Darkest Hour

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Review by © Jane Freebury

If the impression we get is really true, rather than chosen for dramatic effect, Winston Churchill behind the scenes was not the type of person who was exactly inspiring. He was prone to being intemperate and disinhibited, an unabashed eccentric who it is hard to imagine could survive today’s social media.

Darkest Hour, from Joe Wright who directed the wonderful film Atonement, is about a low point at the beginning of WWII when Britain was at its most vulnerable.

Who would be leader? Should the country broker for peace? The film focuses on how Churchill became Britain’s Prime Minister in the dark early months of the war, when how he led it to victory over the next five gruelling years is the more familiar story.

Churchill had always been a controversial figure, dividing political opinion, until he spoke of course, or wrote. There were numerous books and newspaper articles as he languished in the political wilderness while Hitler rose to power.

His appointment as PM seemed like an act of desperation, in the absence of anyone else prepared to take the job. While others were unwilling to take the lead, he could at least unite parliament.

Appeasement appeared to be the only option in 1940 and a peace treaty was possible, brokered through Mussolini. It even seemed an attractive safer option, as the British people could hardly be expected to give up another generation of their young.

It is fascinating to see in this fine film how difficult it was for Churchill in the first weeks of office to actually turn down the offer of a peace deal with Hitler. Darkest Hour concentrates the mind on that moment at the crossroads when Britain very nearly went under the wave of the fascism that was engulfing Europe.

The dedication and zeal that we have become accustomed to from actor Gary Oldman dominates the screen in his central role, as it should. It is a remarkable, immersive performance, and a feat of endurance to appreciate when we understand how long it took to apply the prosthetics in the morning and carry the weight for the rest of the day’s shoot.

But does the performance provide much more insight into Churchill’s personality? Perhaps not. Albert Finney also portrayed Churchill very convincingly in the recent The Gathering Storm.

The appearance of Ben Mendelsohn, however, as King George VI, that other wartime leader who was also loved, was a welcome surprise. Mendelsohn once again shows range and depth.

To move the action out of dusty rooms and corridors of power full of indistinguishable men in suits, Wright takes the camera into London’s streets. Some signature long tracking shots capture the daily life that must go on: the commuters, the shoppers and the vendors—and the three boys larking around in Hitler masks.

A shorthand for showing how Churchill understood the mood of the people was his relationship with his staff, especially those intimately connected with events that he had a hand in directing.

However, in the fictional sequence in which he nips down to the Underground and takes the train to Whitehall to gauge public opinion or, more to the point, to confirm his understanding of it, the film makes an awkward turn. Churchill musters a straw poll that today’s politicians would die for, but the film suffers a minor lapse in credibility.

Leaving off where the recent Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk begins, Darkest Hour closes around the time a little armada of citizen boats sets out across the Channel to rescue hundreds of thousands of troops trapped on the beach in France. It’s a stirring sight against a background of white cliffs that signifies a general resolve, and worth contemplating that the event might quite easily have never taken place.

Rated PG, 2 hours 5 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Review by @ Jane Freebury

When a grieving mother in rural Missouri tries shock tactics to get results from police investigating the rape and murder of her daughter, she takes things into her own hands. It’s understandable. She has been waiting for months for the police to trace the person responsible and they haven’t come up with anything and don’t seem motivated to solve the case.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) tries to stir them out of their inaction by hiring a set of billboards on a remote stretch of road near her home. In big bold letters on red background, they read: ‘Raped while dying.’, ‘Still no arrests’ and ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ It’s a brilliant move, and the film begins in outstanding fashion as the billboards are revealed one by one.

In bandanna and blue denim, Mildred combines the image of battle-scarred vigilante and embattled working class, and she owns the role. While Mildred doesn’t set out to take the law into her own hands to begin with, she will eventually, in the tradition of American cinema whereby things are sorted out single-handedly, often with a gun.

Except that here, the tale of an individual going it alone is delivered here through the medium of Irish playwright and screenwriter, Martin McDonagh, who had us holding our sides with his hilarious black farce, In Bruges.

 

 

 

 

Naming and shaming Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) makes for a promising setup, a contest between a righteous, angry mother and a law enforcement officer at death’s door. Essentially good people they have each been pushed to the brink. I don’t know why McDonagh had to end things so abruptly for Willoughby when these two sparring partners could easily have carried the movie.

When Willoughby leaves the sceme, his passing strikes a sudden sentimental note in a game that has been played fast and hard, strictly for laughs and probably at everyone’s expense.

During In Bruges, two hit men hide out in Belgium’s perfect medieval jewel, creating pure amoral mayhem. In Three Billboards, there is a strange impulse towards a kind of redemption.

Does McDonagh want to say something serious about the American condition? We are pushed up then down as the gears shift, anticipating but never quite comfortable in the humour, the laughs dwindling as the plot advances and morphs into a story of redemption.

Our attention turns to police Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted racist bigot who lives with his awful mom. The joke is that for all the swagger, he is actually quite ineffectual and possibly harmless.

Either way, he is no match for Mildred who seems to get on everyone’s wrong side, including those who are sympathetic – her son (Lucas Hedges) and the young man who rents her the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones).

Just about everyone is taken down here. From the lackadaisical, loopy police to the excessively dim-witted zoo attendant that Mildred’s ex has taken up with (Samara Weaving), to Rockwell’s reformed racist goon, to Mildred herself. She doesn’t think twice about kneeing a couple of teenagers in the groin to teach them a lesson.

The self-inflicted humour in scenes with Peter Dinklage (everyone’s favourite Lannister) is somewhat toe-curling. Yet another instance of how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a high percentage of terrific actors, but the characters writer-director McDonagh has created for them are close to cartoon.

If Three Billboards were anything like as funny as In Bruges, all might be forgiven. But it ain’t, and veers closer to McDonagh’s heavy-handed Seven Psychopaths from 2012 that I was unlucky enough to review on release.

Although he shows the same cinematic tendencies, McDonagh is no match yet for the brilliant Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan – and their incomparable oeuvre that includes Fargo, Burn After Reading, and The Big Lebowski. They are still the masters of neo-noir black comedy set in middle America.

Rated MA15+, 1 hour 55 minutes

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

The Florida Project

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s summer holidays in Orlando, Florida. Disney World is just over the road, and out of reach. What is there to do when there’s no money to spend? It does not present any problem for three young children who are living at the Magic Castle motel, because they make their own fun.

There’s a holiday ambience in the backdrop of cheery, candy-coloured structures that dot the neighbourhood outside the Disney precinct. An orange juice dome, a gift shop in the shape of a witches’ hat and a soft-serve kiosk supposed to make you think of a dollop of ice cream. The names of places like Futureland and Enchanted Inn help impart a bit of holiday zing too, confected as they are. The images are especially apt with jaunty angles and fish-eye frames to accentuate a child’s point-of-view. Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) is superbly sensitive to the innocence and magic of childhood.

One of the buildings is a long, low three-storey motel that looks like a slice of layered lilac cake with cream trim – Magic Castle is home to six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). Her young mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) is struggling to make ends meet but at the same time determined that her daughter should never want for anything or feel she is missing out.

Halley’s one great skill is shielding her young daughter from their seriously disadvantaged predicament, teaching her how to turn a dismal situation on its head and find joy in things. Whether it’s celebrating a birthday with cupcake and candle on a picnic in a field while watching Disney fireworks, or cheering a helicopter as it takes off on a joy ride, something they could never afford.

They are far from the minority at Magic Castle, which appears to be home to low-income and no-income individuals and families, many single-parent units. Some of them bond by helping each other out, minding each others’ children, pilfering food at work or turning a blind eye. Motel manager Bobby, a principled, patient and caring man, becomes surrogate parent to the children. It is a wonderful role for Willem Dafoe, who shows the other side of his chiselled-jaw persona.

The centre of her mother’s world, Moonee has confidence in spades. She is never short of a good idea either as she and her little gang roam around unsupervised all-day long. Miraculously, and unlikely as it seems, they stay safe and never get into serious trouble beyond a telling off from Bobby when he catches them on CCTV entering the amenities room before the power goes out. He doesn’t take kindly to ice cream spills in motel reception either, or to staking out an observation point when a guest sunbakes topless at the pool.

While inventive, cheeky Moonee is a rascal, and we enjoy hanging out with her, the film is of course underlining its point with this delicate material. That childhood is a special time, and each child has a right to experience the magic, to be free-spirited and give flight to the imagination.

Unfortunately, there are limits. Halley is a product of a system but she also has responsibilities as a mother. The idyll cannot last. Baker’s film offers a tranche of life, a last stand at the inn, as it steps back from making any judgement.

However, it is Bobby who takes action when enough is enough. Halley turns on a friend, a fellow struggling mother, violently and then turns to desperate measures that put Moonee in moral danger.

A young mother, barely an adult herself, without life skills or life options, or much sense of responsibility, Halley is certainly trapped. Her daughter runs around without supervision but Halley is the first to lash out and blame others when Moonee runs away.

In the end, her sense of entitlement and sense of grievance leave Halley isolated, stuck in a cul-de-sac where fantasy is the only sanctuary and the only way to escape.

Rated MA 15+, 1 hour 51 mins

4.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Teacher

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Review by © Jane Freebury

This is a film that shows what’s possible on screen with a good idea that is well thought through and delivered in a confined space.

Clarity of purpose can make for some engrossing drama. Even the necessary period detail here that makes a drab contribution to production design, doesn’t get in the way. In fact, the clashing varieties of 1960s wallpaper are rather funny.

As it happens, The Teacher is based on the lived experience of the filmmakers, director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky, who grew up together behind the Iron Curtain in eastern Europe.

It is set in a school in Bratislava, now within Slovakia, when the Communist system was ticking away and the fall of the wall in Berlin was still seven years off. A new teacher has arrived and she is making herself acquainted with her class.

Maria Drazdechova is plump, bespectacled and looks friendly enough. As played by Zuzana Maurery who won an award at Karlovy Vary for the role, she is bright and brisk. Compared to the other two teachers we see, she is vivacious with a tendency to make the most of her allure. The head teacher and her assistant look far the more likely contenders for the role she occupies as chair of the Communist Party at the school.

In my experience, teachers in films tend to be inspirational figures, the Robin Williamses and Denzel Washingtons of this world, especially if they understand how their charges tick. But it’s not always the case, and this film has to belong in that dubious category.

To kick off the introductions, Drazdechova flips her notebook open to take down details about each student. First salient fact is what their parents do for a living. Always on the lookout for an opportune angle, she takes notes as she goes around the class.

This scene is cut into a later event, a meeting that the head teacher (Ina Gogalova) has convened for parents to see if there is enough support to mount a petition and oust the controversial new recruit. Cutting backwards and forwards, we weave around the room, filling in the backstories behind the students’ families with deft camerawork and editing.

It would be funny – and it is, mildly – if it weren’t also serious.

Drazdechova exchanges a free session at the hairdresser for some advice in passing on where the hairdresser’s child can improve in tests. Another parent can fix her washing machine, and another could smuggle a cake into Moscow for her.

Worse still, she gets her students to do chores for her after school, robbing them of the time they need for their extra-curricular activities and their homework. When it is revealed that student attainment in her class is poor, no one can be surprised.

The airport accountant (Csongor Kassai) declines the mission to smuggle cake only to find himself ensnared in an even more compromising position. Though not as tricky as the place that diffident, former astrophysicist (Peter Bebjak) finds himself in when he becomes a twinkle in Drazdechova’s eye.

When the promising young gymnast tries to take her life, the message about the pernicious influence of the teacher on her students’ well-being is brought home.

Further to that, the difficulties the parents have in speaking up, in making a complaint and thereby extricating themselves when they have bought into such a system, is clearly demonstrated.

Czech director Hrebejk shows a remarkably deft hand and he has a superior cast to work with, including young Richard Labuda as  the principled and conflicted son of a man who beats him.

Screenwriter Jarchovsky and director Hrebjek also created the excellent, Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall, set in Nazi-era Czechoslovakia. Here they set out to demonstrate how the ‘if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ mentality, the antithesis of a meritocracy, is ruinous for student educational attainment, not to mention how it distorts social relations.

It’s really the system that Hrebejk and Jarchovsky take aim at, rather than its said representative, the unsinkable Ms Drazdechova.

3.5 Stars

Rated M, subtitled, 1 hr 43 mins

Also published by the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loving Vincent

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It seems there is no end to the ways to express love for van Gogh. Buy the print, wear the jewellery, wear the watch (!), write the song, make the film, or go on a pilgrimage to the museums dedicated to his legacy.

This animated feature joins the list of varied tributes, and is also the first-ever animated feature film overpainted in oils. Whether or not this bold experiment in animation is a fitting tribute to the post-Impressionist artist considered the father of the modern painting, will depend on where you are coming from.

The plot is sketchy, trying – not that hard, it has to be said – to piece together the fragments of the artist’s life in the months before his death.

Loosely framed as an investigation of the death of the elusive artist, it involves the son of the local postman who is sent on a mission to deliver van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Postman Roulin (Chris O’Dowd) and his son Armand (Douglas Booth) and the other characters who are interviewed by Armand are the recognisable subjects of van Gogh’s paintings. As are the fields, trees, flowers, villages and night skies of the French countryside to which the artist returned for the last two years of his life.

The British accents of the actors, O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan and others, are a bit incongruous, but it’s not a critical issue.

Young Armand, at first begrudging the task he has, becomes keen to uncover the facts of Vincent’s death. As he talks to people who knew the artist, each has their particular view about what happened and why, so he takes it upon himself to uncover the mystery that surrounds the artist as he furiously painted his life away in the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise.

The brief, intense life of a troubled creative artist is a familiar subject for cinema, but there’s a paradox here in how the late work of van Gogh brims with life on screen.

And the lines read from the letters drawn from the trove of written material that he left behind – many written to his younger brother, his confidant and patron – are elegant, engaging and thoughtful.

The filmmakers, writer-directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela, who based their production in Poland, commissioned a small army of around 120 artists who each became responsible for painting a few seconds of film.

The frames capture the creative process of painted images that pulsate and spin with energy, like the stilled turbulence of so much of the artist’s most famous work. At times the effect is intoxicating.

Resistance to such an unconventional tribute as Loving Vincent does not perhaps bode well. Early this year and before the film was released, a British arts reviewer trashed it after watching an early trailer. Such entrenched opinion is unlikely to be moved by the experience of the film itself.

To see Loving Vincent and appreciate it involves something like an act of surrender, a laying down of one’s prejudices and preconception, to what is really something like a graphic novel on film, lavishly rendered in the artist’s uniquely expressive and exuberant visual style.

Against the odds perhaps, this unusual tribute becomes a moving evocation of a man who deserves to be remembered for his astonishing body of work, rather than for any predisposition to self-harm.

Yes, it’s the work of painters creating a pastiche of van Gogh’s famous works. The plot is sketchy and as a quest to find out what really happened during the artist’s last months, inconclusive, but necessarily so. As an artistic group effort it may seem to fly in the face of the individuality, direct voice and authenticity that van Gogh strove for.

Yes, but it works.

Rated M, 95 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

Suburbicon

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Reviewed by © Jane Freebury

It can’t be as bad as all that, can it? I mean, Suburbicon is directed by the sophisticate George Clooney. Those brilliant, witty purveyors of comedy noir, Joel and Ethan Coen, wrote the original screenplay and Matt Damon is in the lead. All are men of discernment, with talent to spare.

Yet the news just in from the box office this week is that ticket sales for Suburbicon are poor. The reviews aren’t good either. Something has gone quite wrong here.

It’s not like Clooney is an inexperienced director. This is the 6th film he has directed in a decent body of work, of which Good Night and Good Luck is the standout.

As an actor in the Coen brothers’ films O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading and most recently on Hail, Caesar!, Clooney has worked a treat. One of the reasons I’ve looked forward to their collaborations is their work together seems organic, probably because they have a shared vision.  One can only imagine what a hoot it is on set.

From an original Coen brothers’ script from the 1980s, developed by Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov, Suburbicon knocks down the picket fence and strips the neat and tidy surface off contented domesticity in the typical, unremarkable suburban bungalow. To show us what suburbanites are really like. Welcome to Suburbicon, the ‘perfect place to raise a family’.

Located in the 1950s America, when vast tracts of new suburbs were spreading outside the cities, attracting residents with the promise of affordable housing and the benefits of city life without the disadvantages, the film really looks the part.

From the featureless suburban streetscapes to the television sets and kitchen utensils inside the home, the meticulous sets and period perfect detail are a joy. From the tie that Gardner Lodge (Damon) keeps on at home, to the striped t-shirts worn by his son Nicky (Noah Jupe, an excellent young actor), to the heels and flared skirts that women wear as they do the housework and the grocery shopping.

It might be a problem for Gardner and his family that the new neighbours over the back fence, the Mayers and their young son, are African-American. But he doesn’t actually connect with this, a situation that is a critical issue for the rest of the neighbourhood – and the shopkeepers and the postman. Small town racial prejudice is rife in Suburbicon, and it’s not at all pretty.

Like the main character in the Coen brothers’ classic dark comedy, Fargo, Gardner is preoccupied with how he can get rid of his wife Margaret (Julianne Moore), wheelchair bound as a result of an accident when he was driving, and install her sister Rose (also played by Moore) in her place.

To achieve this, he and Rose descend into a murderous mayhem, even despatching one of the film’s best characters, the insurance assessor played by Oscar Isaac. Young Nicky bears witness to it all.

Suburbicon is sometimes hard to watch, with its 1950s television score on the soundtrack, underlining critical points with heavy handed emphasis.

When all is done, a neighbour complains that none of this sort of thing happened before the Mayers moved in.

As that’s the point Clooney says he wants to make to bring the film into the current day – that mainstream American society blames the minorities for its own issues – then why didn’t he work the Mayers into his narrative, instead of leaving them in the background with barely any speaking roles?

Clooney has said he didn’t feel qualified to write narrative for African-Americans, and it has turned out a misjudgement because this timidity has skewed his film. He doesn’t have the Coen brothers’ light comedic touch either.

Mob at the fence taunts Mrs Mayers (Karimah Westbrook) Source: Google Images

Suburbicon is set in the pre-dawn before the sixties civil rights movements that swept the country. Unmasking the evil in suburbia is nothing if not a familiar trope in countless films, and that includes teen horror films.

Some films like American Beauty, Blue Velvet, Pleasantville, and The Truman Show have made satirising suburbia an art form. Suburbicon is instead a harsh lesson with heavy messaging, the kind of thing that rarely works.

Rated MA 15+, 105 minutes

2.5 Stars

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oyster premieres twice in one day

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A version of this feature article was also published in print and online (6-7 October 2017) in The Canberra Times 

By  © Jane Freebury

The new Australian documentary Oyster has premiered twice this month, on different continents. It’s not so much a doubling-up as a happy coincidence, and a coup for the filmmakers.

The first event, a world premiere, took place on 28 October at the Canberra International Film Festival. The second, that same day, was on east coast USA. In Chesapeake, a region famous for its seafood, especially its clams, crabs and oysters.

When I spoke to Oyster director/cinematographer and co-producer Kim Beamish over the phone recently, he had just heard the news, but it wasn’t going to change his plans for the day. ‘It’s unfortunate that we can’t be there, but we’ve got to be here’. He will be in Canberra that day, and will be present with his producer Pat Fiske for the Q&A.

Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the US, has seen the decline of the native oyster population through overharvesting, disease and habitat loss, though there is some recovery in recent times. Oyster farmers the world over from North America, to Europe, to the far South Coast of NSW where Oyster was filmed, are alert to the challenges they face from climate change.

To make Oyster, Beamish has returned to his roots, at least to the place where his family holidayed when he was young, far South Coast NSW. During those years, Beamish got to know Merimbula Lake, where Oyster is filmed, and the family oyster business now run by his old childhood friend, Dom Boyton, a second-generation oyster farmer, and his wife Pip, with assistance from their two young sons.

‘It’s actually a story that began in Canberra, way back when.’ Before marriage and children, Kim’s mother and Dom’s mother had been close friends while they both worked at the National Library. When the Boytons moved to the coast, the families would get together during school holidays and the boys became childhood friends.

‘When I came up with the idea for the film, Dom was my instant go-to. I hadn’t seen him for about 10 years, but during that time I’d been hearing about his trials and tribulations.’

The Sydney Rock Oyster that Dom Boyton farms on his oyster lease at Merimbula Lake—there are millions of them—is vulnerable to pollution, to salinity and to changes in water temperature. It takes three years to mature for sale, twice as long as the competition, the non-native Pacific Oyster. How to then deal with global warming too?

News of the trials and tribulations would still reach him while he was overseas. In 2011, Beamish was living in Egypt where his wife was posted for three years. It saw them and their children living in Cairo during the early rumblings of the Arab Spring. The doco he was making about a small group of textile artisans, known as tentmakers, was starting to take shape as a record of the impact of seismic political change.

It was a gift. With the film that resulted, The Tentmakers of Cairo, Beamish achieved an international profile when he won awards such as the Margaret Mead filmmaker and Prix Buyens-Chagoll – Visions du Réel, in 2015.

Rather like Oyster’s focus on one family, The Tentmakers in Cairo also observes a small community, a microcosm that’s affected by massive changes over which it had no control.

What does Beamish think attracts him to observing the impact of major change on the individuals who have to live it?

‘Every day Dom and Pip wake up and have to work with what the weather and the environment brings. And so, they’re the people who are at the coalface here,’ he explains. ‘While it’s the scientists, politicians, activists, and environmentalists who are in the fray, the reality is that most of us just have to get on and work, to survive. That is, I suppose, the through-line between the two films.’

It’s no surprise to hear that the type of documentary he prefers to make and watch is verité. That said, in the film about a women’s AFL team that he is working on now, he will mix styles up more.

In The Tentmakers of Cairo there is no voice-of-god commentary and no music to manipulate viewer responses, only the immersive ambient sound that is heard in the markets.

The observational style of filmmaking is not always well appreciated or understood, and yet it has worked very well for him. Some audiences may want the guidance of voiceover, more edits, a defined perspective and answers to questions raised, but observational filmmaking allows his subjects to speak for themselves, with minimal interference or input, either on set or in post-production.

‘Observational documentary brings you closer to the characters, and makes it easier to identify with them. I think that observational style is closer to the truth than other styles of documentary.’

Does he think it’s similar to what the sociologists and anthropologists do? ‘I think the ethnographic film has the camera on the outside looking in. I like to think that I’m involved in the situation and not just sitting on the outside looking it. I don’t know if that works, but it’s kind of how I feel.’

Like having a seat at the table? ‘Yes.’

So, what would he say to the people who can get a bit impatient with verité?

‘I think it’s for people to make up their own minds. What I hope I’m offering is information for people to come to their own conclusions.’

 

 

Kim Beamish, filmmaker

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Kim Beamish on the other side of the camera Photo: Melissa Adams Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Jane Freebury

The Circle’s winter conversations for 2017 wound up with another filmmaker in the guest chair. Kim Beamish, director and producer at Non’D’Script Films, now Canberra- based, who has received international recognition for his documentary work.

His film, The Tentmakers of Cairo, was joint winner of the prestigious Margaret Mead award for documentary film in 2015. It also won the Prix Buyens-Chagoll at Visions du Réel, and the El-Ray Award for narrative documentary excellence at the Barcelona Film Festival.

Kim, who studied at the Victorian College of the Arts and has a degree in digital arts from the Australian National University, took us on a quick tour of his varied professional background. It includes work in media production for universities and government departments, at Bearcage Productions, long-term volunteering with community television—and a stint in the kitchen at a famous Sydney restaurant.

He came to Canberra after his wife landed a job in the public service. A typical Canberra story, quipped Helen.

In the media area, Kim has been involved in productions featuring a number of identities including artist John Olsen, actor Lexi Sekuless, and the late Betty Churcher. He is currently teaching again at University of Canberra.

At the start of our discussion, Kim explained his aesthetic preferences. The type of documentary he prefers to make and watch is verité. His preference is for the observational approach that allows his subjects to speak for themselves, with minimal interference or input from the filmmakers, either on set or in post-production.

Verité or actuality is the approach he uses in his forthcoming film, Oyster, a doco set in a family of oyster farmers based on the far south coast of NSW. It observes their way of life and work and how they are dealing with the impact of climate change on the environment at Merimbula Lake. The human dimension of the impact of great change.

For now, Kim is best known for The Tentmakers of Cairo, the documentary he made about the small community of male artisans, known as tentmakers, who stitch traditional cloths that have been made in Egypt since pharaonic times. There is no voice of god voiceover nor music introduced to guide viewer responses. The music that can be heard is already playing on set or nearby. The emphasis on ambient sound in the covered market in Old Cairo where the tentmakers work is highly immersive.

Kim explained the serendipity involved in The Tentmakers. It was made in Egypt during the early stages of the ‘Arab spring’, beginning in 2011 when he accompanied his wife and young family on a 3-year posting. Kim knew he wanted to record some aspect of the tumultuous events taking place in Egypt, but just wasn’t quite sure what or how to go about it. At that point, no one knew what direction events would take either.

Initially he had wanted to work with Egyptian filmmakers, but found they weren’t interested in documentary.

We were keen to hear how he had managed to film in Cairo during such a turbulent time. After he was introduced to the tentmaker community by quilt expert Jenny Bowker, Kim immediately developed a strong rapport with the subjects of his film. It was Jenny, a Cairo resident and wife of a former ambassador to Egypt, who was his first key contact.

Kim’s status was then confirmed with a walk through the market neighbourhood in the company of a prominent member of the tentmaker community. A demonstration that the young stranger at the side of the ‘elder’ was a welcome guest to be protected.

Kim had to find his way around Cairo with Arabic that was minimal at best – ‘shway’ – and no guarantee of entrée. Moreover, brandishing a cinematographic camera without journalistic or other accreditation, Kim could have landed himself in trouble. Every journalist he knew had had their camera smashed, he said.

Despite the risks, the production proceeded to post. The Tentmakers of Cairo premiered at the Canberra International Film Festival in 2015, and it has been screened in Egypt.

One of the virtues of observational doco style, we all agreed, is that it is open to a variety of readings.

Finally, Kim talked briefly about his first documentary feature, Just Punishment, ‘a film about life and death’, the case of the Australian Van Nguyen who was executed in Singapore in 2005 for drug trafficking. The production, involving three years back and forth between Singapore and Australia, was an experience that still troubles Kim, who has remained close to the man’s mother.

He did not have the same level of creative control over this first film either, and it is observational only in part. His new film Oyster, is thoroughly in the observational mode, however.

It was particularly interesting to hear how Kim worked as an independent filmmaker, how he obtained funding in the development stages of production and received ongoing support. We were impressed by Kim’s openness and by his dedication to the integrity of his craft.

Oyster, which Kim is making with veteran filmmaker Pat Fiske, will premiere at the CIFF this year.

 

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle

The Beguiled

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Review © Jane Freebury

Like so much, it all depends on point of view. Is it the male of the species or is it the female who is beguiled, mind and body a welter of desire? This simmering drama of sexual repression set during the American Civil War begins with a delicate balancing act when a wounded Union soldier is found in the woods and taken into a seminary for Southerner women to recover. To begin with, the interactions are a delicate balancing act.

There is much to make of the location in Virginia, knowingly chosen we can be sure. Near a wood where mosses hang from lofty trees, stands a mansion fronted by a row of massive columns. There’s plenty for the semiologists to work with here. At the same time, it’s easy to discern within, the kernel of a contemporary fairy tale warning young men to stay away from the evil witches in the forest who will consume them then cast them out. Be careful what you wish for.

Behind the high gates and overgrown garden, a small group of women and girls, two teachers and five students, have remained during the long years of war with only each other for company. Now there is a desirable, willing male in the form of Colin Farrell in their midst. The man himself, in a waking dream of possibilities that float around him in pale gowns as they minister to his needs, might think he’s never had such luck.

As they watch over him, drifting in and out of consciousness, a perfect specimen apart from his wounded leg, desire awakes in them too in the subdued lighting of candle-lit interiors, the way it was at the time.

Things get rolling when the headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) bathes him while he is unconscious, or may be foxing. Soon he receives visits from a flustered but aroused Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a very saucy Alicia (Elle Fanning) drops by to plant a kiss while he sleeps. Corporal John McBurney opts for a strategy of divide and conquer.

For some reason, key scenes – like the moment McBurney propositions Edwina –  develop in a rush that wrong-foots the drama and truncates delicately unfolding tensions. The direction of some crucial scenes sees the drama lose some of its power. If Coppola was working with suggestions that she be less indulgent while developing atmosphere, something she was so good at in The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, then she shouldn’t have taken a blind bit of notice here. When the director was camping up the gothic with Kidman asking for the anatomy text before she got to work, the sudden appearance of the book would have been more fun.

I’m probably not the only one to have seen a Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in  Kidman’s Martha Farnsworth.

Clearly accustomed to ruling the roost where women are concerned, McBurney has just to turn his big brown eyes in the direction of any of the women, and he could have his way with them. The other four are too young and thankfully not part of these games. Writer-director Coppola has veered away from the moment of pre-pubescent sexuality of her film’s 1971 predecessor with Clint Eastwood. The children watch on, pliant and observing until they become players themselves, in ultimately disconcertingly effective ways.

It was common human decency that got the rooster into the hen house in the first place, quickly followed by charity that decided he could stay until recovered, but it is desire, and with it comes competition, that quickly takes over as he becomes step-by-step a prisoner. That’s not to say he isn’t happy to remaining in his conveniently safe haven and wait out the end of the war, but the pale gowns the women and girls wear signify an innocence that masks darker feelings beneath.

Over recent months we have watched My Cousin Rachel—did she or didn’t she?—followed by an indomitable Lady Macbeth and now The Beguiled. It’s interesting times we live in.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

A Quiet Passion

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Review © Jane Freebury

In her day, the American poet Emily Dickinson was a kind of free thinker and early feminist, but she hardly crossed her front porch into the world. Later in life she hardly left her room. She lived through her words. The writer and recluse has been kept alive by posterity, and is now thrust into public view in this film by Terence Davies.

The filmmaker says that A Quiet Passion is his creative take on the eccentric literary figure, but the film sticks pretty closely to the known facts, and though Davies’ modesty may ward off the fulminating critics, there was little to work with anyway. Dickinson never married, she had a habit of wearing only white—an interesting juxtaposition—and remained in the family home in Massachusetts till her death.

During her lifetime fewer than a dozen of her poems were published and her younger sister arranged for the publication of the vast bulk of her work after she died.

Some of the poetry is heard in voiceover, and suggests valuable insights, but there is too little about her writing. Davies could have at least put more of those poems to work. After all, it seems to have been where she fully expressed herself and how she reached out to the world.

Otherwise, the ambience of mid-19th century piety and seclusion in the Dickinson household is very compelling. The austere and painterly look, the work of cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, creates a cloistered private world in which little alters as the years pass.

However, a slow 360 ° panning shot around the parlour that takes in family members and objects registers subtle change. And at another point, the passage of time is deftly realised at a session with a photographer taking family portraits. This is where the family merges into their older selves, and when Emma Bell, the young Emily, leaves the frame and Cynthia Nixon takes over.

Emma Bell as young Emily

Though her lines can’t have been helpful, Nixon is great in a challenging role. The jarring dialogue and awkward interactions are a major part of the film’s distraction. When I suppose we are meant to lighten up, we are treated to the tiresome, formulaic wit of Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a friend who has an inexplicable knack for entertaining Emily and her devoted sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle).

It’s not unduly long. Most films seem to unspool at around two hours these days, and some of the best ever are still going strong well after that, with dialogue in a language other than English to boot.

There are lengthy deathbed scenes, and towards the end of Emily’s life the camera rubbernecks into her freshly dug grave. A strange shot that may coincide with the poet’s gloomy outlook. A home overlooking a cemetery would have had some impact, one imagines.

Aside from its impressive and uncompromising authenticity, A Quiet Passion is difficult and sometimes gruelling.  Veteran auteur Davies, the director of the wonderful Distant Voices, Still Lives, says he is an acquired taste, but may be asking too much of filmgoers here.

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle site