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T has been away for a couple of weekends recently, leaving me at a loose end, and I've discovered that when I'm on my own on a Saturday going to a lunchtime showing at the Picturehouse is rather a pleasant way to pass the time, especially when preceded by cake at the Jericho Cafe and followed by a walk to Summertown along the canal.

By coincidence, both times I've done this the films have been about the lives of women born in the nineteenth century. A couple of weeks ago I went to see A Quiet Passion, which about Emily Dickinson. I'm not generally a big fan of biopics, and to be honest, this reminded me why; you can't really compress a real life, with all its messiness and lack of narrative coherence, into an hour and a half and make much of a film, so it felt oddly episodic and didn't really seem to know what it was trying to say. I also felt that it didn't really manage to convey the passing of time; the opening scenes feature a younger Emily, and then there's a sequence where the younger versions of the characters are gradually morphed into the older versions, but once that has happened the film spans a period of 25 to 30 years with no sense of any real change or aging. As I often do with films purporting to depict real people or events, I also spent a lot of time wondering whether the filmed sequences actually bore any resemblence to the real life of Emily Dickinson, or were simply Terence Davies' imaginings. (Mainly the latter, I think; he has been quoted as saying he was seeking 'narrative truth' rather than factual accuracy.) It felt rather lacklustre (despite fabulous costumes) and certainly didn't leave me feeling I know any more about Emily Dickinson than I did when I went in.

By contrast, yesterday I went to see Letters from Baghdad, which is about Gertrude Bell. This takes a very different approach; it mainly consists of Bell's own letters, read by Tilda Swinton, over a montage of photographs of and by Bell and old film clips. The only fictionalised element is the inclusion of various 'talking heads' of Bell's family, friends and colleagues, though even in these cases it's clear that least some of the comments are based on letters and diaries. It's clearly the result of painstaking and dedicated archive research; it's a beautiful and interesting film, but it's very definitely a documentary rather than a drama, and I think I much prefer that to films which attempt to dramatise actual events, which always ends up fictionalising them. I'd recommend it highly.
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To get the titling quibbles out of the way, I still don't understand why anyone would decide to make a film of Lady Susan and call it Love and Friendship (and not even Love and Freindship, ffs!). But, that aside, this is an utterly delightful film; it has gorgeous locations, pretty frocks and plenty of romance, and is also very, very funny. Obviously, I am not at all surprised to discover that Jane Austen wrote social comedy, because I have actually read her, but adaptations usually end up producing the occasional wry smile or maybe a gentle chuckle; this was proper laugh-out-loud funny.

Kate Beckinsale is fabulous as the manipulative Lady Susan Vernon; she's awful but you can't help feeling a sneaking admiration for her audaciousness, and the film shows enough of the difficult position of a widow with little money to feel very true to Austen's depiction of women in her society (and also to occasionally make me feel I could have been watching a live-action version of Manfeels Park). The other standout performance was Tom Bennett's wonderfully dim but rich suitor, although the supporting cast is strong generally, with nice turns from Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet and a remarkably restrained cameo from Stephen Fry. All in all, highly recommended.
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Our Kind Of Traitor is surprisingly upbeat for a John Le Carré adaptation. More interestingly, it's a film directed by a woman which has a couple of shots in the early scenes which basically invert the default male gaze - an initial close-up of a male dancer (Carlos Acosta, in fact) and then a scene with the central couple, played by Naomie Harris and Ewan McGregor, where she gets up, puts on a dressing gown and wanders into out-of-focus background while the camera lingers on his face and naked shoulders/chest.

Other than that, it's mostly solidly competent rather than great, but if you want an intelligent espionage thriller with a reasonable amount of tension, some lovely scenery and no fridging or putting the female characters in danger just because they're female and that will drive the male characters' character arcs, it's not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

Films

Apr. 30th, 2016 04:45 pm
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We went to the cinema twice this week, to see two very different but very good films.

Eye in the Sky is a film that I might not have gone to see if I hadn't known it was Alan Rickman's last film; I suspect I'd have thought that "thriller about drone warfare" didn't really sound like my kind of thing, but I'm glad I did go (though still sorry it was Rickman's last film). It's not actually an action film, however much the trailer may have tried to make it look like one (most of the action moments in the fim are in the trailer): it's a thoughtful, intelligent film about the way technology has changed combat, and about the extent to which it's possible to accept collateral damage in preventing greater loss of life.

The second film was The Brand New Testament, a Belgian comic fantasy that was very Terry Gilliam-esque in places. The premise is that God is an abusive arsehole who is only interested in ways to make people's lives miserable (an interpretation that reality does provide a certain amount of textual evidence for) and who controls the world from the apartment in Brussels where he lives with his downtrodden wife and rebellious ten-year-old daughter, until the day when the daughter, Ea, hacks her father's computer, sends everyone on earth a text message telling them how long they have left to live, and escapes to the world, to follow in her brother's footsteps by gathering six new apostles and writing a brand new testament. It's a film about love, and at heart the message is very simple: that only love makes life worth living. I found it very sweet, moving and uplifting.
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Our Picturehouse is having a mini-season of Hitchcock and Truffaut in its "Vintage Sundays" slot, and this week they were showing Jules et Jim, which is one of my favourite of Truffaut's films (I have seen most of them, because he was one of the "special topics" on the A-Level French syllabus I did, a special topic basically being something we were supposed to study and be able to write exam essays on in French at the same level as we would have done in English), though I don't think I'd seen it since 1992 and had certainly never seen it on a bigger screen than the large TVs the sixth form college had for showing videos. (Which is a shame, as there were cinematographic feature like the repeated freeze-frame on close-ups at significant moments that I don't think were discernible at all on video.)

It's still a great film, and is, rather predictably, full of stuff that 17-year-old me simply didn't get*. Plot spoilers )

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