Monthly Archives: November 2009

An Education (UK 2009)

A star is born? Carey Mulligan as Jenny.

I’m not sure that I should write about An Education as my critical faculties more or less went out of the window after a few minutes of watching Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of a 16/17 year-old schoolgirl in the suburban London of the early 1960s. A great deal has already been said about her performance and I can only concur. Her impact in this film can only be compared to Julie Christie’s in Billy Liar or, more recently, Reese Witherspoon in Election or Ellen Page in Juno.

For the uninitiated, Carey Mulligan was 22 when she started work on An Education after supporting roles in UK TV drama productions, including classic serial adaptations of Dickens and Austen. Ironically, she and Rosamund Pike – her co-star in An Education – both played as sisters to Kiera Knightley in the recent Pride and Prejudice film (UK 2005). I think Ms Knightley might be looking over her shoulder now (and she has the chance in Never Let Me Go, currently filming with Knightley and Mulligan in leading roles). But perhaps we should be wary of conferring star status quite so quickly. Also in the cast list of An Education is Olivia Williams, one of several bright and gifted young British actors who went to Hollywood with high hopes and despite some very good performances (e.g. in Rushmore (US 1999)) never quite made it in the big league.

Carey Mulligan's first appearance in 2005 as Kitty Bennett in Pride and Prejudice

Anyway, enough gushing. If you are outside the UK, you might need a bit of background to this film which several commentators have suggested will be on Nomination Lists for Awards in the New Year. That is, if you didn’t already know that Carey Mulligan was pronounced as the ‘It Girl’ of this year’s Sundance Festival where An Education was a big hit. The narrative is based on a short memoir by the journalist Lynn Barber that first appeared in the literary magazine Granta (and has subsequently been expanded and published by Penguin – if you don’t mind spoilers, Lynn Barber explains the whole story in the Guardian). The adaptation took several years to be teased into shape by Nick Hornby, the well-known novelist whose other film work includes adaptations of his own novels, Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About a Boy – all in their own terms successful small films. But Hornby has generally been seen as a ‘new man’, ‘young Dad’ kind of writer. Would he be able to write a convincing script about a bright schoolgirl in an earlier era? Hiring a woman to direct must have seemed a good idea, but Lone Scherfig as a Dane of a similar age possibly faced the same problems as Hornby. Although she has worked in the UK for some time, as far as I know, Scherfig is more familiar with working-class Glaswegians than the lower middle class in Twickenham (she created the characters for Andrea Arnold’s Red Road). But I guess that the story is universal and since Barber is such a good writer, the raw material was probably all there. Nevertheless, hats off to Hornby and Scherfig who provide the support/direction for Mulligan’s performance.

An Education is a clever title for an unusual ‘coming of age’ story. Jenny is a bright girl and seemingly destined for a place at Oxford. But this is 1961, that very strange and quite precise period in the UK before the explosion of creativity after 1963. The country was virtually out of austerity but hadn’t yet been given the signal to get started on the real social revolution. Life was pleasant, but not exciting. That’s not to say that the country hadn’t changed since 1945. If you were an intelligent working-class or lower middle class teenager, for the first time you now did have the option, as a grammar school boy or girl, of working hard and getting free higher education (read and weep if you are a current student). The numbers who were able to take advantage were small but significant.

Jenny has a chance encounter with an older man who seduces her into his very upmarket roadster (a Bristol, no less) and then cons Jenny’s parents into letting him take her to concerts, dinners and more. The parents in the film are played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour and they do good jobs in what are very difficult roles. I think the writing of the parental roles is nearly always the weakest part of these stories. The narrative always obliges us to focus on the exciting possibilities of youth – never on the feelings of parents who have struggled through the war and austerity and now see their unthinking offspring breaking free from the boredom of suburbia. There’s a different kind of film to be made about that.

There are several important incidents in the film that pin down the period and which need a little explanation. ‘Popping over’ to Paris was still a very exotic thing to do in 1961. You had to be either very rich or up to no good or a modern languages student on an exchange or a school trip. Jenny has a romantic weekend in Paris at the high point of the French New Wave – which she has been experiencing on trips to arthouse cinemas in London. The obverse of this is the film’s accurate and now very shocking references to the blatant racism/colour bar in London and its exploitation by the notorious Peter Rachman, who would later emerge as a key figure in the Profumo Affair in 1963. This reference points towards Scandal (UK 1989) the undervalued Michael Caton-Jones film that features Joanne Whalley and Bridget Fonda as ‘goodtime girls’ Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. There are moments in Jenny’s seduction into the world of conmen, racketeers and high living (especially those with Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike) that are reminiscent of Scandal – the costumes in particular are a very good indicator of period.

Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler at the time when the Profumo Affair broke.

The Profumo Affair was in many ways the moment of catharsis in British social life. It saw the collapse of the Tory Cabinet and paved the way for the Labour victory in 1964 and all the social legislation that followed. Jenny’s story would not have quite the same impact six or seven years later during the ‘Swingin Sixties’ period in London (roughly 1965-9). Having said that, Darling (UK 1965) with Julie Christie would make an interesting comparison with An Education. On the whole though, the later 1960s films feature working-class girls from the North coming to London and discovering an exciting life.

Back to An Education, I don’t think it is a perfect film. I think the relatively restricted budget shows in continuity errors and an unconvincing rain scene for the crucial first meeting (an almost surreal summer rainstorm perhaps). The final sequence seems truncated and oddly unsatisfying and I think that there are tonal shifts elsewhere that are unsettling. This is inevitable I think given the mix of youth picture, romance, comedy and social commentary. To my taste, Emma Thompson as Jenny’s headteacher is just too much and it seems so unfair to constrain the beautiful Olivia Williams in a role as a repressed English teacher. I understand why the producers want to use star names in small roles to attract audiences, but for me the film would work better with less well-known actors in these roles. One other possible irritation is the music. The original recordings are well chosen: Billy Fury, Floyd Cramer, Brenda Lee (‘Sweet Nothings’ – terrific), Mel Tormé (inspired), Ray Charles, Percy Faith and Juliette Greco. The modern stuff by Beth Rowley and Duffy is fine, but it sounds ‘retro’ – again it seems to be a nod towards younger audiences? The score is by Paul Englishby who is highly regarded, but the score didn’t work for me.

You can hear some of the music on the official website and in the (very good) trailer below with Floyd Cramer and Ray Charles in the background.

In this American trailer you get some of the score and a Beth Rowley song:

Here’s Carey Mulligan in a Toronto Film Festival interview with some interesting comments on her role:

I hope that this film gets used in A Level classes as it promises to open up interesting debates about the changing representations of young women and about a crucial period of British social history. It also offers many links to British Cinema’s other attempts to represent the 1960s. An analysis of Carey Mulligan’s rapid rise also looks possible and an extensive fansite is already available.

Telugu film: Bhale Dongalu (India 2008)

Tarun and Ileana as Ramu and Jyoti

There are around seven or eight significant film industries in India. Although Hindi Cinema (i.e. Bollywood) has the highest profile, the most prolific industry may well be the Telugu industry from Andhra Pradesh with around 200 productions claimed per year. Outside India Telugu films don’t have the profile of other so-called ‘regional’ industries such as Tamil or Bengali films. For this reason, they are difficult to see and I was glad to get the chance on an Emirates flight to view a recent Telugu film. Checking up on the film afterwards, I realise that it was severely cut to fit a two hour video screening. Amazingly, taking 35-40 mins out didn’t really affect the narrative from what I could see!

Bhale Dongalu is a ‘version’ of a hit Bollywood film Banti aur Babli with Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee. Remakes and ‘borrowings’ between different language cinemas in India are quite common. I haven’t seen the Bollywood film, but if the plot is similar I would think that the overal feel is different as Abhishek and Rani are that much older.

The key references her are Bonnie and Clyde and Romeo and Juliet. Ramu and Jyoti are young people who should now, according to their families, be respectively starting a proper job and thinking of getting married. They both decide to leave home and meet by accident on a train – where they are robbed of their luggage via the oft-quoted con artist’s trick of offering spiked food and stealing the bags whilst the victim sleeps. Faced with penury and the prospect of returning home with their tails between their legs the couple instead turn to petty crime, proving very adept at making money. The twist is that they are still good middle-class kids at heart so that they give up the money for a good cause. The other major plot element sees them chased by both a police officer and a bunch of gangsters from whom they have unwittingly stolen money.

The film seems to have done reasonably well at the box office, but fared badly with critics. I enjoyed the film for a number of reasons. First, I found the two young stars to be attractive and engaging and second I enjoyed the sense of a different social milieu (i.e. compared to much of Bollywood). The film begins with a discussion of rising food prices – a real issue in contemporary India. The young woman does think of going to Mumbai but the script exposes the exploitation of would-be models (who need to pay Rs/- 10,000 to be ‘trained’) and the action settles on Hyderabad-Secunderabad.

I’m not sure why but I prefer South Indian films to Bollywood – the stories seem more grounded and the characters less objectionable, even if the stereotypes are quite similar.

Kolkata IFF screening 4: My Marlon and Brando (Turkey 2008)

Ayça Damgacı as the central character in My Marlon and Brando

With sensitive handling by a distributor I think that this film could do well in major markets. I’m sure that it will be appreciated in Turkey and Germany but its story is also universal. It has already won several festival prizes and been well reviewed by Variety and Screen International.

The film’s story is based on the real love affair between a Turkish actor and the Iraqi Kurd she meets on a film set. The opening sequence made me think that it might be a reality TV take-off, but the final sections reminded me strongly of Michael Winterbottom’s Berlin prizewinner, In This World from 2002. The film was co-written and directed by the documentarist Hüseyin Karabey.

The two actors, Ayça and Hama Ali effectively play themselves in a narrative that is presumably only slightly fictionalised. They fall in love but are separated and Hama Ali finds himself in Iraq when the British and Americans invade. He sends Ayça video love letters in which he acts out one of his roles as a comic Iraqi Superman. But Ayça is very much in love and she despairs at the separation and despite her severe lack of funds she determines to travel to Iraq to be with him. The second half of the film then becomes a form of road movie as she experiences great difficulty in making a border crossing from Turkey, eventually travelling to Iran to attempt a crossing over a different border.

I enjoyed the film and especially the performances. Ayça is not a conventionally pretty ‘leading lady’ but she is a character who invites identification. Hama Ali is similarly engaging. Although there are several comic sequences, the latter stages of the narrative are harrowing. The realism of the journey helps in the representation of rural Turkey and the problems a woman travelling alone encounters in conservative communities where she is expected to be veiled.

Turkish Cinema is on something of a roll at the moment and I hope that this film gets picked up for wider distribution. For a European audience it offers real food for thought about the boundaries between sophisticated European communities (which may well include Istanbul) and those in rural ‘Asia Minor’ as we used to call it. As the director points out it reverses the usual narrative of movements from East to West and in doing so shows that the borders between Turkey, Iran and Iraq are irrelevant (and of course the Kurdish people do not have borders for their ‘virtual state’).

A trailer and a detailed Press Pack are available on this sales company website. I do hope the film finds a distributor prepared to promote it properly.

Kolkata IFF screening 3: Landscape No. 2 (Slovenia 2009)

I don’t know much about Slovenia, apart from its geographical position and its history as part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and then Yugoslavia after 1945. I imagined that Slovenian culture negotiates between Catholic Croatia and Orthodox Serbia.

Landscape No. 2 is the official Slovenian nomination for the 2010 Foreign Language Oscars but I think it may challenge the assumptions of Academy voters. Writer-director Vinko Möderndorfer has produced a (very) black comedy which purports to comment on the need to escape from the terrible memories of the past – according to his statement on the official website.

The narrative begins with a burglary by a pair of amateurs who are otherwise engaged in repairing domestic appliances. The older of the two, ‘Polde’, organises the job in order to steal a painting known as ‘Landscape No. 2’ from an elderly ex-Yugoslavian Army General. He knows that the General will pay a ransom to get it back, not because of its intrinsic artistic value but because it actually depicts the place where Nazi collaborators were executed by communist partisans in 1945. Unfortunately, the younger burglar Sergej (Marko Mandic) steals some money and a document that he finds in the safe. The document is proof of the executions and could considerably embarrass the General who is implicated in the executions. When he discovers it is missing, he calls in a ‘fixer’ from the pre-1990 Yugoslavian intelligence forces to retrieve it.

In the subsequent narrative developments there are four brutal murders and several explicit sex scenes. The comic moments come from the ‘jack the lad’ actions of Sergej, who leaves his fiancée in their flat whilst he cavorts with an attractive young middle-class woman, and the completely ‘over-the-top’ antics of the ‘fixer’. The mixture of sex, violence and comic fecklessness was too much for some of the festival audience and I wasn’t convinced by the balance of elements in the mix. The fixer is a comic grotesque and the performance by Slobodan Custic seemed to me to be just too much. The character seems to be psychopathic and this is troubling given the ideological work of the film. Those murdered include two pregnant women, a gay man and an older man whose crime is not so great. Whilst the director’s statement implies a wish to ‘move forward’ and free the current generation from the weight of historical traumas, it is, as one IMDB poster outlines, possible to read the film as an indictment of the communist partisans who were in many ways the heroes of resistance to the Nazis. Of course, we shouldn’t condone executions without trial but in 1945 collaborators were not ‘innocent’ by any means. I fear that the sex and violence in this generally well made film will entertain audiences without prompting a serious reflection on the need to come to terms with the past.

The trailer (with subtitles) is available on IMDB.

Kolkata IFF screenings 2: Winter in Wartime (Netherlands 2009)

Martijn Lakemeier as Michiel with Anneke Blok as his mother

Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter) was possibly the most successful film I saw in Kolkata, partly because it offers a conventional genre film which is both entertaining but also suggestive of an attempt to explore aspects of the wartime German occupation of Holland through the experiences of a young teenager.

The premise is straightforward. The main protagonist is Michiel, son of the mayor of a small Dutch town in 1943/4. Looking for excitement, he and a friend visit the crash site of a downed RAF Mosquito, searching the wreckage for souvenirs. Michiel is arrested by the Germans but is let off when his father intervenes. This is the first of several references to how families respond to the occupation. Is the mayor a collaborator? Initially, Michiel is unaware that one of the two RAF men bailed out and, from his position dangling from his parachute caught in a tree, shot and killed a German soldier. The Germans are keen to find whoever shot the soldier and enquiries begin.

When a friend entrusts Michiel with a message and is then arrested, the teenager decides to disobey his father and uncle and get involved in the Resistance, albeit on his own. He reads the message, discovers the wounded airman in the woods and plots to get him to safety. The final third of the film becomes an exciting chase narrative as a resourceful Michiel tries to effect the safe passage of the airman across the local river.

There are several reasons why the film works so well. Not least is the wintery landscape, beautifully presented in CinemaScope in very muted tones. In fact, I first began to write about the film thinking that I’d seen a B+W print. I was reminded of one of my favourite war pictures, Carl Foreman’s The Victors, which includes a memorable scene in the snow when an American deserter is shot by a US Army firing squad. Added to this is the high level of the performances by the whole cast, but especially Martijn Lakemeier as Michiel. He actually looked and behaved as I imagine boys in the 1940s did – I have photographs of my brother in the late 1940s and this is my yardstick for ‘authenticity’. Although the film is a genre narrative with conventions intact – Michiel’s older sister is an attractive nurse who naturally falls for the equally attractive young British flyer – there is also an attempt to resist typing. Apart from the stereotypical Nazi commander of the local forces, the Germans are shown as real people not monsters and the real focus is on the Dutch community and how it responds to Occupation. Michiel is the recipient of two acts of kindness from German soldiers who unwittingly help him when he is actually working against them. The narrative is a clever mix of ‘boys own adventure’ and serious questions about how to behave under Occupation, who to trust and how to deal with family loyalties and issues of patriotism in the context of real life and death situations. All credit to writers Mieke de Jong, Martin Koolhoven and Paul Jan Nelissen who adapted the novel by Jan Terlouw and to Koolhoven who directed the film.

Winter in Wartime (an accurate title, but not a commercial one?) follows other recent attempts to explore aspects of the ‘Home Front’/Resistance in Holland (Black Book, 2006), Denmark (Flame and Citron, 2008) and Norway (Max Manus, 2008). Like the last of these, Winter in Wartime is an Oscar contender. Other recent war films discussed on this blog include the Polish-American Defiance and Spike Lee’s Miracle of St. Anna. One suggestion is that the current period offers the last occasion to remember the war while there are still survivors of the period alive. Another suggestion is that the birth of the ‘new Europe’ of the expanded EU has prompted filmmakers to explore the recent histories of their countries. However, it’s worth noting that there has also been interest in the First World War with young people in particular interested in what their great grandparents experienced. So perhaps the genre will survive for some time yet.

These European war films have generally been popular in their own domestic markets but a quick glance at IMDB suggests that in the Netherlands audiences have to some extent divided between those that prefer the action-driven Hollywood style of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and those that rate the more muted drama of Winter in Wartime. I’ve only seen part of the Verhoeven flick but I think that both films are worthwhile entrants in the current cycle.

The Dutch trailer for the film is here on the official website.

Kolkata IFF screenings 1: Ploning (Philippines 2008)

I ought to begin with a confession that when I saw this film I was very tired and struggled to keep awake. Coupled with projection problems this meant that I lost the thread of the narrative. On the positive side, I did notice that the audience generally received the film very well, especially the song sequence. Perhaps there is an Asian cultural connection. Apart from watching a significant chunk of a Philippines film on the airtrip out to India, I haven’t seen a feature from this country before and my assumptions/first impressions were that these films are closest to Cantonese Cinema, but with more of an American feel.

The oddly named ‘Ploning’ is actually the central character played by Judy Ann Santos, something of a superstar in the Philippines and producer of this film which was the official Philippines nomination for the 2008 Foreign Language Oscar. The film is set on the island of Palawan and the smaller group of Cuyo Islands where the main language is Cuyonon (as distinct from the national language of Filipino/Tagalog). The story is based on a Cuyonon folk song about Ploning, a woman of 30 who has refused to marry after her teenage sweetheart disappearedwhen she was just 16. Since then she has devoted herself to helping others in her local community where she is widely loved and respected. The narrative begins with the arrival in the small town of a young man who has been working on a Taiwanese fishing boat. He is searching for a woman named ‘Ploning’. What is his connection to her? The narrative appears to shift between time periods (remember that I kept falling asleep) and includes many elements from the original folksong, including references to when the rains come, the local fiesta and the two local enterprises – extracting salt from seawater and processing cashews into ‘brittle’. The film is clearly a form of romantic melodrama with a series of coincidences and cross relationships which in my sleepy state I couldn’t disentangle. Overall, it seemed an attractive and pleasant story that I clearly wasn’t able to properly appreciate. The film has been seen at various festivals and has been very popular in its domestic market where its authenticity is in its favour. The co-writer and director Dante Nico Garcia is himself from Cuyo.

Films like this rarely get a release in the UK but I’m sure it will have played (or will play in the future) in ‘out of hours’ cinema screenings or community-based DVD screenings in London where there is a significant Philippino population. In terms of its relationship to other films in the Kolkata Festival it picks up on the themes of exile and also of the different language communities within most national states in contemporary culture. There is a useful official website for the film at