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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’m looking back on this week’s Telly Addict to what might be regarded as “quite a night” for BBC2: Wednesday, when Line Of Duty reached its much-talked-about and much-watched conclusion after six weeks of internally investigative cop intrigue, and was directly followed by a brand new comedy, W1A, specifically pitched and designed to take the royal piss out of the BBC. This, you might argue, is what the BBC does best. Also: The Widower, Jeff Pope’s latest true-life murder tale on ITV, where he works; Undercover Doctor – Cure Me I’m Gay with Dr Christian Jessen playing the gay Louis Theoux on C4; and two 30th anniversary specials, Arena: Whatever Happened To Spitting Image? on BBC2 and The Miners’ Strike And Me on ITV.

Cock and ball stories

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“Contains strong, real sex.” There’s a warning which, for some, will operate as an enticement. It adorns the posters for Stranger By The Lake (or, more properly, L’Inconnu du lac) a current French erotic thriller that’s been picking up five-star reviews and which I went to see for my birthday. It was quite a present.

The story – one of social intrigue, moral ambiguity and brazen man-on-man rumpo – revolves around a secluded, idyllic gay cruising spot in the South of France on the edge of a man-made lake, where man-made men of all ages routinely spend the day sunbathing, swimming and chatting, often nude, as a springboard to sexual acts in the undergrowth. Notwithstanding the thriller element, it paints a utopian picture (all the better to be shattered by the thriller element). The sun glistens off the water. Blue skies gradually fade to cool evenings. There is ample car parking. Nobody seems to have a job to go to. Consenting adults get to know each other on towels, or not, and partner off, while others simply loiter in the bushes and watch.

For a lifelong heterosexual who was ostracised as a “poof” in his teens for dressing effeminately and warned off hanging out with actual gay men by his parents as it was interfering with his A-levels, onscreen portrayals of this sort of “scene” – ritualistic, understood, honest, practical – always fascinate me, I cannot lie. All the bullshit that goes with heterosexual courtship is refreshingly absent. Although most of the men in the film are fit, buff and handsome, some are older, fatter, and less idealised looking. Some are single, some are not. Most use condoms, others play a riskier game. It’s the perfect milieu into which to introduce a less controllable danger: that of murder.

Outside of the thriller aspect, which recalls some of the more generic tropes of Plein Soleil and its English remake The Talented Mr Ripley, with more literal recent echoes of Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake, and even The Returned, Stranger By The Lake is notable chiefly for being the latest 18-certificate film to blur the borders between simulated sex and real sex – that is, frank, explicit, non-simulated, and thus by most people’s definition “pornographic”. The sex we’re used to seeing onscreen, even in “sexy” films, is clearly all artful, choreographed bump and grind, and elevated to gentle titillation by soft focus, tantalising editing, orgasm acting and a saxophone. The sex herein involves erect penises and ejaculation. There, I’ve said it.

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The screening of Stranger By The Lake we attended was in Soho and on a weekday morning. I specify “we”, as all other patrons in the cinema were singles, and male, and – dare I generalise? – of a certain age. Not young men. This was an 18-certificate showing of a film. Not a porn movie in a porn cinema (although I’m sure Old Testament Daily Mail moralists would have a thing to say about its content). And yet, as specified, it contained images of strong, real sex. Which you don’t get on the telly, not even in the background on True Detective.

As unfashionable as it may be to say it, I’m not partial to porn. I actually get more out of one of those faked, edited, saxophone scenes in 18-certificate movies, albeit briefly. I have no great desire to see people “do it” for real. But many do and they are better served in this regard than ever before. So is it wrong to pay money to see Stranger By The Lake for reasons on titillation? No. This is a healthy desire, albeit one perhaps better served at home. Because a lot of the film comprises people sitting on towels and talking, often about very little of import. If it were porn, it would be quite annoying.

As a film, I think it’s quite brilliant. Singular, atmospheric, cool, disturbing; elliptical and sometimes unclear in terms of what’s going on, but of a piece with the naturalistic way it’s shot and acted. Director Alain Guiraudie holds his nerve, and the recurring fixed shot of the car park is a brilliant, evocative way of showing the passage of days. Pierre de Ladoncahmps and Christophe Paou are captivating as the younger, more innocent, smooth-skinned tourist Franck and the older, more hirsute alpha male Michel, respectively. It is their relationship – essentially sexual, but with emotional benefits – that drives the story. And although you think you see them have “strong, real sex”, the more real bits are performed by body doubles. Even actors who are prepared to go full frontal are not necessarily up for going all the way.

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A similar sleight of hand, or slight of genital, occurs in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol I and II, a diptych that really impressed me when I saw a preview of it in January – both films back to back, a four-hour sex marathon – and which I would recommend if you’ve enjoyed his previous work (particularly the first and second parts of this, Von Trier’s loose “trilogy of depression”, Antichrist and Melancholia). It’s surprisingly linear, telling the self-loathing life story in flashback of the fearless Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sex addict. Each “chapter”, adorned with symbolism and cod-Freudian analysis, touches on a different aspect of her sex life, from virginity-shedding to sado-masochism and beyond, and there’s a good deal of what looks like “strong, real sex”.

And guess what? It’s not Shia LaBeouf or Charlotte Gainsbourg’s parts you’re seeing going into each other, or being spanked or sucked. It’s the parts of some porn actors, which have been seamlessly edited or digitally composited into the action. (See also: the astonishing Blue Is The Warmest Colour, which also apparently involved full prosthetic vaginas that the non-porn actors were strapped into. It’s amazing what they can do these days.) Although some of the sex – particulary between LaBeouf and Stacy Martin playing the young Gainsbourg – borders on conventional, if not quite Hollywood, and its pretty torrid, but I would still steer you away from Nymphomaniac if it’s titilation you seek! Much is seedy and disturbing, not least the scene where two African men have an argument over Gainsbourg while standing there naked and erect, like swordsmen. (That is, disturbing in the men’s attitude to Gainsbourg – which, to be fair, the character has masochistically brought upon herself – but also quite a sight if you’re not used to seeing men with erections banging around in front of them.)

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Coincidentally, Pierre de Ladoncahmps from Stranger By The Lake, the non-hairy one, reminded me of Patrick, the lead gay man in Looking, HBO’s simply adorable new comedy-drama about life on the non-heterosexual side of San Francisco, just coming to the end of its first season on Sky Atlantic. More education into the way things work within the gay community in America’s gayest city. (I loved San Francisco the moment I set foot in the place back in the early 90s and fancied myself as quite local on a two-week stay there.) Patrick, played with puppy dog charm by Jonathan Groff (whom I don’t even remember from Glee), is far less aggressively gay than his two companions, the experimental Agustín and the seasoned Dom, in that he’s yet to be seen in a bathhouse and only in leather as fancy dress, and I guess he acts as a “way in” for hetero viewers. But the show does not shrink from its sexual preference. It could be about any firm friends in any city and their lives and loves, but many of the “issues” are gay-specific. I love it.

I think I was bound to; one of its founding writers and directors is Andrew Haigh, the openly gay British filmmaker whose second film Weekend I only belatedly caught on Film4 this year. It’s as fetching and raw and irresistible as the reviews said at the time of its release: simply, the whirlwind 48-hour romance of two men in Nottingham, whose relationship is concertinaed by the fact that one of them is leaving for America on Monday. (Just as the talented Haigh would, ironically.) It’s nothing like as sexually explicit as Stranger By The Lake, but it’s still frank and unabashed, and once again depicts the mechanics of “encounter” culture – what the cool kids in America have now dubbed a “hook-up”, I do believe: sex without strings, something women are now permitted to admit to pursuing. (Imagine!) This bypass of traditional courtship is again refreshing and confusing to a Victorian gentleman like myself.

Although it is simply beyond my understanding how anyone could regard a same-sex relationship as any less valid or meaningful or natural as a bi-gender one – I mean, really, are we still debating same-sex marriage and the equalisation of rights in the 21st century? – I do seem to have been exposed to a lot more gay cinema and TV of late, and my reaction to it is bound to be different to the reaction of someone gay, lesbian or transgender. Heterosexuals: we’re like the fourth emergency service!

Dallas Buyers Club is an Oscar-stamped film about the gay community, set at a time when it was under attack not just from Bible-bashing moralists and the ignorant but from a new virus, too. Matthew McConaughey’s real-life Texan protagonist is super-straight and in his bones homophobic, and his shifting attitude to the likes of Jared Leto’s male-to-female transgender, HIV-positive drug addict forms the heart of the story. It is essentially a heterosexual film about homosexuality, and, like Patrick’s “soft” gay man in Looking, McConaughey’s conflicted cowboy acts as a bridge into another world.

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I grew up in the 70s, when gays were figures of fun in entertainment, and little more. Thankfully, come the 80s, when my politics started to harden, gay storylines became de rigueur in soaps and entered the mainstream. The terror of AIDS served to either confirm or wash away prejudice. The tabloids continued to treat homosexuality as something that must be “confessed” by celebrities right through this progressive decade, and homophobia is still horribly rife among certain knots of men. But much progress has been made. The Sun still objectifies women and reduces anything complex to single syllables and capital letters, but you don’t sense that the simple act of being gay is the news story it once might have been.

All that said, I wonder if some of the five-star reviews from heterosexual critics for Stranger By The Lake – mine included – are borne out of solidarity as much as out of dispassionate critical consensus. A willfully contrary, negative review of Under The Skin at the weekend called it “misogynistic” for its male gaze upon the Hollywood body of Scarlett Johansson, and yet – without giving too much away – it’s the men who are presented as victims, not to mention meat, in the film. They appear completely naked, while she generally gets to keep her bra on, and are apparently priapic, although the light is low and my failing eyesight meant that I didn’t even spot that their members were erect! Maybe I’m just getting used to them?

Just looking

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After last week’s Sunday-night-drama-themed Telly Addict and the week before’s comedy-themed Telly Addict, here’s a more typical ragbag-of-what’s-on Telly Addict. Starting with Mob City on Fox; then HBO’s far more promising “gay GirlsLooking on Sky Atlantic; the easygoing return of Outnumbered to BBC1; a bit of Celebrity Big Brother behind closed doors on Channel 5; the assured return of The Good Wife to More4; and to Sky Arts for Harry Shearer’s rather beautiful Nixon’s The One (which I interviewed him about for The Guardian actual newspaper last week).

Pretty pictures

Going to see lots of films at the moment, but too busy working to actually write about them. But hey, it’s Oscars run-up, so let me take this opportunity to catch up with three that have awards-season form. A Single Man is one of my favourite films of 2010 so far, a singular piece of work, based on a 1964 novel, set in 1962 just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Christopher Isherwood, which, despite being a key piece of gay lib lit, nobody I know seems to have read. (Perhaps you had to be there.) It’s an intrinsically gay film, in that it’s about a gay man who loses his gay lover and risks a gay affair, and even his one meaningful friendship with a woman is affected by his gayness. And yet, it’s not a gay film at all, it’s a film about grief, loss, love and lust that just happens to be about same-sex grief, loss, love and lust. I’m not spoiling anything to say that it begins with the news of the loss – a scene in which, after all these years of mucking about and narrowing his eyes, Colin Firth gets to act. With his face. This is not stage acting, this is screen acting; it’s all in the tiny nuances. These minutes are worth an Oscar – or a Bafta – on their own. The detail that makes the scene is that the family of Firth’s lover, who he’s been with for something like 14 years, don’t want him at the funeral. This stings, and reminds us that the world was very different in 1962, even if you were on a trendy Los Angeles college campus. Tom Ford is a fashion designer. I know this, even though I care nothing about fashion and have only heard of fashion designers. (I have heard of Alexander McQueen, and accept that he was clearly good at his job, but I don’t connect with him in the way that I might an actor or a writer.) I sort of don’t care what Tom Ford was, or is – can he direct? Well, he has directed Colin Firth to his first acting awards, and teases honest and full-blooded performances from Nicholas Hoult and Julianne Moore, so he’s doing something right. And A Single Man is an exquisite looking film, as you might expect. It is neat and tidy and tailored, but that’s because the main character is neat and tidy and tailored, a neatness and tidiness and tailoredness that masks the fact that he’s in bits. Some have accused the film of being cold and distant; I felt the opposite. It’s Mad Men-on-sea.

Hey, I thought Eddie Murphy had finished wearing fat suits and caricaturing black people! Ha ha. That is my little joke. Precious has been around for a while now, and if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the film, and if the trailer puts you off seeing it, you’re probably best off not seeing it – this is not for the socially squeamish. Based on another novel that nobody I know has read, it’s an unshowy film that moves at the sluggish, incidental pace of real life, with occasional bursts of action which, sadly for Precious herself, are usually bursts of rage or cruelty or pain. Again, some have accused the film of indulging in social and racial tourism, in that unless you live below the poverty line in an ethnic ghetto where a foot hovers constantly over your chances you are necessarily going to be viewing another world. But isn’t fiction all about taking us to other worlds? (The film is set in Harlem in 1987, although you’d hardly notice that it’s a period piece beyond the lack of cellphones.) This is a soul movie. It works like all the best soul music: it’s simple, it’s emotionally charged and it comes from here. Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’nique deserve all the praise that’s being heaped upon them – especially Mo’nique, as she has to play the monster without turning this into a horror movie – but all the girls in Precious’s special education class are excellent, too. If it was all misery, it wouldn’t work, but it’s not. In the trailer, Paula Patton’s angelic teacher says, tearfully, “Your baby loves … I love you,” to a sobbing Precious, and it’s the Soul Moment – but you need to understand the context.

Well, I’ve never read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, but I know people who have, mainly women, and they seem to greatly admire its tale of a 14-year-old girl raped and murdered in a small Pennsylvania town in 1973 who watches over her grieving family from a waystation between here and heaven. I am unmarried to the original text, so approached the film, directed by Peter Jackson, without prejudice. I thought it looked intriguing and would be a nice change from all his CGI stuff. Oh dear. He seems to have opted to fillet a rather bleak story and remodel it into a kids’ fairy tale. It’s a 12A, which is fine, so is A Single Man, and that’s for grown-ups. Saoirse Ronan, aged 14 when she filmed it, is a luminous presence, and does a pretty good American accent too, but she is neither here nor there in a film where two films are poured into the same jug and just swirl around but do not mix. One film is a kitchen sink drama about a girl being murdered by the local weirdo (Stanley Tucci with a comb-over, identified as the killer from the beginning, thus making any tension about his capture flimsy and uninvolving); the other is a gloopy, Yellow Submarine-style fantasy about the gap between heaven and earth, which, instead of some kind of terrifying limbo as it initially appears, quickly flowers into a kind of paradise with trees and grass and beaches and sunshine, where huge symbols crash into view – ooh, look, the model ships-in-bottles that the girl’s dad used to make as his hobby are now giant ships-in-giant bottles and they’re in the sea and they’re smashing against the rocks, subtly symbolising that all is not well in her father’s world and the fact that, oh, he’s smashing the bottles in real life. It’s like Terry Gilliams sneaked into the editing suite and inserted bits of one of his films into an episode of Waking The Dead. It’s surely significant of the film’s cowardice that there is no mention, not even a hint, that the girl has been raped in the film. The nature of her murder is also skirted around, but that’s not a problem, as she is dead. It’s as if the awkward sexual assault aspect would spoil Jackson’s film about the afterlife. Having her murdered is OK, but not raped as that’s a bit icky. So we have a film about a serious subject – death – that’s rendered ludicrous by wishful fantasy. Please tell me the book had a bit more heft and depth.

Now, back to work. Although I am on BBC News at 6.30 tonight, talking about the Baftas, so banging on about films and work collide.