de-sac. And yet, through the cleverness of the plot (which, by the way, is utterly depressing in its depiction of ordinary folk), we feel sympathy for them, and their violent dad (Rory Kinnear), as they have lost their mum.

The scene in episode one of Broadchurch where Andrew Buchan, the father, is called upon to identify the body of his son, Danny, is harrowing, and beautifully acted, and will haunt any parent watching. (“He’s only little,” he observes.) I’m not even a parent and I can see the hurt, so acutely is it written and played. We who are not parents are children, so it’s universal stuff.

Sometimes, I wonder if British drama, whether urban, suburban or rural, isn’t just a little bit depressing? Death is so often the driver of the narrative. Violence so often the inciting incident. If a TV series reliant on corpses turning up on a weekly basis, whether it’s the pitch-black Silent Witness, or the more bucolic Lewis, they only use a dead child as a real trump card. It’s obvious why. A dead adult is a tragedy, but at least they’ve lived some of their life. A child? So much life left to live. (How shocking was the beginning of Utopia when an innocent child in a comics shop was gassed to death by hitmen? A trump card played so early! It also had a school shooting that was one of the most shocking scenes I’ve seen on television for years – and stunning for all of that.)

The epic tragedy of Broadchurch. The concentrated, mystically informed tease of Mayday. The painfully raw reality of Broken. A small town, a close-knit community, a cul-de-sac, all “wrapped up in secrets” and bound in police tape. Don’t go into the woods. Don’t go into an alley. Don’t go near that cliff. Don’t go into that comics shop.

Don’t have nightmares.

Spooksperson for a generation

I’ve just spent the morning discussing James Bond down an ISDN line with a rainbow coalition of a dozen local BBC radio stations, and from Glasgow to Kent, via Derby, Herefordshire, Northampton and Stoke, it proved an effortless talking point. Everybody has an opinion on, and an interest in, James Bond movies. For a franchise that’s half a century old, it never gets old. And Skyfall, the 23rd Bond movie, and the one that marks its 50th birthday, which opens today, at least justifies our continued loyalty to the ancient spy of the old school. It’s a great Bond movie. This opinion seems not to be a maverick one either; it’s getting four and five stars everywhere, presumably to compensate for the lukewarm reception we all gave The Quantum of Solace, whose villain was so unmemorable, nobody can remember him. (Well, I can, but it’s my job to.) Whether Skyfall is a four or a five star film seems to be the extent of the debate. I guess its now fabled “backstory” might not be to all tastes – after all, surely the Bond we have loved since 1962 abides because we don’t care about his past, and as such, he doesn’t have one – but for me, it lifted the film, and took it in a new direction.

I’m not about to spoil it for you, as other reviewers have. The trailer hints at various things – a line of coffins draped in Union flags, Bond telling M that he’s beeen “enjoying death”, a helicopter rising above what looks like a Scottish highland landscape, a bit with Chinese lanterns, a glimpse of Javier Bardem’s distinctly camp, bleach-blonde villain calling the British Empire “a ruin” – but the fun is in seeing how these things join together. If you’re not excited by the shot of Daniel Craig landing in a train carriage while the back of it appears to be ripped off, and suavely adjusting his cuffs, you mustn’t waste your money by going to see it.

It feels big. Although, with a sizeable budget of $150m, it’s not actually the most expensive. (That would be the last one, which came in at a reported $200m; the previous Brosnans came in well under $150m, with his first, GoldenEye, costing a paltry $58m; and they were knocking the Roger Moores out for around $30m.) It’s long. Although, again, no longer than Casino Royale, at 144 minutes. (If you check the numbers, most Bond movies clock in at two hours or thereabouts, with classics Dr No and Goldfinger around a lean 110 minutes apiece. I believe I’m right in saying that Thunderball, Bond 4, was the first to indulgently break the two-hour barrier.)

The burden of any successful franchise is comparison. We all have our favourite period, and favourite Bond, and it is ultimately fruitless to compare, say, You Only Live Twice, my all-time favourite, with Skyfall. They occupy the same basic milieu of international espionage, in the service of Queen and country, but the focus of global villainy moves around, and the methods by which world domination might be achieved shift according to developments in politics and other factors; diamonds become oil, the oceans become space, and so on.

Here’s an area in which I think Skyfall can safely claim the crown: ticket thickness. The invites to the first ever UK preview screening of Skyfall, which took place two Fridays ago, were the thickest I’ve ever taken receipt of. I mean, look at them.

If they had been bread, you could have made a decent sandwich with them. And in one sense, they were bread, as Bond is all about money. The Marvel franchises that typify the mainstream output of Hollywood are all about money, too. It’s not a headline. Nor is the fact that Bond is a hub of product placement. I sort of feel sorry for director Sam Mendes, an artistic soul with his roots in the theatre, as he’s had to bat back questions about product placement, particularly the bit where Bond drinks a bottle of Heineken. (I’ve never had him down as a beer man.) Mendes, ruffled, says, well, if he wasn’t drinking Heineken he’d be drinking another brand of beer. That may be true, but it’s not an answer to the charge that the tail of commercial synergy is wagging the dog of artistic vision.

I wrote about the frankly ludicrous and distracting extent of commercial tie-ins to Quantum Of Solace on this very blog. You can read it here. But it’s not new. According to one of the nice local radio interviewers I spoke to this morning, there’s a scene in Moonraker that’s clearly designed to foreground the 7-Up logo; I have no reason to disbelieve him. The Aston Martin DB5 is a product that’s been placed – it even had a Dinky toy. So was the Lotus Esprit. We owned that Dinky toy! So, in a way, was the Millennium Dome in the pre-credits sequence to The World Is Not Enough. Frankly, if a bottle of Heineken offends you, don’t drink international beer brands in pubs and bars.

I was offended, ideologically, by the constant branding by media partners at the Olympics, but at the end of the day, if the sporting achievement is good, it’s just about possible to ignore the sponsors. Same with James Bond. A franchise that has, over its 50 years, promoted a false colonial vision of British dominance and decency, and sidelined women into decorative and expendable garnish, has plenty to answer for. But it has also adapted to survive, presenting a Murdoch-like media baron in Tomorrow Never Dies as a global baddie 15 years before the Leveson Inquiry, for instance, and pulling back on the indiscriminate sex in the wake of Aids.

I love the old Bond movies, the 60s ones, with Sean Connery, who remains the best Bond – even when, in You Only Live Twice, he’s doing it under duress – but I had a lot of time for Brosnan, and even more for Craig. Skyfall is a bold attempt to update the palette, giving loads more for an old lady, Judi Dench to do, while regenerating Q as the young Ben Whishaw, who gets all the best gags. The “Bond girls” are his ass-kicking equals, especially Naomie Harris, who keeps her kit on; while the theme tune harks back to the glory days of Bassey and Sinatra. I feel it gets the balance right. And if ever a Bond was going to be sentimental, it was the 50th anniversary one, but aside from the “backstory” element, it’s not. It’s pretty hard, and unyielding. Bardem’s villain is a horrible, psychotic bastard, and – this is in the trailer – when he blows up the MI5 building, you really feel a sense of terrorism about him, rather than just the megalomania of a rich man with a big train set. The London setting chimes with the Olympics and the Jubilee in 2012, but there’s less to celebrate, and there are no cheering crowds.

With Spooks gone, and its Cameron’s-Britain replacement, Hunted, all mercenary and private-sector, we might need the fictional civil servant James Bond more than ever.

Something in the water

You may have read or heard about Black Pond, the proper-indie British black comedy that was made for £25,000 (next to nothing in budgetary terms) and shot over three weeks by first-time, twentysomething writer-directors Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe, as it earned them a Best Newcomers Bafta nomination, the London Comedy Film Festival Discovery award and the Evening Standard Film Award for Best Newcomers. I also read about it when it came out last year, but didn’t see it. My former Radio 2 patron Zoe Ball – who is a Bafta member – saw it and was raving about it, so when I noticed it being reviewed as a DVD, I Tweeted the film’s Twitter account to inquire who was doing its publicity.

Tom Kingsley himself emailed me back and said that he and Will were. This is a low-budget film, after all. Who can afford to take on a PR company? I asked if I could borrow a copy to watch, and he very kindly sent me one to keep. With all that positive hype and a layer of kindness spread over the top, I suddenly felt a terrible pressure to like it. God, what if I didn’t?

I did. It’s brilliant. It’s recognisably a British take on suburban, middle-class manners and media exploitation, and the familiar if unusually-cast faces of Chris Langham and Simon Amstell also give you something to go on (albeit, in the case of Langham, a strange feeling of unease, too), but Black Pond is not your average film. It is framed by interviews with the fractured and fractious family of four, the Thompsons: Langham’s dad Tom, Amanda Hadingue’s blocked poet mum Sophie, and their two daughters, Katie and Jess (Anna O’Grady, Helen Cripps), who seem collectively to have been accused of the murder and burial of a man at the local Black Pond where the parents still live in Surrey, minus the two girls, who have flown the nest and emigrated to London.

The rest is told in flashback. We might know about the murder from the outset, but I’m still alarmed by how much of rest of the plot was given away in a lot of the reviews when it came out in November (rave reviews, incidentally, with five stars from the Financial Times, and four from the Times, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Express and Total Film). I’m going to remain cagey, other than to say, the arrival of needy but seemingly harmless stranger Blake (Colin Hurley, who seems previously to mainly have been in The Bill and Casualty, but what a find!) is key to the unfolding events.

Will Sharpe also plays the daughters’ besotted flatmate Tim, who, following the murder, sees an eccentric, cruel and self-serving shrink, played in his first film role by Amstell, who has a great time and provides Black Pond with its only overt comedy. I found myself laughing, too, at a frustrating conversation between Tom and Sophie in bed about whether or not it was a good idea to eat a banana in order to get back to sleep (“Sheer lunacy!” concludes Tom). It’s not that we’ve forgotten that Langham is a beautifully nuanced and naturalistic comic actor, merely that I think we’d got used to the idea that we wouldn’t be seeing him on our screens again.

Whichever way you slice his unfortunate backstory, he’s done his time, and made a fairly compelling case for why he committed his crime. That said, his presence adds to the strangeness of the film, which has an astonishingly compelling dream sequence that is fuelled by imagination and DIY special effects, and some animations that involve child-like drawings brought to life in crude, two-frames-a-second style. All this adds to the cumulative creepiness of the story, which lurches from Mike Leigh-style domestic awkwardness and comedy of leafy squirmsmanship (a sort of Archipelago goes to Weybridge), to moments of eerie darkness. The presence of a three-legged dog, Boy – played, animal lovers, by Bonzo – adds to the atmosphere of something not being quite right.

You’re aware that it’s a make-do-and-mend operation, but I’d rather see Black Pond than any number of over-budgeted “indies” that in fact parade their Hollywood production sheen with something approaching inverted snobbery. (Take This Must Be The Place: notionally independent in spirit and pacing, it has amazing, stunningly-shot New Mexico landscapes, but what is its medium budget really bringing to the narrative other than spectacle?)

This is Black Pond‘s website. It’s not worth your time just because it’s a first film, and made on the cheap, it’s worth your time because it’s great.