AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
The 50th INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
by Harlan Kennedy
Faites vos jeux and vivent les differences!
For those who feared the
The French provided the momentous
event, a Golden Jubilee filmfest, while the Brits
provided the momentous movies. It was party-crashing without pity. Nil By Mouth, Mrs Brown, My Son the Fanatic,
and others trooped into town, as if in late and glorious rebuttal of the most
famous insult ever aimed at U.K. filmdom (by, who else, the French).
"British cinema," Francois Truffaut
famously quipped, "is a contradiction in terms." Not any more,
The media climate has helped
The new U.K. movies tilt at the
most urgent theme in modern Western society: how to find meeting points in an
over-crowded world between classes, creeds, generations, sexes, and even (in Love and Death on Long Island with
John Hurt as a gay Humbert Humbert)
Now it is coming off the buffers, and the first victims may be decorum and good taste. Concords are reached only by first defining the conflicts. So in Nil By Mouth, Gary Oldman's autobiographical account of a brutal South London childhood, the camerawork is as fractiously, irresistibly "in your face" as in any debut movie one can remember. As if knowing that the large screen traditionally calls for detailing, definition, and a judicious use of distance, Oldman says ya-boo to all that. He shoves closeups right at us, blurry with movement or telephoto myopia, or set in dark and smoky dives or smoggy, drizzling streets, where they are further fogged by low resolution.
Oldman's story-telling technique is as primitive and unpretty as his visuals. Who are these people? From scene one their lives and mannerisms burst like stray firecrackers all around us: the fat and fortyish neighborhood psycho with a volcano temper (Ray Winstone); the weak, running-on-empty junkie who performs his errands (Charlie Creed-Miles); the fatso's wife (Kathy Burke), who tries to find time between being beaten up to bear the child she is carrying (she fails and miscarries). We have to reach through the opaque visuals and narrative non-sequiturs to find the dots even before we can join them up.
It's like life, and triumphally. (So is the photography: how wonderful to have dialogue-by-night car scenes that are not lit by mysterious kilowattage below the dashboard.) And the film is less unstructured than it seems. Oldman has a rhythmic intuition about when to draw breath between dementias. Some sequences are effective for their very slowness and matter-of-factness. Burke drives Creed-Miles to a dope-buying tryst and then sits at the wheel patiently, forlornly, while he shoots up in the backseat. The camera lingers, too, with stubborn patience on the scene where a tattooed low-lifer picks fleas from a puppy while mimicking line-by-line, as he watches, Dennis Hopper's spaced-out stichomythia in Apocalypse Now. (We've all been through that phase.)
Nil By Mouth has been called, by side-on compliment, a Ken Loach movie without politics. Its strength is that it has no seigneurial thematic gloss; it is as stark and loopy as a Beckett play. The only two bad scenes are those that betray, briefly, the tragicomic nihilism. In one, Ray Winstone is given a speech about his loveless childhood that explains the symbolism of a movie title culled from hospital bed-signs: "I don't remember one kiss, not one cuddle." In the other, Creed-Miles remembers a loved and lost dog. Trauma by numbers. In both cases it's as if someone had wandered on stage in the middle of Endgame to explain that the characters once had psychologically damaging encounters with dustbins.
If Nil By Mouth was the Competition startler,
Mrs Brown, already snapped up by Miramax for
They do not of course bed down with each other (we should be so unamused). They simply, radiantly thaw each other out. He helps her reexperience human feeling after the death of her husband Albert, the Prince Consort. She helps him find balm and friendship in his bachelor existence. Meanwhile, ever louder rhubarbings are heard from the British people, via messengers, newspapers, or the just-dropping-by Prime Minister, Ben Disraeli (Anthony Sher), complaining of a Queen lost first to her mourning, then to her manservant.
Not even the amplified political reverb fully explains the movie's magic. As if by parthenogenesis – as if the creators themselves didn't quite know the mini-myth they were creating – Madden and scriptwriter Jeremy Brock have made a movie about two madnesses in elemental collision. Excess breeding and greathearted barbarism. It is not just class versus class – Queen facing off with commoner – but in a largesse of subtly hinted dialectical pairings, the interior versus the landscape, the refined portrait versus the raw psyche, the superego versus the id.
face is tremulous with self-control, as bulbously round and polished, for all
the scratchmark-wrinkles of age, as a bossed
mirror. She looks as if she could implode with her own genteel
self-containment. Against the English classical actress is pitted the
ill-kempt Scottish comedian. Stand-up vaudevillian Connolly measures
perfectly that role's wonky machismo. He is as ragged as the Celtic heatherland, as craggy as its mountains, as ill-behaved
as its weather. In Victorian
Did Madden and Brock intend echoes of another gaunt, eccentric power-behind-the-throne in their John Brown? Since Connolly is taller, hairier, and crazier-looking here than his real-life model, are we looking at MacRasputin? In later scenes he is jealously victimized by fellow courtiers, with a link suggested between his punishing, rain-soaked vigil one night chasing supposed Irish assassins – a cruel hoax alarm – and the poor health that led to his death.
Mrs Brown, instead of giving pat answers, spends two hours asking enthralling questions. About the nature of power; about the bounds of civility and servility; about the interaction between man (or woman) and history; and about that compelling ensorcelment whereby born opposites suddenly find they have more in common than peers.
A trust in the human face as
limitless terrain for the exploring camera links Mrs Brown and Nil By Mouth
to the third in the Brit trilogy of top films at
Kureishi came close to punching a
The racial and cultural
coalition that is modern
My Son the Fanatic is funny, cautionary, touching, and wonderfully limber in its style. It can be cartoony one moment, with Prasad allowing the grotesquer characters their goldfish-bowl closeups. At others it is darkling, elusive, mournful. Once again on a British screen, style is what the content makes it.
NOT ALL THE folk involved in
these movies joined in the mad climactic day of British Cinema Celebration at
Why was she left out (she wrote)? Could it be a black thing (she implied)? Perish the thought. After all (we told ourselves), several other Brits were left out: dear John Hurt, who bestrode the funny anguish of Love and Death on Long Island; Clive Owen, seen in the plum lead role of the not-so-plum movie of Martin Sherman's stage play Bent; Brenda Blethyn, who won Best Actress last year for Secrets & Lies; and Kathy Burke, who won this year for the Oldman flick.
Even with all these no-shows, however, political tact and cultural breadth of vision, let alone decency, would have insisted on Ms. Jean-Baptiste joining the madness on the Med. For the record, she's the only British black actor ever to have won an Oscar nomination. For another record, this 50th Cannes Film Festival proved that that term British Cinema no longer means C. Aubrey Smith and "Anyone for cricket?" or even E. Morgan Forster and "Anyone for Edwardian moral nuance?" It means a country and culture relishing a new, rich, difficult diversity of race, color, and belief, of challenged moral perspective and challenging movie prospectus.
Or at least it should.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE JULY-AUG 1997 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.