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This is a review of a special screening (from 35mm) at The Arts Picturehouse (@CamPicturehouse), Cambridge, of Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990), as presented as part of the series ‘Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories Season’ (http://www.conspiracyanddemocracy.org) by the University of Cambridge’s CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities)
The invited guests of CRASSH’s own Hugo Drochon, historian Tony Craig and film producer David Hickman, introduced the film and usefully put it in its political and cinematic context. That said, the film was made a quarter of a century ago, and what we might know now (assuming that Sinclair is right that there is a consensus) about the truth of claims that there was a Tory smear campaign against Harold Wilson may not have been available at the time of this film (and in 1998 – please see the title cited, below) – or not easily to director Ken Loach (or Jim Allen – please see below). (Hickman stated, both before and following the screening, that he thinks that Loach did believe the story about a smear.)
Besides which, although Loach has close relationships with his writers, Jim Allen is solely credited with producing the script (i.e. not as a co-writer with Loach) : if, therefore, it were germane that talk in the film of a Wilson plot does not accord with the evidence that we have (for it may not be germane, if this is a fiction - please see below), Allen as well as Loach must presumably have ‘bought into’ that notion at the time, even if only enough to make it a part of the skeleton on which the piece is built.
And, historically verifiable accounts apart, the basic message remains : rubbishing others and their reputations can and has been used throughout history by those seeking power (or seeking it for others, e.g. from the US operations with various regimes in Central America to Julius Caesar and Ralph Fiennes' film Coriolanus (2011) (as based on Shakespeare)), irrespective of what are asserted as laudable reasons for so doing.
In other words, the film need not just revolve in its own world, but can be a paradigm for how power is sought, gained and held. This is probably what Loach means in his description of the film (quoted interviewed by Graham Fuller as part of the favoured Faber & Faber series on this blog, Loach on Loach**) :
I guess it’s best described as a fiction inspired by fact
Earlier, Loach talks to Fuller, the book’s editor, about the film’s critical reception, saying that :
You hope some of these notions [sc. about what British forces or public servants have done] linger with people in the audience, but in terms of public debate it’s very difficult to get anything started. One of the ongoing frustrations of film-making is that you try to put out a set of ideas or a piece of evidence in front of an audience, while being as gripping and as entertaining as you can, but critics never deal with the substance or follow up on the questions you’re asking in a film.
Is this why you regard most film criticism as decadent ?
I think so, yes. The critics will examine the brush strokes, but they won’t stand back and see the content of the painting. I don’t know why that is.
Paradigm or not as the film may be intended to be, it is, as Hickman pointed out, beautifully lit, using available light – not strictly so, as he explained afterwards, but as near to it as could be, and a model that, he observed, has been taken over by Hollywood in the interim. (Regarding watching the print, Hickman observed how different the scene looks when Harris is partly in darkness, and then comes into the light, with which the DVD version does not compare.) In the introduction to the chapter in which he deals with, amongst other films, Hidden Agenda, Fuller explains where the film and Loach’s collaborations fit in with his career to date :
Following the critically acclaimed and appropriately controversial Hidden Agenda (1990), their [sc. Loach and Allen’s] initial film collaboration, they went on to make Raining Stones (1993) and Land and Freedom(1995).
[…] The third factor [in ‘this not unextraordinary renaissance’]*** was the teaming of Loach and Barry Ackroyd, who has photographed all of Loach’s features since Riff-Raff and has brought to them the kind of uncompromising visual rawness that had been lacking from Loach’s films in the Looks and Smiles era. Ackroyd’s cinematography restored to Loach’s and his writers’ world its aesthetic integrity. […]
To contemporary viewers, Brian Cox and Maurice Roëves may be very familiar faces****, from which we can take some comfort in this sinister scenario, and both seem just right for their roles (supported, in the former case, by John Benfield (as Maxwell)) – even physically, Cox has the solidity to be a high-ranking policeman (which we believe will translate into moral and intellectual weightedness), Roëves the wiriness that fits a man on the run. The triangle of principals is completed by Frances McDormand, who shows singular self-determination and sheer spunk as Ingrid Jessner, the woman whose partner, with Harris, is at the (apparent) centre of matters. Unknown to her, and to Kerridge and Maxwell, everything about them has been researched, and they are less the investigators (she with a civil liberties group to which her partner and she belong, he to the police force) than the investigated.
We have high hopes, almost alongside Loach, that Kerridge will do the job with which he has been entrusted, and not worry about putting a few noses out of joint, as we see him happily doing for much of the film. The nub of the film is to lead us to understand how limited his room for manoeuvre is, hence the relevance to a season about conspiracy and the theories that postulate its existence : it is a moot point whether all who infer 'hands at work behind the scenes', and hence a hidden agenda, embrace the terms ‘conspiracy [theorists / theory]’ to describe themselves and what they believe happened or is happening, or whether it is a term of abuse***** from those who dismiss both theories and theorists. Not always from a position of power, such as that from which the film’s Sir Robert Neil (Bernard Archard) and Alec Nevin (Patrick Kavanagh) address Kerridge, but usually with derision.
As the film’s tension builds from that point, one wonders whether it is going to end, for Ingrid, as for a young-seeming Meryl Streep in Silkwood (1983) – or for Harris… In the event, one is reminded of those shocking moments in other depictions when the ground has, stealthily and step by step, been taken out from someone... until the teetering denouement is, because of the physics of gravity, an inevitability – for want of a better analogy, a demise of the kind that David Carradine (as Bill), in Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004), is unaware of facing.
Loach and Allen tell their story with care, and are, for example, content to show us Harris amongst the vividness and noise of the Orange Order parades, but without telling us till later who he is, because they trust that we will recall him and his behaviour. Kerridge and Ingrid are both intended to invoke our sympathies as seeking the truth, although they take different paths and end up diverging (which, of course, only adds to the drama).
This is a film that looks very good cinematically, and still has much to say, Sinclair’s objections as to its historicity apart (it is a document, of a sort, of its own time, however we judge Loach’s politics and where they have him lean) – both emotionally and as to how the world works. As to what Allen and he sought to weave together, perhaps the final word should be left to Loach (continuing the short quotation above) :
It’s very close in the depiction of the murders that were carried out by the RUC and in the corrupting effect of the British presence in Northern Ireland, but the whole issue of fact or fiction gets quite tricky at this point, and I’m not sure we solved it altogether satisfactorily – or the attempt to weave together the Stalker elements with the conspiracy against Wilson.
* As Kerridge (Brian Cox) is told, before he is ultimately manipulated into accepting the reality propounded by the film’s conspirators (rather than exposing the reality behind it) : for, as they candidly tell him, they did what they did, it cannot be undone, and they did it – and still think it – ‘for the best’. (The old Machiavellian-style ends over means argument…)
** London, 1998, p. 84.
*** The second being sympathetic producers Rebecca O’Brien and Sally Hibbin.
**** Cox, for example, from Menenius in Fiennes’ Coriolanus (2011) (as well as the voice of disembodied and recreated Alan Watts in Her (2013)), and Roëves from the Chief Inspector in Brighton Rock (2010) (or even Colonel Munro in The Last of the Mohicans (1992)).
***** Radio 3 (@BBCRadio3) has renamed its late-night arts programme Free Thinking, but there were times when to be called a freethinker was meant in a wholly derogatory way.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)