Follow by e-mail

Friday, 31 March 2017

Films of former collaborators, with Q&As within 48 hours of each other

Responding together to Free Fire (2016) and Prevenge (2016) as food for thought

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

31 March

The mental collision of Free Fire (2016) (plus Q&A with director Ben Wheatley), at The Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge, on Wednesday 29 March 2017 at 8.50 p.m., and Prevenge (2016) (plus Q&A with actor Jo Hartley), at Saffron Screen, Saffron Walden, on Friday 31 March 2017 at 8.00 p.m., gives food for thought

Babou Ceesay (Martin), Brie Larson (Justine), Armie Hammer (Ord), Sharlto Copley (Vern), Noah Taylor (Gordon) – confusing being brightily with well dressed (even if handily differentiating them…) ?

When Kevin Spacey (@KevinSpacey) talked – on the Wogan t.v. show ? – about K-PAX (2001), in which Jeff Bridges and he starred, the indications were that the film was going to be one from which one would derive much more than from his account of it¹.

Ben Wheatley (at an event for High-Rise (2015)

Were it not that one has the practice of seeking to go ‘blind’ into films, and letting them speak for themselves, hearing the interesting and excellent Q&A at The Arts Picturehouse with Ben Wheatley (@mr_wheatley), director and co-writer of Free Fire (2016) (@FreeFireFilm), and well hosted by Evie Salmon (@eviesalmon), might nonetheless have persuaded one that the film itself, even if it would not just seem like a technical exercise¹, was one in whose outfolding one would find relatively little more of interest.

Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, and Michael Smiley in Free Fire (2016)

Maybe a title at the top of the film, which said that it had been inspired by a report into what had happened in a real-life gun-battle, would have given one a different perspective from which to watch ? Since, despite the script’s origins, the actions and motivations of the characters are principally fictitious (e.g. we learnt that there had been a sincere expression of interest from Cillian Murphy in appearing in a Wheatley film, and so the question had arisen what business could Michael Smiley and he be about together), one doubts that something such as the step of having an image inset into the frame of where they all were, so that one could much better follow who was shooting at whom (at any time), and from where, would have made much difference to engaging some viewers (others may, of course, have been able to understand that very much more easily - and so also do not find battle-scenes boggling).

Self-confessed fan Ben Johnston writes thus, in a review for TAKE ONE (, @TakeOneCinema), and for whom he also interviewed Ben Wheatley² [surely 'a Ben thing' going on... ?] :

While the tenuous unions form the basis for a lot of the character motivations and a fair bit of the plot, it is the rivalries that bring the most laughs, with plenty of insults flying in between the bullets. This razor sharp banter makes it extremely difficult to figure out who to root for at any given time, especially since nobody seems to be taking the whole situation very seriously. One minute a guy is shouting out that he’s forgotten whose side he’s on, the next someone is taking a quick headcount of who’s still alive – there’s a distinct element of cartoonish slapstick that helps keep the extended gun battle from feeling too monotonous [my emphasis].

Sienna Miller, as Charlotte, in High-Rise (2015)

Having watched the film, one found that, in the event, it had had an essentially similar effect to Amy Jump and Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J. G. Ballard’s novel High-Rise (2015) (@HighRise_movie), in that one largely, and to an equivalent degree, really did not give a damn about what happened to any of the characters (Laing’s being so naively self-deceived about his importance (and other things) did not help³), or so tend to maintain much active awareness of where one was (obvious exceptions were for the swimming-pool, or Royal’s (Jeremy Irons’) penthouse), because the script could be used to draw one’s attention to it. In fact (unless one can generate enthusiasm and / or concentration), whichever happens first, the law of diminishing returns is likely to apply, because of a feedback loop in which the other is undermined, and then in turn undermines the first. In High-Rise, the issues started early, with what had brought Laing (Tom Hiddleston) to be where, and as, he was shown at the opening of the film.

Elisabeth Moss (Helen) and Tom Hiddleston (Laing) in High Rise

Yet Laing’s matter-of-fact observation about the dog being barbequed rather said it all in a nutshell (or as with Wheatley’s account of how he saw the report that had documented a shoot-out) : the act of saying it presupposes another state of affairs, and who necessarily can maintain interest in what then led up to that point - even though some films work perfectly well so (such as American Beauty (1999), or Sunset Blvd. (1950)) ? When Wheatley spoke to The Arts Picturehouse audience (Screen 1), he made quite clear that he rebels against the portrayal of ‘good guys and bad guys’ per se, but one supposes that it depends what reaction a director hopes to gain for his or her work, if everyone is seen to be flawed. As it is, the presenting reason for everyone to be there at all in Free Fire, initially or later, is illegal activity – quite apart (please see comments above) from the double-dealing between the two groups that constitute the parties, or, as it emerges, the tensions between individuals in the same group, and the other group (a continuing theme since A Field in England (2012)). (In High-Rise, an additional element of more moral illegality / dishonesty is also in play.)

By contrast, with Prevenge, the quality of Alice Lowe’s self-direction, acting and editing [at the latter of which activities, as Jo Hartley (@MissJoHartley) told us at Saffron Screen (@SaffronScreen), Lowe’s baby Della Moon Synott was, as by then fully present, able to be there] is such that her wicked jokes are both amusing and feel truly transgressive⁴ (about the word ‘cut’ after, say, her character Ruth has used a knife on someone : on reflection, one recalls that tone in Roger Moore as Bond, speaking chummily to someone who is, at least, unconscious).

Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973)

Whereas, except for those members of the Free Fire audience (who also found every injury or wounding a source of great amusement), the bickering and next bad behaviour that cause matters to unravel felt fairly functional, if arbitrary⁵ – could one even locate this at the level of Tarantino’s successful black humour in Pulp Fiction (1994), or did it just feel awkward when, for example, an actor is trying to be off hand with some doubt whether a character has really been killed ? As predictively Tweeted, Michael Palin and Terry Jones seem to hit the mark well with an episode from the first series of Ripping Yarns (Murder at Moorstones Manor (1976) [the link is to IMDb's web-page])...

Saffron Screen's Q&A guest, Jo Hartley (not in character)

At Saffron Screen (@SaffronScreen), Jo Hartley (@MissJoHartley), who plays the midwife in Prevenge (2016), deliberately used the word 'gestation' to refer to the timescale (as confirmed by IMDb, @IMDb) within which the film was both written and shot (very quickly, and yet with no compromise in values !) :

No time, there, for 22,000 storyboards, etc., of which Wheatley spoke, or mapping the interior terrain (such an amazing space !) and plotting all the movements out on it, or six weeks with actors such as Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, 'lying in shit' (as Wheatley put it). (As for Ripping Yarns, one can hear Michael Palin commenting on the quality effect that director Terry Hughes and he were aiming to achieve : the shoot for 'Murder at Moorstones Manor' (in 1976), just a thirty-minute episode, was Friday 15, Monday 25 to Friday 29 and Sunday 31 October, and (on set, for the final shoot-out in the hall) Wednesday 3 to Friday 5 November.)

'Murder at Moorstones Manor' (Ripping Yarns), with Harold Innocent as Manners

Despite the time-pressures on her to get the film made, Alice Lowe lets dawn on us, at our own pace, what we see happening (or why), but we certainly have no idea of it when her character Ruth has an opening encounter with Mr. Zabek (Dan Renton Skinner), a fruitily-suggestive-cum-titillatingly-menacing proprietor of an emporium of exotic creatures : we ask what it means, and what perversion he committed that – by a voice from which we will be hearing more fully⁶ – is being 'called in' (Ruth arrives with a prepared weapon, and we also see clothes being destroyed) ?

We hear and enjoy how Alice Lowe (@alicelowe) has scripted her own role to give us a person with immense verbal and social facility, fully as much as Dennis Price’s ready charm as Louis Mazzini in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), and an equal, in her personas / accents, for Alec Guinness’ celebrated cameos as members of the D'Ascoyne family (even though, properly seen, he is not the star of the show anyway, but Price’s impressive adjunct – i.e. when not seduced by novelty and the wonders of make-up, as by Linklater's gimmick in Boyhood) (2014)). For Len (Gemma Whelan), shown confronted here by Ruth (feigning to sound Welsh), Lowe has created someone who has the presence of mind to don gloves to try to box her assailant into submission, but who cannot quite help simultaneously believing - to Ruth's incredulity - the presenting story that all this is part of Ruth’s trying to sign her up to donate to a children’s charity !

Likewise, we are not only amused by DJ Dan (Tom Davis), when he casually takes his hair off, but also by the added grotesquery – here, more reminiscent of Steve Oram, with Lowe, in Sightseers (2012) (@SightseersMovie) than of Mr. Zabek’s particular qualities – of what happens to it later. Irrespective of Ruth’s motives in meeting someone such as Dan, and going through with everything necessary to be invited back, we can also – if we try – glimpse our own faiblesse in who he is happy to think that he is, as against where he turns out to live : as Ruth, Lowe does not allow herself to see her own banality (does, also, Louis Mazzini ?), but she roundly presents to us the people whom Ruth can only denigrate into prey (who disparages what someone would do on account of being called Josh - although she did try to relate to him, and, having humorously tried one, called him Dr Anchovy).

The manner of filming, and the intense look of some shots or scenes, working in conjunction with the score⁶, evoke moods and emotions in a very cinematic way : because cinematographer Ryan Eddleston seems to have free rein to make dramatic adjustments to focus and depth of feel within a shot, one experiences more than viewing what is literally depicted, so as to include being aware as a participant that (and how) one does so. There are also other moments, which are more expressionistic than suggestive, but, of course, still vocal, such as when the tables are turned on Ella (Kate Dickie), at the other end of a long, corporate table - in that Ruth is the one who gets Ella talking about her interests and activities outside work, as if she were a candidate for employment at interview. Meanwhile, at some level, we may notice that Ella’s end of the room is blue, in a cool way, whereas Ruth’s lipstick and skin-colour are alive, and fresh...

Alice Lowe (not as Ruth)

In cinema, which principal characters, and / or their relations to others (without our necessarily needing to like them, or their behaviour), will happen to interest us, but perhaps not someone else (and vice versa), may vary greatly (such as in our response to Free Free). Our reaction may be partly, but signicantly, influenced in the manner of the telling, e.g. when Stanley Kubrick decides (amongst other changes) to employ a narrator (Michael Hordern) in adapting Thackeray’s novel as Barry Lyndon (1975) [discussed in reviewing Further Beyond (2016)]). Without an obvious device (such as the inset location, mentioned above, as if the film were a crime construction), Free Fire would be different, say, with the guidance of a sardonic narrator's words, making comments such as To hammer home the offence of having been shot, Justine did not resist expressing a lot of pain, or Vernon really was more affronted at the damage to his jacket than to his shoulder.

At which point, and excused by the fact that Ben Wheatley shows what can happen to gas-cylinders, it is apt to slip in the funniest reference (in context) to people in a building and bullets, with Mia Farrow (Tina Vitale) and Woody Allen (Danny Rose) : this link is to YouTube, of Danny and Tina being shot at in Broadway Danny Rose (1984) [the scene in the hangar for the Macy's Day Parade].

Equally, a perfectly good film may build to a conclusion, as The Rocket (2013) does, but only give a pay-out that leaves one satisfied just then, rather than thinking about (the world of) the film afterwards : for some, this would be a deficit in a film, that the story’s end is co-terminous with the ending of our active satisfaction in it. In a way, A Quiet Dream (2016) falls into that category [(whether it tries, it does not achieve the effect that concludes The Hairdresser's Husband (Le mari de la coiffeuse) (1990)), whereas one almost defies anyone to be left in that place by the latter two on this list :

In the Saffron Screen Q&A, Jo Hartley referred to how, as the midwife and during one of Ruth’s appointments with her, she tells Ruth, You have to decide what's right, what's wrong - clearly, the midwife is not exactly a conscience personified (as Jiminy Cricket, in Pinocchio (1940)), or an angelic character (such as Clarence, from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)), as both of those know what, respectively, Pinocchio and George Bailey have been doing / going through. Still, as with any prophecy, whether that inherent in a pronouncement of the oracle at Delphi or otherwise sibylline in nature, the effect is dependent – and incalculably so – on the attitude(s) of the hearer to what he or she is hearing : Jocasta and Laius, by trying to avoid what is said of Œdipus, as surely more bring it about that it does happen than as if they had ignored it. At any rate, Jo Hartley’s character is kind enough to shield Ruth from enquiry about how and where she is living, given that the story of Prevenge is inevitably heading towards a birth.

Talking, in The Arts Picturehouse Q&A, about Free Fire's ending, Ben Wheatley (without naming any films) effectively confirmed a suspicion, when watching, that there is a resemblance to one for which, around the time of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino was an executive producer. Contained in a derelict factory (which nevertheless has more resources and working utilities than one would expect ?), the film speaks of the world outside, which continues to exist, even if the warfare of person against person makes it seem remote.

In Prevenge, if we even take none of what we have seen on the level of phantasy, the question What happens next ? is not asking to be answered at the end of the film : what we have seen has been so full that we do not need to project into a future.

Spoiler alert for the following images...

Some film-references, for Prevenge (by Tweet) :

End-notes :

¹ As one did, and so went on to read the novels by Gene Brewer, of which the first (K-PAX) was the only one adapted for the screen. Twenty years on, do films, etc., still get this sort of exposure on a chat-show (probably only later at night, with the likes of Graham Norton – though he is perhaps more interested in increasing the quotient of dubious double entendre than any real form of culture ?) ?

Having said which, the documentation that Wheatley reported originally having seen, and which had been a springboard for the film, did sound to show potential at the level of forensic documentary : in the case of this film, it was just that hearing him talk about it for a short time, as against what had ‘panned out’ in ninety minutes, gave rise to a disparity in what the two time-frames had communicated. Whereas - presumably by the real Wheatley fans in the house - the opportunity was being taken to laugh deeply and fully at every moment of comedy, and not a joke, of any kind, went unbidden.

² Here are some #UCFF Tweets, which give a link to the interview (and suggest perils in being too impressed by one's interviewee) :

³ Blue paint aside, though, this is not a Godard film, and so Laing’s disintegration does not have the weight of Jean-Paul Belmondo (as Ferdinand Griffon) in Pierrot le Fou (1965).

⁴ We know that, when someone says something – it may be us, tickled by how our words have come out – or something happens, there is a difference between registering humour, because what was said or done takes a comic form, and actually smiling because of it, or finding oneself laughing – the latter is mainly involuntary (although one can, of course, set out to have a good time). With Alice Lowe's performance, we laugh despite ourselves (and not even with a groan) - for which a close correlate, as argued further down in the main text, is Dennis Price in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).

⁵ Ben Wheatley said, in the Q&A, that he dislikes genre, but Free Fire belongs to one that comprises plots that are dependent on animosity going beyond antagonism to propel behaviour, and which then tend to be located in some types or circumstances of human interaction : the Bond films, already just mentioned, for one are where we often see competitiveness in the line of some sort of spy duty take on an aspect of personal rivalry (obviously, unto death – or apparent death).

⁶ Some of us may be reminded by it of Oskar, in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel) (1979). (An odd coincidence, since IMDb credits the music to Toydrum, along with, first, to Pablo Clements and James Griffith (because it does not seem to appreciate that the latter are Toydrum).)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)
Solstice¹ at Cambridge Modern Jazz : set-lists and a few comments

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

30 March

Set-lists from, and a few comments about, the gig by Solstice¹ at Cambridge Modern Jazz (Hidden Rooms, Jesus Lane, Cambridge) on Thursday 30 March at 8.00 p.m.

Solstice¹ : time at which the sun is furthest from the equator
and appears to stand still before returning.

Personnel :

* Brigitte Beraha ~ vocals
* Tori Freestone ~ flute / saxes
* Jez Franks ~ guitar
* George Hart ~ drums
* Dave Mannington ~ double-bass
* John Turville ~ piano

First set (maybe missing an item after no. 4) :

1. Ultimate big cheese (Dave Mannington)
2. Mourning porridge (John Turville)
3. The Anchor Song (Björk, arr. JT)
4. Tilt (Jez Franks)
5. Solstice (Brigitte Beraha ??)
6. Random acts of kindness (JM)

We were told that 'Mourning porridge', a Latin-infused number with wordless vocals, had been written with saxophonist Tori Freestone's oat intolerance in mind.

'Solstice' was a disquieting melody, which 'undeveloped' into primal and alarming rawness - shrieks, laughter and bellowing from Beraha, which may not have caused some to relate it to what the name of the sextet or that of the piece means (please see above), as an evocation of how unsettling, in terms of not knowing what was happening to the Sun at these times of year, they might have seemed to our ancestors.

Second set (assuming seven numbers in the first set) :

8. Quetzalcoatlus (JM)
9. Hear words like butterflies (sic ?) (BB)
10. Avocado deficit (Tori Freestone)
11. Unspoken (BB)
12. The universal fall (TF)

The band had titled its album 'Alimentation', but (as with intolerance) 'Avocado deficit' appeared predicated on someone who had not eaten one in a very long time (and was in funeral-march time ?). In 'Unspoken', singing words now seemed to fit Beraha's voice better than earlier². After a rocking solo from Jez Franks, and as with her tenor solo on 'Quetzalcoatlus', Freestone showed her expressive versatility and accomplishment, this time in rumba rhythm.

Encore :

13. All the things you are (Jerome Kern)

The choice of encore seemed an impromptu choice. As well as singing a capella, Beraha brought out and exploited the interpretative possibilities of pausing slightly between 'You' and 'are' (in lines such as 'You are the promised kiss of springtime'³), and Freestone and Franks took solos that showed adventurousness, playing with the song's metre, and reinterpreting its theme.

End-notes :

¹ The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology edited by C. T. Onions. Oxford University Press (Oxford), 1966.

² In the first set, Beraha had seemed better at blending and melding when singing wordlessly : probably through lacking in a proper feedback monitor (rather trying to bring off Jacqui Dankworth’s singing-style, but without the necessary voice).

³ In the more subtle music and language, that uncertainty is there about whether springtime will come...

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 20 March 2017

A few Tweets about Asghar Farhadi's traumatic The Salesman (Forushande) (2016)

A few Tweets about Asghar Farhadi's traumatic The Salesman (Forushande) (2016)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

20 March

A few Tweets about Asghar Farhadi's traumatic The Salesman (Forushande) (2016)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Turner Prize Tweets 2016

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

16 March

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

A concert with The Endellion String Quartet : Beautiful Brahms, and somewhat baffling Haydn

This is a review of The Endellion String Quartet, playing Haydn, Mendelssohn, Brahms

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

15 March

This is a review of a concert given by The Endellion String Quartet at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, on Wednesday 15 March at 7.30 p.m.

It has to be said that, when none of the string quartets on the programme (except perhaps the Mendelssohn ?) could be thought of as the core works of repertoire (though that makes it an inevitability that, for no good reason, a composition such as the Brahms A Minor is too little heard), The Endellion String Quartet clearly has a dedicated ‘fan-base’ [] : there must easily have been more than 300 in the audience in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (@WestRoadCH), so who says that there are no big audiences for chamber music… ?

Programme :

1. Josef Haydn (1732–1809) ~ String Quartet in E Major, Op. 54, No. 3

2. Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) ~ String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80

3. Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) ~ String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2

The Endellion String Quartet : Andrew Watkinson (1st violin), Ralph de Souza (viola), Garfield Jackson (2nd violin), David Waterman (cello)

Haydn ~ String Quartet in E Major, Op. 54, No. 3 (1789)

1. Allegro

2. Largo cantabile

3. Menuetto : Allegretto

4. Finale : Presto

The Haydn of the string quartets seems influenced, here, by his symphonic writing. The Allegro opens with a pair of balanced bars, and then fast writing for first violin (Andrew Watkinson). Eventually, we are into territory that is serious, and, no longer with an appearance of graciousness, which is characterized by an ascent that, through being staggered by backwards steps, is not a scale : on the way up, or descending, it is impliedly modulating as it goes. The movement is in sonata form, so we hear anew, in the light of what has just preceded, material with which we are already familiar.

In the following movement, marked Largo cantabile (but which seemed to have some of the qualities of a Scherzo), Haydn gives another orchestral theme, a hymn-like one, in which we may hear a marching motif. Next, before the opening material recurred, darker tones from the second violin (Garfield Jackson), which were expansively worked on by his fellow violinist, Andrew Watkinson, and with a virtuoso feel to the string-writing.

The opening theme seems to be subjected to some brief variations, before the darker tones return, and then more of the virtuoso style of the first violin, but which seems to become increasingly out of tempo with the measure that the rest of the quartet is beating - almost as if 'Papa' Haydn is depicting a state of inebriation ? This curious quality to the quartet continued with the Menuetto : Allegretto, which had a strange opening figure, and then set the first violin, with quirkily spiky gestures, against the other players.

In turn, the gestures became even more quirkily accented. Rather than have, per se a Minuet followed by a Trio section, Haydn gives us, after a rather odd Menuetto, an Allegretto that seems curiously dislocated, and almost as if his composition is assembled around dance-like rhythms. The Finale : Presto opens with the three instruments other than the first violin, and then, when it enters (in a lively and open way), we perceive it as distinct, again, from the trio of other instruments.

Even so, this movement seemed most like what one expects from Haydn, when writing for the forces of string quartet, and he uses, as his driving force, the sort of chirping that one gets from repeated notes and trills. He takes us into the minor, and is then modulating, as the work draws to a conclusion – with the strong impression, still, of the first violin as a maverick loner.

When, next, Andrew Watkinson spoke from the stage (from and for The Endellion String Quartet ~ @EndellionQt), and then we heard him play in the Mendelssohn, it became quickly apparent that the character of the first violin part is not his, but Haydn’s.

He had been addressing us to draw our attention to the next concert, on Wednesday 26 April 2017, and to commend both the work by Anton Arensky to be performed (the String Quartet for Violin, Viola and Two Cellos in A Minor, Op. 35), and the fact that, needing a second cellist (and only one violinist), Laura van der Heijden (@LauraVDHCello) was to be a guest perfomer. The following Tweets refer…

Mendelssohn ~ String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80 (1847)

1. Allegro vivace assai

2. Allegro assai

3. Adagio

4. Finale : Allegro molto

The second string quartet in the first half, for knowing which a debt is owed to The Coull Quartet (when they¹ played at Cambridge Music Festival in around 2004), began with a nicely-judged combination of sensitivity, passion and tension, so much so that sitting back and listening to the music, rather than – concentrate the mind and one’s hearing though it does – doing so with much eye to review-notes, seemed recommended. In the concluding bars, which were suitably vigorous, Mendelssohn completes the overall impression made by the Allegro vivace assai.

The second movement (marked Allegro assai) has been anticipated in the first, and was boldly played, but not excessively so, and so one could enjoy the lugubrious bass-line, with Mendelssohn’s murky colourings. As the opening material recurred, it was with a quality of insistence to it, but only to give way to a reappearance of the quieter mood, and, after some tail-notes and pizzicato playing, ending pianissimo.

The Adagio has a quietly reflective, and restrained mood. To it, we heard contributions made by low cello-notes (David Waterman), as if in a sadly thoughtful vein. The cello takes its place hesitantly in the general section, but as if then using patterns of notes to stir itself. The movement became enlivened and impassioned, but these feelings subsided, and it came to a very quiet close.

Mendelssohn builds his Finale from tonally ambiguous material, as well as prominent gestures, and The Endellion Quartet created a texture that swelled from placid to turbulent. Though they are very differently written and characterized from those in Haydn’s piece, it also has passages for the first violin against the trio of other instruments. One really did feel this as Allegro molto, pushing onwards, expressively and, in doing so, rhythmically – a final movement that is so full of drama that it is a conclusion without fully seeming like a resolution for all that we have been feeling.

It was a true pleasure to hear this work again live, and in such a strongly felt performance.

The auditorium of West Road Concert Hall

Brahms ~ String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2 (1873)

1. Allegro non troppo

2. Andante moderato

3. Quasi Minuetto, moderato

4. Finale : Allegro non assai

Prominent in the opening of the first movement (marked Allegro non troppo) was a long held note from David Waterman (on cello) before we moved into the ‘sunny’ and airy material, with pizzicato cello, that makes this composition shine - especially with The Endellion String Quartet sounding so well together, with a very good ensemble.

Seamlessly, Brahms takes us back into the (sometimes) tempestuous initial theme, with its bold statements, and fluidity in the writing, which is as compelling as in the better-known Piano Quintet in F Minor, Opus 34 (although his string quartets generally receive less attention than they deserve). With the recurrence of the more cheery theme, his emphasis is on the viola (Ralph de Souza), before - as if at the end of a complete work - the movement closes very definitely.

In the Andante moderato, the cello was again to fore, and the players and their sounds in perfect balance. The measured development had a suspensive, shy start, and then, led by a strong line from the cello, a passage marked (at least) forte, but which Brahms lets dissipate (as he might in the symphonies).

Ruminatively, and sotto voce, the writing seems – or, rather, makes us – unsure about which key it is in at any time, and as if it dare not decide. Then, a measured, lingering cello-line, appearing to be tempting the other instruments ‘to talk’, and which so brings about a small crescendo. Via rhythmic patterning from the cello, and then a passage of high notes on its upper string, we are brought to a soft close, with viola pizzicato.

The slow movement, an Adagio, begins – as did one in the Haydn – with twinned sets of assertions, here feeling to be delicately placed into the aether, before we move into a fast, and lighter, section that resembles a fugato. A cascade of notes develops, flowing between the instruments, but with Brahms moving us so cleverly between sections that it seems quite natural and casual. Cello-notes and a few sympathetic strokes bring the movement to an end.

At the start of the Finale (an Allegro non assai), the first violin, before passing the material to the viola, is answered by the cello, which, before we have a reprise of where we began, leads to some fugal writing. Another cello-line, again high up, was introduced to join sounds made by gentle strokes from the other players, just before Brahms evokes the opening of the work, and then, with some vigorous pizzicato, brings it to a spirited end.

A hugely enjoyable evening with these insightful players, and who are playing works, written within ninety years of each other², that are much in need of an airing !

End-notes :

¹ Do quartets like to be 'they' or 'it' ? (It rather matters more to try to please than whether it is ‘The company is’ or ‘The company are’, except by striving to be consistent.)

² Even with different ideas of adulthood, and reaching maturity, two of these composers could never have met as adults (Mendelssohn was born in the year of Haydn's death), and Mendelssohn and Brahms barely so, but the music passes between them...

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 13 March 2017

All the best compliments are dubious – that is part of their charm

This is a review of A Quiet Passion (2016)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2016 (20 to 27 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

12 March

This is a review of A Quiet Passion (2016)

So, indeed, A Quiet Passion (2016) has done – though it was good, at the time of viewing (and before much fatigue set on), to provide the Twitter accounts for the film and for its executive producers [@aquietpassion, @Gibson_MacLeod] some things that the account-holders were kind enough to Retweet !

As with John Keats, about whose love affair with Fanny Brawne Bright Star (2009) was wonderfully made by Jane Campion¹, Emily Dickinson’s poetry was very little recognized in her life-time (1830–1886²) : Keats, alive for less than half that span (1795-1821), did manage to publish, but was met with savaging reviews, whereas – to judge by Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion (2016) – Dickinson looked, with limited success, to a newspaper (The Springfield Republican), in terms both of which poems / how many were accepted for publication, and how little her style of punctuation was respected.

Penguin Books published a source-book for the film, in Bright Star : Love Letter and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (London, 2009) – one could wish for the sound-track album to have a bonus disc of Cynthia Nixon’s readings of Emily Dickinson's verse… !

Rivalling her aunt for ambitions to be recognized a poet, and to know in what good poetry consists, so arises Emily’s equivocal compliment to her aunt Elizabeth (Annette Badland), her response to being questioned about which heads this review : something about Dickinson’s conscience – although she has also been mercilessly and laughingly critical to her sister and ally Vinnie (Lavinia) – will not allow her to do more (or less) than wish her aunt’s poems the reception that they deserve. (As we watch, we, of course, know that it is Dickinson’s reputation that has lived on and grown – even if it does so partly on the basis of anecdotally being aware of her individual approach to punctuation and syntax, which Cynthia Nixon’s excellent reading of her texts dispels.)

In what Terence Davies presents of her character and demeanour, Emily Dickinson resembles Cordelia [from Shakespeare's King Lear], in that she cannot say what is convenient, even if it is what the other wants (or needs) to hear, and this quality is amongst those that lead to her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and she making friends with Vryling Buffam³ (Catherine Bailey), a newcomer to Amherst, even if we see how it causes tensions with their brother Austin, and father : the balance, though, is in favour of the trio’s good-natured and spirited behaviour, and so we hear nonsensical banter about Vryling's intentions and activities that would not be out of place in Monty Python. (Early on, she quips to the sisters, Don’t enjoy your prayer too much – it might become habit forming.) Or we witness the keen glee of Emily and Vinnie at the ineptitude of the dance-partner who has invited her onto the floor, and their waiting to hear her report (as shown in the image in the Tweet below - to the right of their sister-in-law Susan (Jodhi May) - played by Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle, respectively).

Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne in Bright Star (2009) [though the blossoms and blooms, which are beautifully necessary to the film, can be more readily seen in the trailer]

Even so, ‘the independence’ – as she puts it – that Emily Dickinson requires for her soul is what, in particular, leads her into various confrontations, including with her father, because, as we see at the start of the film (as considered below), she defies all tactics that would bully or coerce her into Christian belief : not, however, because she rejects it, but because she tries to be scrupulously honest with herself about her difficulties. (Helping her see herself in a more kind light, and also helping her see others (such as their brother Austin) differently, Davies shows us Emily’s sister playing a dual role towards her.)

The following exchange could have been taken from – and would not have been out of place in – Children (1976), say, or Of Time and the City (2008), because Terence Davies’ concerns and fascinations in life have been abiding :

Do you wish to come to God and be saved ?

I have no sense of my sins – and how can I ?

The words come from the opening moments of A Quiet Passion, when Emma Bell plays Dickinson (at Mount Holyoke ?), asserting herself - always an attraction to Davies, as a champion of independent minds (as it was with Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) in Sunset Song (2015).) In interview with Anne-Katrin Titze (‘Terence Davies on innocence, sin, half smiles and A Quiet Passion’), Davies questions the doctrine of original sin (arguing for the lack of any basis for it in The New Testament) in relation to Emily’s attitude.

Emma Bell (Emily, when younger)

Terence Davies has a strong feeling for the frailties and failings of the human heart, and – not in an anachronistic way – shows us moments pregnant with emotion. So, in the theatre, when Dickinson has been brought home by her family, and they are spending time with her aunt Elizabeth, he carefully has the motion of the camera swivel up to where they are sitting, but not detract from the moments when Emily dares speak to challenge her father’s disapproval of a woman being a vocalist, before it moves away again.

This exchange serves as a foretaste of the verbal play that we are to hear between Aunt Elizabeth and Emily’s sister, brother and her – where, coupled with the pretence, at least, of respect, there is also palpable mischief, as well as elegance and charm, in Emily’s and their words and vocabulary : as she smoothly declares Clarity is one thing, obviousness quite another ! We are ready to credit that Cynthia Nixon is Emily, we are glad to hear her read her work, in beautifully apt verse-reading.

Although very differently from the life of Chris Guthrie (in Sunset Song), where Davies is not only adapting a novel (rather than telling a person’s life from history), but also one that is set nearly thirty years after Dickinson’s death, and entering the period of The Great War, he again shows us how that of Emily Dickinson, and her sister Vinnie, is spent with that of their parents (played by Keith Carradine and Joanna Bacon) – even their brother Austin (Duncan Duff), with whose marital behaviour Dickinson allows herself to find fault (partly on account of her friendship with his wife, Susan (Jodhi May)), resides adjacently. In particular, we see a great tenderness towards, and in Vinnie’s and her care for, their mother (who has some unspecified poor health).

Towards the end of her life, Dickinson is seen to have convulsions : Davies does not seek to soften our experience, any more than he does with the grossness of Chris Guthrie’s distress at the hands of her father (Peter Mullan – John Guthrie) or husband (Kevin Guthrie – Ewan Tavendale) in Sunset Song, and – although in reality he may not delay immensely much longer than we would prefer – he does so sufficiently to show that he will not merely feature what happens to her – to tell us illustratively, as he could do in words – and then, as we desire, move on.

At the end of Emily's life also, as at the end of that of their mother, Austin and Vinnie are with her. We see her funeral², knowing that the time for her writing to find its proper evaluation is still to come...

End-notes :

¹ With Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, respectively :

² Emily Dickinson is buried in Wildwood Cemetery, Amherst, MA.

³ Who confesses something to the effect that she sounds like an anagram !

Vryling (Catherine Bailey) and Emily (Cynthia Nixon)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)