The Films I've Watched This Year #46

Film And so life in the #garaiwatch goes on, very much as it has this past age. Full of its own comings and goings with change coming slowly, if it comes at all. For things are made to endure in the #garaiwatch, passing from one generation to the next. When I began this a whole month ago it hadn't been with the intention of watching all of Romola's screen output with quite this intensity, but here I am going into week five with at least four films, The Crimson Petal and the White and both series of The Hour still to do.  She'd probably think it was mad and a bit obsessive, presumably because it is a bit mad and obsessive, but if nothing else it has been just the thing as I otherwise wade through the treacle of the Doctor Who series 8 boxed set, each episode as uninviting as the last.  At least with Torchwood's Miracle Day, it's so rubbish and creatively bankrupt it's possible to watch it with a certain detached irony.  The problem with s8 is that it's so close to being good but destroyed by inconsistent and poorly considered creative decisions. a different kind of disappointment.  But I digress.

As I think I may have mentioned, once or twice, notably here, I've never been a fan of King Lear, which tends to lose me after the generally quite strange first act and although I've seen some very good productions and the Trevor Nunn version for the RSC starring Sir Ian, Sylv and Romola comes pretty close to at least making me understand why some people think it's Shakespeare's best.    Last time I saw this was as part of the plough through the whole canon in 2012 and as then found the studio production understandable but distracting.  Garai is Cordelia so is absent for much of the show which must have been an interesting challenge when the show was on tour and as with her appearance in As You Like It, it's just a shame that Shakespeare doesn't give the character more to do.  Her absence is structurally important, she's out of Lear's sphere so she's out of ours, but Garai's performance is so much richer than is often the case with this character in production that it's as frustrating as when a really good Ophelia turns up on a Hamlet.

Glorious 39
One Day

Before all of that was Angel, Ozon's take on the heritage film, which is, well it's ...

Atonement is fascinating though to properly discuss why, I'll need to spoil it, so I'd skip to the next paragraph.  I'd also skip the One Day paragraph too if you've not read that book or novel.  Glancing about the general impression with Atonement seems to be that people feel cheated by the ending, that it doesn't provide the expected catharsis, and it's true on first viewing it is possible to feel aggrieved that having been shown the central couple piecing their life back together to have that blown away does leave a nasty taste, especially since the "reality" is shown in montage.  But on second viewing, I see it as a very daring approach to the material and one which shifts Joe Wright's film squarely out of the mainstream period picture into art house.  Audiences do tend to react badly to this kind of tonal shift, especially if, unlike Inception or Gravity, it's not part of the DNA of the piece to seemingly try and service the opposite sides of the venn diagram at the same time.

When the film was tackled on Newsnight Review back in the day, one of the criticisms was the decision to cast three different actresses as Briony, the sister's whose sexual misconduct allegation leads to the central couple being kept apart.  And it's true, especially now, to see Saoirse Ronan growing up into Romola Garai and thence Vanessa Redgrave, three actresses who couldn't look less like each other despite Garai's obvious attempts to recreate some of Ronan's physical performance.  Plus Juno Temple remains the same in both ages.  But I think what Joe Wright is doing here is extemporising the fact that Briony is a different person in each of these ages with a different understanding of what she did.  It's like the Doctor says when his writer had surety of purpose, "We all change. When you think about it, we are all different people, all through our lives and that's okay, that's good! You've gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be."

But the ending also makes apparent that in fact most of what we see in the film, especially that central relationship is a fiction.  When we're shown what happened at the fountain, what we're really seeing is how Briony imagines in the scene played out and every moment, which is why we cut back and forth to her looking out of the window.  We're effectively watching a film adaptation within a film adaptation, the version of events as she imagines them as they appear in her final novel.  In that way it's more akin to The Usual Suspects or Fight Club, in that the events we witness are a reimagining and it's not until the television interview that we're seeing the truth or something close to it.  Having not read the book (obviously), I'm not sure how much of this is from the book, but on screen it puts a lot of demands on the viewer who might not realise that Briony is the protagonist and that everything else that surrounds her is happening inside her imagination and expectation, a heightened reality.

After The Other Man and King Lear, Romola's next release was Glorious 39 which oddly enough has a similar flashback structure to Atonement but is clearer about it.  A modern undervalued classic, it's Steven Polikoff once again showing a piece of history from an unusual and original position, in this case the pre-WWII appeasement.  There's a weird old piece in The Guardian about how the film's scorn of appeasers is wrongheaded as though we're somehow not allowed to look down upon the ignorance of the past.  Essentially Poliakoff's film finds its edginess in its images, of the burning domestic animals, the mansion within existing ruins reminding us that the characters are all part of history which tumbles ever onward, the juxtaposition of steady-cam and honeyed photography with despicable acts.  Plus it's something of a reunion, Garai having played opposite a lot of the cast on previous project.  Oh and there's David Tennant bringing her Doctor tally up to two, not that there isn't one of her projects that doesn't feature another Who actors of some description.

The charming Emma was next (see trailer above) then into One Day in which she plays what she hoped would be a change, the "comedy bitch" but as she describes in the 2011 Guardian interview, "I thought there'd be a lot of fun in making her a total bitch, but [director] Lone Scherfig doesn't work in those sorts of stereotypes. The character was quite a departure for me and it was great to do comedy, I've never done anything like it before. If the filming experience is anything to go by, that film will have a lovely warmth."  She's right.  Because the film can't quite decide what it wants to be in general anyway, she's clearly wanting to do one thing but the film pulls her in other directions to the point that she's really quite loveable and given the behaviour of Jim Sturgess's main character Dexter probably understandable.  Indeed there's an action towards the end which leads you to actually wonder if her character doesn't have the more interesting story, which might have been a better film, of having to deal with falling in love with a man who already has a lifelong female friendship.

But the film is an adaptation and original writer David Nichols had a different idea which is essentially When Harry Met Sally as romantic tragedy. Which is fine, there's nothing wrong with that, except it's also exceptionally rote in places and the gender politics are up the wall. As friend of the blog Allyn Gibson said to me on Facebook earlier (comments reproduced with permission) (see also), "I have such mixed feelings about that film. It managed to film a book that I'd have thought was unfilmable, and in so doing it brought some of the book's problems to the fore. I didn't realize it when reading the book, but Em isn't much more than an manic pixie dream girl.  She gets a little more development than the typical MPDG (we see some of her life beyond Dex, though we never meet her family or friends), but her plot function is essentially the same -- be supportive to the male lead, be unattainable until the male is ready like a motivational tool, and then be available when the male has figured it out. And in case we missed it, Ian underlines all of that for us at the end."

Rereading that, Em's actually an MPDG squared, not just for Dex but also Ian and although she's gifted some agency, the whole Paris trip is from Dex's point of view, we discover with him her new found publishing breakthrough, her move to the continent her finding of a new boyfriend.  Then when the unfortunate incident occurs it's a good old fashioned fridging.  As I only vaguely noted in my old blog post about the genre, many, many of these films follow this structure of having a male protagonist and a female co-star with marginal agency whose own scenes are almost always in service of the main character's story (see also About Time).  That's why something like Celeste and Jesse Forever are such a revelation.  They subvert the genre by giving the agency to the female character in a way that they really shouldn't have to.  All of which is a terrible shame because Ken Stott as Dex's father is like weaponised Cribbins, especially in the final tv dinners scene. a single line from which and his delivery of will stay with me forever.

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