As we move through late November and towards December, it is now dark here before four in the afternoon, so I have a bit more time for some night photography!
Garden of Remembrance at night, Princes Street Gardens. In the background you can see the historic Bank of Scotland building lit up red for Armistice Day (see closer up shot in the next pic). As ever you can see the larger versions on my Flickr.
French Film Festival 2023: Anatomy of a Fall / Anatomie d’une chute,
Directed by Justine Triet.
Starring Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth
The first movie I caught at this year’s annual French Film Festival (taking place in multiple cities around the UK this month) was Anatomy of a Fall, which bagged director and co-writer Justine Triet the coveted Palme D’or at Cannes (making her only the third female director to win the award, which is not a good look for Cannes, but that’s another story). At first glance you may assume this to be a fairly standard courtroom thriller / whodunnit: a husband in a rocky marriage dies in mysterious circumstances, his wife was the only other person in their mountainside chalet near Grenoble. Was is accidental, a fall while repairing the house? A deliberate suicide? Or a rage-fuelled murder? The suspicions of the authorities fairly inevitably settle on the author wife, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), and a courtroom battle looms…
Except this does not go the way I thought it might, instead leading us into a far murkier emotional mess of a relationship, of accusations and regrets and arguments. The couple’s world had been upset when her husband, Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), busy with other projects (teaching, repairing the house they intended to rent out for more income, trying to get his own writing career going), neglects to pick up their son from school, asking a babysitter to do it at the last minute. Arriving late, the babysitter and their son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) are involved in a bad accident, the effects of which leaves the young boy only partially sighted, which leaves simmering resentments and guilt over blame.
Sandra turns to an old friend, Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), who is now a lawyer, for help, as it is clear the police investigating the death do not believe it is an accident. With a prosecution looming, he starts interrogating her himself, trying to establish what could have happened, the state of the couple’s relationship, and bringing in his own forensics experts to counter those of the prosecution. Along the way this slowly drags every murky element of Sandra and Samuel’s life out into the unforgiving glare of the courtroom and public reporting, revealing aspects which do not paint her in the best light, giving ammunition to the prosecutor, who, lacking a smoking gun (so to speak), has to rely on these more circumstantial matters to convince the court of her guilt.
The courtroom drama, which in other hands may have been heavy-handed, or overly dramatic and over-played, here is handled deftly – despite what is going on, you feel sympathy for these characters, as every formerly private piece of their lives is pulled out and aired in public, being used by the prosecution or defence to pillory or defend them. It’s not hard to empathise at these points – even if we had done nothing, had nothing really bad to hide, which of us would want our most private moments with a partner or family or friends open to the scrutiny of total strangers, who will judge you on it? How easily could a heated argument between two people be taken by others later and used as “evidence” against them for other possible actions? How do you defend against that when it means having to tell of less than savoury moments by the other (now deceased) partner, does that make her look better or even worse?
Add in their young boy being dragged into this (he refuses the judge’s request not to be in the courtroom), having to hear all of these details of his parents and their unravelling life prior to his father’s death, and you have a very heady, emotional trip. And then there’s the matter of the audio recording Samuel made secretly when arguing with his wife…
Anatomy eschews the more usual flashback scenes you often get in these kind of films (save for one main scene, quite effectively handled, fading in as we hear the audio recording, then back out to the courtroom at a critical moment, leaving us only hearing the event with the jury, not seeing it, a powerful moment). Triet and Hüller make the brave decision to craft events and two lead characters who are simultaneously vulnerable, evoking sympathy, but at the same time also often quite unlikeable, clearly selfish, driven more by their own motivations and goals than being a couple or family, and this is sustained throughout. I think both deserve kudos for this – it’s no mean feat to give us characters like that, yet still make us emotionally invested in them, and it makes them dramatically more satisfying than a simpler good partner / bad partner dynamic.
It’s a two and a half hour film, but I never felt the length, it never felt like it was dragging, it remained compelling all the way through. A compelling and engrossing French film, deserving the attention it has rightly been receiving.
This review was originally penned for Live For Films
Directed by Ryan Hendrick,
Starring Lauren Lyle, Nicolette McKeown, James Watterson, Layla Kirk, Joe Rising, Eoin Sweeney, Gilly Gilchrist
Rhona (Lauren Lyle) still deals with flashbacks to a childhood trauma in the Highlands, involving an injured horse and her father. Following his passing, she recruits several of her friends for a road trip north to the Scottish Highlands, with a plan to hike across the moors and glens until they find the old, family cabin, which her estranged father left to her. On the rural roads they pass a solitary female walker, Carla (Nicolette McKeown), trying to hitch a lift, who joins up with them where they have to leave the cars behind and set off on foot for a long hike to the cabin’s remote location.
The early, almost holiday-like feeling at the start of the hike soon starts to dissipate, as the group begin bickering, then some outright feuding with one another, with romantic and sexual tensions in particular rearing their ugly head, not helped by the interloper in their midst, Carla, who appears to be suffering from PTSD from the Afghanistan war. When these increasing tensions lead beyond arguing to a fight, an accident ensues, which becomes the pivot for the rest of the film, which descends into hunt, and a fight for survival.
I have to confess I had some problems with this film. On the positive side, I was pleased to see it didn’t go down the more predictable town folk get hunted by feral locals route, and instead took its own path, which I appreciated (nothing against the revenge of locals type story, but we have had plenty of those). And the cinematography is superb, with John Rhodes using the camera work to bring out the Scottish Highlands location for the best, with some amazing landscape and drone shots.
On the other hand the character’s infighting felt too forced, that it suddenly comes to a head when they are miles from the nearest town, in the middle of the isolated countryside, and it also suffers from that affliction of many such films, namely The Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make. There are a couple here in particular, including an absolutely pivotal one, where I simply found it hard to believe that all of the characters would agree with a single other person (one they don’t even know well) that they should do something they all know is wrong, and go along with it so easily. It felt very much like they do something purely because the film-makers decided this was how to move to the next phase of the story, and not because it made any sense in terms of characters or logical narrative structure, and it really irked me.
That said, the hunt and evade segment of the story that it leads to is handled very well, even if you can predict how some of the inevitable deaths will come (again that Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make, which usually leads to me shouting at the screen). Despite those niggles, this main part of the film proved to be good, ratcheting up the tension, and again making the most of the landscape and terrain to stage some significant moments, and I also liked the fact that much of the film is carried by two female leads (Lyle and McKeown). So a bit of a mixed bag, for me at least, but still a decent bit to interest the viewer, and worth a look.
Mercy Falls is out now on digital from Bingo Films
This review was originally penned for Live For Films
Making It So: a Memoir,
Published Simon & Schuster
Sir Patrick Stewart recounts scenes from his remarkable life and career, a winding path that has taken him from a young Yorkshire lad in a small town, in a house with an outside loo and days where he and his mum would pretend to be out when the rent man called, to a young man trying to make his way in the world, finding through much encouragement from others who see his potential, that a career in acting is not just for the “posh” folk, but someone like him too, to being a young student actor in the Bristol Old Vic, moving around repetory theatre work, learning his craft, his dream job of being at the Royal Shakespeare Company, then slowly being drawn into film and television… And of course, to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, not to mention leading the X-Men. And somehow still managing to keep his love of live theatre alive, still pushing himself into new works.
Despite my heavy reading load, I must confess it’s not often I pick up biographical works, but, well, come on, it’s Patrick Stewart. I think my first memory of him – although I wouldn’t really know who he was at this stage – was in the remarkable BBC production of I, Claudius, and of course I saw him appear again in films like Dune and, one of my all-time favourites, Boorman’s magnificent Excalibur, where his knight is the first to support the young Arthur (“I saw what I saw – if a boy has been chosen, a boy shall be king!”). And then there is the matter of being the skipper of a certain starship, a ship that is close to my heart and that of millions of others…
To his great credit, Patrick obviously understands that his Star Trek days cast a long shadow over his public perception, but as with his rightly-lauded stage work, he takes that (and clearly has appreciation for it and what it has given him) and uses it to not only explore Trek, but to take even those who mostly know him principally for that work, and introduce them gently to a far wider world (especially Shakespeare). Yes, of course, being an autobiography, this takes us through his life, from childhood to his eighties, and there’s a lot to love here (some of his early, childhood memories in Yorkshire put me in mind of Spike Milligan’s memoirs in places, there’s a humour underlying it that often made me smile, despite the fact some of that life was damned hard).
But it’s the art and craft of acting and storytelling that are really foremost here, and Patrick’s love for acting, especially on the stage with his fellow actors and an audience, learning how to craft a character, explore the story and the emotions and motivations, how to express them, that’s what comes out most here, again and again. It runs through the entire book, from the earliest days right to the present, especially his deep love for Shakespeare, and what the Bard’s works can tell us of human nature, something he is still passionate about in his eighties (think of him doing daily online reading of Shakespeare’s sonnets during the onerous days of the Lockdown).
You can see the evolution of Patrick as a person and as an actor throughout these decades; indeed the one is often synonymous with the other – certain roles influence the actor’s state of mind (both for good and ill), while of course their personal experiences give them deeper insights into the world and humanity, which gives them new reservoirs to draw on when interpreting a character and bringing them so convincingly to life that we, the audience, believe in them. Rather wonderfully, it’s clear right to the last pages that this is still, in his eighties, a process that continues: he’s still learning, and taking those experiences to channel into his acting, which is a good thing for any artist, and not a bad thing for any person at all to retain that ability and desire.
There’s a lot of self-deprecating humour here – Patrick isn’t shy of pointing out when he made mistakes or simply didn’t know what was what. He recounts meeting Sting on the set of Dune and, being mostly a classical music fan, he had no idea who he was and thought he played in a police band for a moment (he chuckles and adds that Sting has now forgiven him). Given the sheer amount of talented people he has worked with during his long career, there are also, as you might expect, a lot of other now-famous names who crop up. Seeing a young actor whose performance he greatly admires – a young David Warner, on stage, then relating about getting to work with David much later (especially the powerful Chain of Command two-parter in TNG, where David played the Cardassian torturing Picard, most of the scenes just these two actors playing off each other’s strengths). Or the time he was working in theatre in the mid 1960s with a young Jane Asher, when her then-boyfriend Paul McCartney arrives to pick her up in his new Aston Martin, says hello to Patrick and explains Jane has told him he like cars, so here are the keys, grab your girlfriend, we’re going for a ride and you’re driving.
Naturally the chapters on making Star Trek are, to coin an old Vulcan phrase, “fascinating”. Patrick explains how unused he was to episodic television and the tight rush filming each episode required, how as the older actor in the cast he felt he had to set an example and tell his colleagues off for too much larking around on set, with them responding yes, they should dial it down a bit, but he in turn needed to lighten up (and he comes to realise yes, he should, much as Picard did too in later seasons). He also recounts how Roddenberry didn’t seem too keen on him at all, a cause for much regret because he admired what Roddenberry had created. How most of them thought the show would be a “one and done”, i.e. cancelled after one season, because nobody could recreate the lightning in a bottle that made the original Trek so beloved by generations, and how he wasn’t too worried about that because he would return to theatre.
As we all know, that was not how The Next Generation turned out, and as it continued and grew, so too did Patrick, not just as an actor inhabiting and evolving his character, but in his own life. His colleagues become a family, and some of them introduce him to the world of conventions, something that seems very peculiar to him at first, and now he’s come to enjoy them because he sees the faces of those fans and talks to some, and realises how much of an impact the show has had on so many of our lives, often inspiring us when we are at our lowest or darkest hours, and that to be a part of that is something to be treasured. I found the chapters where he discussed going back to that role for the recent Picard series especially fascinating – this was a character he had enjoyed but thought well over, reluctant to return to him, until the producers and writers explained how they wanted to explore Jean-Luc as the age Patrick himself is now, how that changed the man.
While there are many ups and downs, as in any life (loss of loved ones, marriages drifting apart, lost opportunities and regrets), the overall tone here is positive; this feels like it is written by a man who has looked back on all those experiences and realised that actually, he is fortunate and in a situation now, at this stage of his life, where he is more comfortable with himself, and realises his good fortune and appreciates it, both in his professional life, and in his personal life (not least with his wife Sunny, where his love for her and how she changed his life shines through). I was left with a big smile on my face as I read much of this, especially the final chapters. It’s an absolute delight of a memoir.