The rest is silence

TA84grabWe’re back, for Year 3 of Telly Addict, and, after an unprecedented two-week break, during which I allowed all the germs of the season to infect me while my immune system was off guard, my voice is on the way out. Thankfully, we managed to squeeze the last few drops out of my larynx before silence set in, and thus, here is an unplanned BBC-only review, with Borgen‘s welcome return to BBC4; the arrival of Ripper Street to BBC1; a very good documentary series, Queen Victoria’s Children, on BBC2; and finally, the latest Attenborough epic, Africa, on BBC1. I accuse Sir David of “husky hyperbole”, but wrote that, during the day, when I had no idea how husky my own voice would turn out to be. I hope you can hear the words I am saying, and that you feel my pain. Normal service will be resumed next week. And a haircut, I think.

(My full review of Seasons Three and Four of Breaking Bad will follow separately.)

You don’t have to be Mads to work here

the-hunt

It’s that time of year. A time when our thoughts turn inexorably to the real reason we celebrate Christmas, which is: coming up with our Top Tens. I’ve already been asked by Radio Times to supply my Top Ten Films of 2012, so that a collective best-of can be collated for the website. But I felt ill-equipped to do so. Not because I haven’t seen most of the key films of the year. I have. But because as of Friday, when I was forced to compile my list, there were at least three new films on release that I hadn’t seen but predicted would make the cut: Amour, Sightseers and The Hunt.

Well, I got my ass in gear and saw The Hunt on Saturday. Guess what? It’s one of my Top Ten Films of 2012. (Bad luck, Skyfall, which may just get nudged out of my original ten.) I know what you’re thinking. A Danish film. If I like Denmark so much why don’t I go and live there? Well, I would, but maybe not to the kind of close-knit, almost primeval rural Danish hamlet Thomas Vinterberg depicts in this evocative but subtly terrifying drama. Its setting is far away from the sleek, sophisticated world of coalition politics and grand office buildings seen in Borgen, The Bridge and The Killing. We’re talking about a place where everybody knows each other. And where one man’s life can be turned upside down.

Vinterberg, one of the original Dogme 95 founders, is still best known for 1998’s Festen, in which a family gathering in an august hotel is rent asunder by the revelation that a patriarch had abused two of his children. It’s a pretty devastating piece, yet shot handheld on DV under strict Dogme dogma, which gives it a fly-on-the-wall quality that’s become commonplace. (If you’ve seen it, you won’t have forgotten it. And if you remember the youngest son, played by Thomas Bo Larsen, he’s in The Hunt.) I haven’t seen any of Vinterberg’s subsequent works, a couple of which have been in English and I think most of which have been flops. Either way, The Hunt seems to have put him back at the top table, for good reason.

Mads Mikkelsen, the Easter Island statue-faced leading man who plays a divorced primary school teacher who’s clearly brilliant with kids but who gets wrongly accused of inappropriate behaviour with one of them, has already been in one of my favourite films of 2012, the Dansk costume drama A Royal Affair. He’s also done quite a bit of super-mainstream Hollywood crossover in the likes of King Arthur, Clash of the Titans and Casino Royale. But this is being talked about his best performance so far, and it won him props at Cannes. (His brother, Lars, was Troels Hartmann in The Killing.)

The subject of child abuse, and the suspicion of child abuse, is becoming a popular one for “issue”-based fiction. We’ve seen convicted paedophiles played by courageous, well-known actors including Matthew Macfadyen (C4’s Secret Life), Kevin Bacon (The Woodsman) and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children), but Lucas in The Hunt is different: he’s innocent. This is not a spoiler, as the accusation is made early on, and we, the audience, are left in no doubt that he didn’t do it. This is The Hunt‘s underlying masterstroke. It’s not about child abuse, but it is about the moral panic that surrounds it in this day and age. (If it was set in the 1970s, you might argue that there would be no drama, and no film.) I won’t delve too far into the plot, but Bo Larsen plays Lucas’s best friend, and the father of the child who makes the life-changing accusation, and his work in the film is equal to Mikkelesen’s.

I loved the way Vinterberg, who co-writes with Tobias Lindholm, plunges us into the rough, tough, ritualistic way of life in the unnamed town, with an annual dip in an icy-cold lake by this hermetically-sealed community’s menfolk, many of them hairy and big, like bears. It is as if these creatures are, like the wildlife they hunt with guns, of the forest that encircles their world. The men are seen roaring and drinking around a table after bagging a stag, like primitive men. They are no less likeable for it, but we are glimpsing a species closer to the earth than the fancy types who live in Copenhagen. They seem honest and hardworking and loyal. And yet, at the first whiff of wrongdoing, they turn nasty. And Lucas finds himself at the sharp end.

You’re reminded of Straw Dogs, even though Lucas is not some speccy intellectual cast among savages; he’s one of them. But his alleged crime casts him out of the circle of trust, and if they don’t actually take up flaming torches and run him out of town, you feel it could happen at any moment. The Hunt is not a horror film, or a thriller, in the conventional sense of either, but it is horrific, and thrilling. It’s also darkly amusing in places. And surprisingly moving.

Because of the times we are living in right now, especially in this country after Savile, the very idea of a film about accusations of inappropriate behaviour towards children might seem inappropriate. It’s certainly problematic that it centres around an unreliable accusation made by a child. (The reasons for the accusation are complex, but very convincingly and subtly built up. The child is not portrayed as vindictive or bad, just confused and misunderstood – and is admirably played by Annika Wedderkopp. It’s the system that seems at fault in this world, not the people.)

Never mind my soft spot for Scandinavian drama (oh, and fans will recognise Bjarne Henriksen aka Theis Birk Larsen from The Killing as a social worker), The Hunt is quite an achievement: to take a prickly subject matter and press it into service not as an issue-of-the-week but as a motor for exposing the fragility of friendship where children are concerned. It takes a lot of courage to do this, and a lot of skill to set up a smalltown witch-hunt that never strays into melodrama. There’s a scene in a church that doesn’t play out like its equivalent in a Hollywood movie would. And a scene in a supermarket that avoids the same nest of clichés. Even the use of the deerhunt motif itself is surprising.

Right, now, if I can just fit in Sightseers and Amour, my Radio Times Top Ten can be further decimated.

Don’t speak!

I was almost speechless after this rare cinematic treat at the weekend. We had tickets to see Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent classic La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc – or Jeanne d’Arc lidelse og død – on the big screen at the BFI Southbank in London, with live musical accompaniment and the original Danish intertitles to add to the authentic evocation of the 1920s experience. Not everyone’s idea of a big Saturday night out in the year 2012, I realise, although the auditorium at NFT1 was encouragingly packed.

This was showing as part of the BFI’s Sight & Sound Poll Winners season, as it was voted number 9 in the magazine’s most recent ten-year critics’ poll, as discussed here. Because it’s silent, and foreign, and black and white, it’s pushing against many prejudices to find a modern audience, but I’m lucky enough to have grown up at a time when silents – early Mack Sennett and Hal Roach comedies at any rate – were still shown on TV during the school holidays, so even though these curios were already 50 years old, I was exposed to them without prejudice.

That said, it’s unusual to be sat in a cinema watching one. I am coming relatively late to Dreyer (I’m never shy to admit my own latecomings – nothing worse than someone pretending to have seen something they haven’t), but was knocked out by Ordet, earlier this year, one of his later, sound films. My appreciation of his work has also been coloured by my growing love of modern Scandinavian cinema and TV, the ground laid by a longer-held love of Ingmar Bergman. Put it this way, I’m as used to hearing Danish speech these days as I am to hearing, say, French, or Spanish, or Italian, and that wasn’t always the case. Oddly, there is no Danish speech in Joan of Arc, as it’s a French film of a French story, featuring French actors, speaking in French. But with the intertitles in Danish, it retains the director’s origins. (The BFI notes state that this restoration is the closest yet to a replica of what the audience at the 1928 premiere in Copenhagen would have seen. Imagine!)

I wish I could credit the amazing pianist, but it wasn’t Neil Brand as listed in the BFI notes, as he was introduced as Steve something, and I can’t remember his surname. He also played flute while tickling the ivories at certain points, and made dramatic percussive noises on the piano strings too. Bravo! There is something uniquely thrilling about watching moving images soundtracked before your very ears. (I once saw Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman at the Cadogan Hall with a live orchestra and choir, and that was brought to life, in a completely different way.) La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is an hypnotic experience; you’re watching predominantly close-ups of actors’ faces for most of the 96 minutes, arranged as if in monochrome Expressionist paintings.

It goes without saying that the actors in these early silent movies will have been stage-trained. And the demands of emoting onstage, at a distance from the audience, mean that silent movies often feel melodramatic, with actors over-emoting, and over-gesturing. As such, they can be an acquired taste. In silent movies, damsels in distress will often hold a fist up to their mouth and bite their knuckles, to convey fear and anxiety. There’s a lot of staring off camera, too. But Jeanne d’Arc is incredibly controlled, and restrained, and subtle. Renée Jeanne Falconetti, as the Maid of Orleans, is seen throughout, her amazing face filling the screen, usually at the same diagonal angle as the iconic image of Christ, but with tears streaming down her cheeks. Actually 35 at the time, although playing a 19-year-old, she reminded me of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, with her shorn hair and wide eyes.

The judges are grotesques; again, characterful old stage actors, one imagines, shot at Expressionistic angles, and, once again, filling the screen. (The famous playwright Antonin Artaud, he of the Theatre Of Cruelty, is also seen, as a monk.) The contrast between Falconetti’s smooth, wet skin and theirs – dry, wrinkled, fat, puffy – is stark. There is no doubt who’s the goodie, and who are the baddies in this film. The story concerns only her trial, and is based upon actual 15th century court documentation (which is shown at the beginning), and falls into three acts: the charges against her; the torture; and her execution at the stake. We all know the outcome, but – as with Mel Gibson’s heavy-handed, blood-soaked Passion Of The Christ – we are forced to endure the prologue to death right there with the accused. It’s powerful stuff.

Loaded with symbolism – much of it, to be fair, also sometimes heavy-handed – this is a sensory experience that pushes a lot of buttons. You’re swept along by the music: torrid, melancholy, sparing; by the imploring images: ugly, beautiful, exquisitely framed, the early tableaux giving way in the last act to crowd scenes and mayhem that you’re just not expecting; and by the sheer inevitability of the tragedy, postponed by administrative and legislative to-ing and fro-ing in the courtroom.

Sometimes, you watch a “classic” (or “an immortal screen classic”, as per the original poster), and you appreciate its historical importance, and are glad that you have seen it, but it’s a dry, academic, box-ticking exercise. With Dreyer, for me, it’s an experience to savour. There’s nothing antique about this film. It’s over 80 years old, and yet it moves and terrifies and manipulates with the same skill and artistic audacity as anything powered by digital technology or studio profligacy or – and here’s the point – endless dialogue.

More of this type of thing, please.

Mind you, can’t wait to see Looper.

Faster, wryer, longer

So, as the Olympics draw ever closer and London falls under martial law, I set aside my burning animosity towards the Games for this week’s Telly Addict and review the four documentaries that comprised Faster, Higher, Stronger * on BBC2; also, the pre-dissed The Newsroom from Aaron Sorkin on Sky Atlantic; and the return to BBC1 of the English Wallander, which I had never seen before this, and of course, fell for pretty comprehensively, despite it not being wholly Swedish.

* To declare an interest, BBC Bristol’s Francis Welch, who made the third film about the 1500m, once made a documentary which I fronted, for BBC4, about Life On Mars. Not that there’s any conflict here, as I didn’t specifically refer to his 1500m film anyway. As an aside, he wrote an interesting BBC blog about the making of his programme, which is here.