All is True
Bill Bryson pointed out that we know very little about Shakespeare’s life and if you look back through the excellent work of Peter Ackroyd, Ivor Brown, Dr Johnson and Evelyn’s gossipy diaries, that remains much the case. So can you make it all up? Can you fill a film about Shakespeare’s (known) retirement to Stratford with a bit of soft feminism about his wife and daughters, and a bit of patriarchal stuff about his obsession with the death of his son, Hamnet? Well, you can if you’re Branagh. You can fill it full of the usual luvvies. You can have shots of Warwickshire with skies tinted with the blue of 30’s seaside posters. You can have scenes in candlelight (even though the viewer can’t see a blind thing, unlike the unparalleled scenes in Wolf Hall). You can have Shakespeare meet an ageing Earl of Southampton (who at the time was in robust health and possibly running a military campaign in Germany). You can have them reciting whole love sonnets at each other, even if by now you have a viewer whose credulity is stretched to bursting. You can have Shakespeare using the word ‘logistics’ though your writer had striven earlier towards a cod-Elizabethan kind of discourse. You can show off undergraduate knowledge of Marlowe, Kydd, Greene and Jonson. You can do all this, and you can make your film move ever so slowly, punctuated by widely-spaced chords on the not-yet-invented piano. But if you have nothing to say, you’re fucked.
Ben Elton – Perhaps you should retire.
RIP Hamnet Shakespeare (1585-1596) You deserved better, lad.
I was bored silly.
I thought I’d seen this film but I hadn’t so it was this evening’s treat. Some years ago in my previous life as a teacher one of our sixth formers asked if he could write his A level dissertation on Patrick Süskind’s novel ‘Perfume’. It was departmental policy that one or another of us on the staff would give one-to-one tuition on any reasonable choice by our students. None of us had read this one (the original is in German and it was not widely known at the time). I volunteered to read it and to supervise the dissertation if the exam board approved. I read it and was entranced. (It is a wonderful thing, incidentally, when a student’s choices enrich yours – this student achieved exceptional marks in the end).
Grenouille, the protagonist, has a pathologically heightened sense of smell. Through a picaresque sequence of adventures he becomes apprenticed to a perfumier and embarks upon a personal mission to find the quintessence of love. In his pursuit of this perfect perfume he commits a series of murders of beautiful young women from whose skin he distils the sublimated essence of woman. His possession of this heady distillate confers immense power on him. I loved a scene late in the film where the entire population of Grasse, including an archbishop, rip their clothes off and indulge in a saturnial orgy as Grenouille waves his perfumed handkerchief in the air in a lavish obeisance.
I’m not sure why some critics were lukewarm about the film. The dead hand of political correctness might have alarmed feminists because of the abundance of female flesh but it is germane to the story and not particularly lubricious. The puritans will also have missed the black humour as they always do. There is violence but for a quasi-horror film it is fairly low key. Perhaps some of them wanted a moral – but you don’t get morals in so-called fairy tales. You get beauty at a terrible cost, the shifting moral boundaries of a dream world, death and deeply troubled sex and angels masquerading as demons, or is it vice versa?
Wishaw is mesmerising as Grenouille. Rickman is just wonderful – when wasn’t he? The cinematography is busy but not self-serving: there are a number of montages which attempt to capture olfactory experiences through a kind of synaesthesia which are just stunning. The settings, from the Parisian slums through the stoppered vials and flasks of the perfumery to the lavender fields of Provence, are ravishing. The music is sumptuous.
I must start keeping a record of things I’ve seen. I wonder what other marvels I might have missed in the conviction I’ve already seen them.
Mark of the Devil [Netflix]
Isn’t it infuriating when you’ve spent twenty minutes scouring Netflix for something to watch that you haven’t seen before and that is even marginally better than the slop on the telly and you discover you’ve bought into a turkey? I thought I was getting the 1970 German gorefest which had cinemas offering free sick bags when it came out. No such luck: this was a Mexican mess atrociously dubbed into high school American. It began with some atmospheric aerial shots and an exorcism and rapidly deteriorated into a hodgepodge of clichés and assorted banalities: gratuitous sex, gratuitous human innards; gratuitous vomiting down different coloured lavatories (including avocado), a substandard channelling of Clint Eastwood’s man with no name, a bit of random levitation and fractal piano chords. A disorderly shambles. Short – but not short enough. Don’t waste your evening like I did.
The Captain (Der Hauptman 2017)
I stumbled across this on Prime afraid that it might be like some weary Channel 5 or Yesterday documentary on Nazi Germany with the same old footage and nothing new to say. Instead, I thought it was masterly.
1945 – two weeks before the end of the war.
A Luftwaffe deserter, pursued by military police comes across an abandoned car in which he finds the uniform of a highly decorated Luftwaffe captain. He puts it on and the instinct for survival begins to mutate until he begins to assume for himself a sociopathic personality where he claims to be on a mission with direct authority from Hitler himself to purge the Reich of deserters and looters. Playing on the gullibility of genuine officers he cons his way into a unique position of power.
The way in which a simple deceit metastatises into unspeakable evil is gripping and gruesome. The acting is universally stunning and the direction is powerful, controlled and shocking.
The British air raid on the deserters’ camp is a mind-blowing bit of cinematography. I thought of Kubrik.
Based on a true story, the film alerts the viewer, without preaching,
Fear and Desire  Prime
Stanley Kubrik’s directorial debut. Though Kubrik disowned it as bumbling it is worth watching the future director of Full Metal Jacket developing his craft and there are plenty of signs of genius already: dramatic framing, stark lighting contrasts, extreme close-ups and other trademarks of his later work.
Four soldiers from an unidentified country find themselves behind enemy lines in an unspecified war. Their interactions under pressure are the focus of the film.
Despite a few flat-footed moments in the screenplay, still worth watching in its own right.
The Secret History of Writing [BBC Four]
The best documentary I have seen in many a long year. I was learning all the time and unconscious biases of all kinds were being made conscious, though I didn’t feel I was being preached at or invited to replace one kind of bias with another. The multicultural span was enlightening and my feelings and understanding of different kinds of script were illuminated, if you’ll forgive the pun. It was beautiful to look at and beautifully presented. Refreshing to have a presenter who does not make herself the focus of the presentation but foregrounds her formidable scholarship instead. That was true of the other talking heads in the series too.
The act of writing is a political matter certainly, and that was the nucleus of the third programme in the series. Rather than any ideological bias, we had the powerfully intellectual recognition that any gain in efficiency in communication through simplifying transmission of meanings can lead to irretrievable cultural loss. Complexity can lead to priestly elitism; mere efficiency can lead to bland uniformity. We were left to make our own minds up about this dynamic and I liked that.
The most engaging moment for me involved a Chinese teacher and her class of charming and enthusiastic juniors. They bowed to her – and she bowed to them. They could hardly keep their seats as she introduced them to the beauties of their language and traditional script by singing to them.
A Hard Day’s Night
I thought I’d seen this millions of times but I haven’t. It was just that it was often on the telly while I was doing something else and it didn’t really get much attention because I was convinced I knew it well.
Tonight I watched it properly for the first time since it came out. I saw it at The Odeon on Penny Street, Blackburn when I was 14. It doesn’t seem that long ago.
God knows we need feel-good elements in our lives at the moment and I found the inventive energy of the film charming and uplifting. I loved the crisp black and white photography, the frequent homage to the Marx Brothers and the Keystone Cops
It was a publicity vehicle, of course, and the plot is pretty ramshackle but who cares?
I sang along in the final sequence. How could I not? My harmonies in ‘If I fell’ and ‘Tell me why’ were exquisite. You’d have liked it.
The Falling [Prime]
Tedious. Mass hysteria in a girls’ school. Overwrought.
Now, in my previous life as a teacher I have witnessed girls’ hysterical reactions to a random wasp in the classroom. That was bad enough.
This film, however, features agoraphobia, same-sex fixation, unwanted teen pregnancy, implied necromancy, ley-lines, vomiting, communal fainting and explicit sibling incest.
There is no let up in the intensity.
Some pretty picture making, I suppose, but I was so very bored.