International rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another week of tennis to go. Love all.

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2015: the year in film

black-soulsAMostViolentYForceMajeureCarolfilmTimbuktufilmStarWForceA45YearsBrooklynAPigeon

Once again, I’ve tried to see as many films as humanly possible, in order to be able to take a fair-minded assessment of the year. But a glance at the Sight & Sound end-of-year lists – which blatantly reflect the year’s international festival programmes, with not a care for the straitjacket of UK theatrical release (their number one film, The Assassin, is not out here until the New Year) – instantly renders mine a little more parochial. That said, if foreign-language pictures do not dominate my Top 42 (it seemed silly to stop at 40), they enhance and enrich the list. One of my jobs is to keep up with new releases so that when the films arrive on television, I can have an opinion on them in Radio Times. But I don’t have the pressure of a national newspaper critic, or blogger, who seeks to keep up with the big new films in the week of release. I saw most of the less mainstream titles on steam-powered DVD, or via Curzon Home Cinema, which continues to be a lifeline.

Here is my Top 12 (I intended this to be a Top 10, but a couple of late entries have expanded it – at the end of the day, or the year, you can’t realistically measure a Star Wars film against a Roy Andersson, but you can celebrate the appreciation of both):

1. 45 Years | Andrew Haigh | UK
2. Carol | Todd Haynes | US
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens | JJ Abrams | US
4. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence| Roy Andersson | Sweden/Norway/France/Germany
5. The Tribe | Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy | Ukraine/Netherlands
6. Brooklyn | John Crowley | UK/Ireland/Canada
7. The Falling | Carol Morley | UK
8. Black Souls | Francesco Munzi | Italy/France
9. The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson | Julien Temple | UK
10. Force Majeure | Ruben Östlund | Sweden/France/Norway
11. Amy | Asif Kapadia | UK
12. Timbuktu | Abderrahmane Sissako | France/Mauritania

I like the way that five our of the Top 12 turn out to be UK productions or co-productions. This tells us something good about our national cinema, which can just as easily be scenes from a marriage or an impressionistically elemental work of art. As for the two UK documentaries, interestingly both are about musicians, one who dies, the other who cheats death. Of the three US films, one is the biggest film of the year, and possibly of all time come the final tot-up, financially speaking, so deal with that. (It’s the same as putting an Adele album in my Top 10 LPs, which I have done again this year. I’m used to it.) Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat On A Branch and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe are so different from the pack, and from each other, they may as well have their own chart. I watched the former – far from ideally – in two hotel rooms, one in Liverpool, the second in Durham. It transfixed me, even so (in fact, maybe because of the circumstances). I caught up with The Tribe on Boxing Day, via Curzon, and it’s the best film I’ve seen in Ukrainian sign language ever.

Whiplash

I won’t order the remaining 30 films. It goes without saying that all did more than just divert me, or fill the time, or meet a professional quota.

Slow West | John Maclean | UK, New Zealand
Big Hero 6 | Don Hall, Chris Williams | US
A Most Violent Year | JC Chandor | US
Whiplash | Damien Chazelle | US
White God | Kornél Mundruczó | Hungary
Fidelio: Alice’s Journey | Lucie Borleteau | France
Selma | Ava DuVernay | US
Inherent Vice | Paul Thomas Anderson | US
The Lesson | Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov | Bulgaria, Greece
Birdman | Alejandro G. Iñárritu | US
Foxcatcher | Bennett Miller | US
Still Alice | Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland | US
Altman | Ron Mann | Canada
Eden | Mia Hansen-Love | France
San Andreas | Brad Peyton | US
Wild Tales | Damián Szifron | Argentina/Spain
When You’re Young | Noah Baumbach | US
Love and Mercy | Bill Pohlad | US
Clouds Of Sils Maria | Olivier Assayas | France/Germany/Switzerland
The Salt Of The Earth | Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado | France/Brazil
Far From The Madding Crowd | Thomas Vinterberg | UK
Everest | Baltasar Kormákur | UK/US
The Martian | Ridley Scott | US
Ex Machina | Alex Garland | UK
Trainwreck | Judd Apatow | US
Steve Jobs | Danny Boyle | UK
Red Army | Gabe Polsky | US/Russia
Mia Madre | Nanni Moretti | Italy/France
The Wolfpack | Crystal Moselle | US
Straight Outta Compton | F Gary Gray | US

Please do share your own. Nobody’s opinion counts for more than anybody else’s. (Oh, and by the way, of course I included San Andreas, which is probably only a three-star film, but this is my list, it is the list that is mine, and what it is, too.)

Dansk in real life

I won’t add to the chorus of approval for Channel 4’s wisely-chosen US import Homeland, which came to a satisfying conclusion at the weekend. Mark Lawson was the latest to have to argue against British TV drama from its long, persuasive shadow in the Guardian on Monday. But for my money, The Bridge, aka Bron in Swedish, aka Broen in Danish, is even better. The latest Scandinavian import to arrive on BBC4 – following Wallander, Forbrydelsen and Borgen – it is surely the perfect encapsulation of what makes the region so fertile in terms of drama and setting. In fact, if you’ve immersed yourself in the Denmark of Forbrydelsen and Borgen, both set in Copehagen and linked by an interest in the politics peculiar to that country, you’ll have a decent head start on The Bridge (which I’ll call The Bridge rather than have to juggle the subtly different Swedish and Danish translations).

I hardly need to go over the set-up, but I will: a body is discovered at the exact halfway point of the elegant, five-mile-long Øresund Bridge, which links Malmö to Copenhagen by road and rail and thus unites two police jurisdictions in solving the crime. (The body, which turns out to be two halves of two separate bodies, has been placed there to get the attention of both, and that’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot, so worry not, those who have yet to catch up, or plan to box-set it.)

It’s as if the dark police procedural of Forbrydelsen has been linked to the more brightly-lit corridors of power of Borgen, mixing social issues with a good old whodunit. In the leads, Kim Bodnia and Sofia Helin create a fabulously mismatched detective duo, one that surely has legs far beyond this one case. Martin Rohde, a rotund, homely, good-humoured, rumpled maverick from Copenhagen is everything that Saga Norén, of Malmö, is not. She’s borderline autistic, socially inept, emotionally stunted, professionally by-the-book, but her powers of deduction are keen and her no-nonsense attitude (and lack of meaningful home life) ensure she gets the job done.

Unlike Sarah Lund, Saga is more overtly sexual in her leather trousers and slash-neck tops (which in the first episode she kept whipping off in the office and changing); she is seen picking up a man in a bar for functional, no-questions-asked rumpo. And yet, she is cold and efficient, and in many ways asexual. Rohde has been emasculated by a vasectomy and feels the need to assert himself sexually but he’s more of a teddy bear. I won’t say how but if there is any sexual tension between them it is subsequently defused in a very surprising way.

There’s real humour in the writing, despite the Gothic nature of the crimes, and much of this emerges in the sparring between Rohde and Norén. There’s also a lot of subtle stuff about the differences between the Danish and Swedish way of doing things – and in the intricacies of language and pronunciation. (This is a Danish-Swedish co-production, a coalition that actually pays dividends, and slices straight down the middle. I mean: can you think of a cleverer pitch than The Bridge in terms of setting out its geographical stall? Usually footage of cars going over a bridge in drama is there to provide a bumper; here, it seems vital. And it’s a beautiful bridge, especially at night against that amazing Scandinavian sky.) We’re six episodes in, with four to go, and all six are available on iPlayer, so get in there if you haven’t already.

I know “Scandi drama” is a phrase that’s tiresomely overused at the moment, and I sympathise if you’re put off by yet more Guardian-reader hype, but The Bridge drew over a million to BBC4 in its first week (more than The Killing), which is hard to argue with. I find the bendy sound of the Danish and Swedish language to be easy on the ear, and I guess I’m used to it, having previously organised my own home-schooling crash course in the works of Ingmar Bergman. About ten years ago, when his back catalogue started to come out at a rate of knots via Tartan, I eagerly got up to speed, and titles like Winter Light, The Silence and Wild Strawberries became instant all-time favourites.

At the weekend, I went to the Curzon Chelsea to see Ordet on the big screen, my first taste of Carl Theodor Dreyer, the father of Danish cinema and often cited as one of the greatest directors of all time. I feel a little late to the party, but what a way to start! Ordet (The Word) is one of his later films, made in 1955, when Bergman was enjoying his first international hit with Smiles Of A Summer Night. Dreyer had made his name in the 1920s, helping to forge the medium. I must now delve into that early work – notably The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr (which I’ve always been aware of, thanks to all the history of horror books I used to devour as a boy), and what I know to be his 1940s classic Day of Wrath. I loved Ordet. It is utterly captivating; hypnotic stuff.

Based on a 1932 play, although I assume the film is set in the 1950s, it has a theatrically staged feel, with characters standing in rows, coming in and out of doors, and enunciating very precisely and slowly against flat backdrops, but it opens melodramatically on location in the dunes around a rural farm, where the haunting character Johannes (Preben Lerdoff Rye) who has gone insane and thinks he is Jesus Christ, declaims to what he considers to be a Godless universe. The rest of the Borgen family – yes, you may spot links between Ordet and the previously mentioned modern Danish culture – find themselves caught between God and science, tradition and progress, birth and death, true faith and cold, hard reality. They also come into conflict with a neighbouring evagelical Christian sect, for whom faith is grim and joyless, while the Borgens’ is about warmth and celebration. (Having said this, it’s all relative, and the Borgens are not exactly dancing around the place, flinging flowers in the name of the Lord.)

It’s mesmerisingly slow and deliberate, and everybody seems to walk at the pace of Frankenstein’s monster, and if this is what Danish theatre was like in the 1930s, I want to go there. It’s been hailed as a masterpiece, and I can see why. Not only is the subject matter profound, and heart-stopping at one crucial juncture (which I won’t ruin), but, again, there’s humour here. Surely Dreyer was anticipating a laugh from the audience when Johannes’ condition is explained by his father (Henrik Malberg) to a visitor who assumes it was “love” that sent him mad, but in fact, he explains bluntly, “It was Kierkegaard.” (It’s a gag worthy of Woody Allen.)

Unlike Peter the Tailor in Ordet, I’m not here to convert anybody. This kind of cinema is not going to be for everybody. I would understand if you found it irritating and punishing, and that you found Johannes comical – which I feel sure he’s not meant to be, and anyway, it haunted me. I just find myself with a real urge to soak up Danish culture. Denmark is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

I could murder a Danish/Swedish

This week’s Telly Addict, which features a new jacket (rain-spattered on the walk up to the Guardian from the British Library, but hopefully you won’t notice), covers many things: The 70s on BBC2; The Bridge on – where else? – BBC4, or BBC-SvedeDansk as I think we should all call it; Four Rooms on C4; Two Greedy Italians on BBC2; and Smash on Sky Atlantic, which turned out to be the first bum note in the channel’s short history.

A girl’s best friend

A couple of films, then. By the way, I must apologise in advance for January and February, as I am up against two deadlines, one of them for six episodes of Mr Blue Sky for Radio 4 by mid-March, so I am bound to find less time to write longer form blog entries. But I’ll try and keep up with the films. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo came out on Boxing Day and I saw it a couple of days ago. It’s very good. This is the American remake of the Swedish original; an economic inevitability when much of the English-speaking world fears subtitles. In many ways, Columbia and David Fincher are providing a public service.

I have no investment in the Stieg Larsson Millennium Trilogy upon which the films are based (hey, they’re modern novels, ergo I haven’t read them), so have no idea how faithful the three Swedish movies were to their source. I suspect very, but don’t know for sure. Although a sometimes uncomfortable blend of nasty and flashy, I enjoyed all three to varying degrees, in the same way that I often enjoy Scandinavian films and TV for providing a vivid glimpse into another culture that couldn’t be more different to our own. It’s not just the weather, either. I loved The Killing, and felt there was little point in transposing the action to Washington state for the US remake, so stuck with my beloved original. (All they did was re-tell the same story and throw out all the national character that made Sarah Lund, Troels Hartmann and Theis and Pernille Birk Larsen so compelling and different. Christopher Nolan’s Hollywood remake of Insomnia threw out the Norwegian setting of the original and took the story to Alaska, but something was still lost in translation.)

What Fincher and screenwriter Steve Zailian have done is to sensibly retain the Swedish setting of the Trilogy, specifically metropolitan Stockholm and the remote private island, and in doing so have been able to mine the same themes of national identity and deep Nazi guilt without them seeming odd. One person on Twitter asked me if they’d “Yanked it up”. Well, not really, especially as most of the principals are English, specifically the well-cast and low-key Daniel Craig (who looks Swedish but doesn’t attempt the Swedish accent, just about getting away with it, as the English accent he uses is deliberately bland and generic), Christopher Plummer (who does a fabulous job with his), Steven Berkoff, Geraldine James, Donald Sumpter, Julian Sands and Joely Richardson (whose character is Swedish but moved to London, explaining her Anglicised voice). Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t obsess about the accents while watching the film. In fact, I applaud everyone apart from Craig for having a go; it means you can get on with immersing yourself in the fiction. (I couldn’t take Valkyrie seriously, for instance, as the cast spoke in their own accents, mostly American, and not German.) So, no, it’s not “Yanked up”. The only key Americans in Dragon Tattoo are Robin Wright (who looks Swedish) and Rooney Mara, who does a great job at Lisbeth – she’s just as grim-faced, androgynous and lithe as Noomi Rapace, and defies you to look upon her with laddish lust.

Gothenburg’s Stellan Skarsgård uses his own accent, of course. (He was the star of the original Insomnia by the way, doing a Norwegian accent. You should seek it out.)

Fincher really is one of the best directors working in Hollywood today. I couldn’t get on with Benjamin Button, but it was technically brilliant, and I’ve admired pretty much everything else he’s turned his assured hand to. Dragon Tattoo is a conventional thriller, but, like Fincher’s Zodiac, it puts as much store with the dramatisation of research as with the staging of the action sequences. Yes, Lisbeth does a lot of sexy motorbike riding, but for most of the film she’s at her laptop or going through files in a company archive. This accent on clerical work is brave, but it’s true to the source as Lisbeth’s escape from a lifetime of abuse and incarceration is her clerical skill. Unusually for a film about computers, the screens and websites and engines in this seem pretty real. (Lisbeth looks someone up on Wikipedia at one point, rather than an obvious faked version of Wikipedia.)

If you’ve never seen the original because you are “too lazy” to read subtitles (I don’t hold with this generalisation, by the way, I’m ironically quoting a snob who used the phrase on Twitter), then dive in. This is definitely grown up cinema – it’s an 18, and earns that not through the usual visceral violence, but through scenes of a sexual nature that are far from conventionally titillating and do not involve consent. It’s dark material. But brilliantly made. And the James Bond-style opening credits, over Trent Reznor’s cover of Immigrant Song, are almost worth the ticket alone.

My Week With Marilyn has been out even longer than Dragon Tattoo, but the Curzon in Soho seems to be showing a variety of older films with awards buzz this week, so I made the most of it. What a disappointment. It’s Michelle Williams’ performance as Marilyn Monroe and Kenneth Branagh’s as Laurence Olivier that are attracting attention, and both are commendable and in the latter case, often hilarious. But the film wrapped around them, based upon the memoir by Colin Clark, who, aged 23, found himself working as third assistant director on The Prince and The Showgirl at Pinewood (he’s played by the handsome Eddie Redmayne), is deeply confused. It begins as a sort of lively period farce about the young toff’s introduction to the British film industry and rattles along with the same spot-the-real-person appeal as, say, The Iron Lady, or, frankly, any drama about a sad British comedian’s secret pain made by BBC4: “Ooh look, that’s Vivien Leigh! That’s Dame Sybil Thorndike! That’s cinematographer Jack Cardiff! That’s Arthur P Jacobs, future producer of Planet Of The Apes!” (a couple for the cineastes, there) … But in the second half it softens into the soft-focus, doomed Platonic love affair between Clark and Monroe.

Because it’s based on Clark’s account, published after Marilyn was long dead, we only have his word for what went on behind closed doors (he died in 2002, by the way), and it all starts to feel a little like a laddish fantasy. We have to believe that after hubby Arthur Miller’s departure from England, Marilyn was unable to work without Colin by her side. He doesn’t do anything as ungentlemanly as try to get off with her while she is drugged into a hazy state of consciousness, but he does get to spend a lot of time with her, and, in one key scene, skinny dip in a river. With Marilyn Monroe. I’m not saying it didn’t happen this way, but I am saying that I found it difficult to buy into. I much preferred the film when it was Branagh having a whale of a time impersonating Olivier, stomping about and swearing around a sound stage. The period detail was good, but the story was awkward: Monroe was clearly a mess, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing this, and yet, it all ends swimmingly. The captions at the end remind us that her next film, Some Like It Hot, was a smash hit. Hooray! Never mind that Monroe would die, alone, aged 36, poisoned by barbiturates, within a few years.

Also, Emma Watson was in it. I thought she’d decided to knock acting on the head?

My Week With Marilyn is anything but lacking in appeal. But it really wasn’t worth going all the way to the cinema to see it. If Williams or Branagh find themselves with award nominations for their parts, it will be fine and dandy, as both put in good work. But the film strives to be both saccharine and sad at the same time, and, for me, ultimately curdles. It present Monroe as a dependent flake from the beginning, and then is at pains to say, actually, she was a great screen actress. I think she was, by the way, although not so much in The Prince and The Showgirl.

(By the way, the editor of Radio Times told me today that he loved the film. So it may just be me.)