Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts Review

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts

The Edinburgh International Film Festival was much shorter than usual this year – given last autumn we thought we had lost it along with the Edinburgh Filmhouse when the charity running both went into administration (see our report here) though, I was just grateful the world’s longest, continually running film festival was still going. We didn’t have the annual McLaren Animation Awards this year, but I was relieved to see that the EIFF programmers still made space for the animated short films, with a mix of familiar faces and new talent, with a dozen films, taking in a diverse array of subjects and styles, from hand-drawn to using found objects, stop-motion, even fragments of vinyl album sleeves to create their worlds.

I will hold my hand up here and admit my bias – as readers of our previous years of EIFF coverage will have gathered, the short animation strand is pretty much my favourite art of the film festival. In one screening it encapsulates – at least for me – what these festival should do: expose the viewer to a mixture of established and emerging talent, give them that important showcase, and take in a variety of styles and subjects. Isn’t that part of what we want at a film festival? That chance to explore works we might not otherwise see?

Jenny Jokela’s Sweet Like Lemons, a play on the old “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” phrase, used a colourful, hand-drawn style to explore issues of toxic relationships, and trying to extricate yourself from them. We see hands trying to write an email, constantly starting the message, then deleting it, starting again, and again, because she’s trying to find the determination to break free from a cycle of behaviour and find herself. The artwork veers from colourful and beautiful to the suddenly threatening, mirroring such controlling relationships, and felt very from the heart.

Sweet Like Lemons (2023) – Trailer from Jenny Jokela on Vimeo.

Some of the other works were also clearly drawing (sometimes literally) on personal experiences, using the animation medium to explore their own emotional history and experiences, articulate them, perhaps learn and grow beyond them, or at least have some closure and ownership over those issues, instead of letting those issues own them (not to mention sharing with others, some of whom may have experienced similar, and may gain recognition and strength from the sharing, never a bad thing).

On that score, I thought Holly Summerson’s Living With It, and The Perpetrators by Richard Squires both used animation as a way to explore their own lives and struggles. In Living With It, another traditionally, hand-drawn animated work, Summerson takes the reality TV show idea of the home makeover, except in her case her home and world are run down and in need of an uplift because she lives with a chronic illness, manifested as the character Bug. It’s a brief but emotionally effective glimpse into a life too many have to cope with.

Living With It – Trailer [CC] from Holly Summerson on Vimeo.

Perpetrators mixed live action footage with animation, exploring how it was to grow up as a gay man in the hostile environment of the 1980s. The framing device is using changing medical and psychological definitions of homosexuality (still on the books as a mental illness until just a few decades ago). The pain and shame of having to be hidden, not to be able to declare who you are to friends or even close family, is palpable, the institutional nature of the bigotry shameful to modern eyes (consider how similar tropes are deployed today in the debate around trans rights). But Squires also deploys a lot of humour here, using tropes from the much-loved Scooby Doo cartoons to inform his animation. I suspect that streak of humour was, for him, as for many of us, part of how he coped (what would we do without that sense of humour? How much darker would our lives be?).

Tanya J Scott’s The Wolf of Custer was a beautiful piece, exploring the power of folklore and myth, as a hunter, reminiscent of Quint in Jaws, listens to the people of a small town tell tales of a giant wolf that can devour entire bisons (the smoke and flame of a fire and the shadows in the room all morph into flowing, dream-like images of the magical wolf as they tell their tales). Arrogantly he declares where would we be if we believed such native folklore nonsense, and that he will set out to kill their wolf. As you may imagine, as his journey through the vast wilderness progresses, and he catches glimpses of the wolf, then images of it carved and painted into the rocks of the very land, he slowly comes to realise and respect why we have such creatures in our stories, why they are important to us.

Jordan Antonowicz-Behnan’s A Taste For Music dealt with living with a seriously ill loved one, in this case his father. It captures that frustration at seeing them being weakened and unable to do things they want, and is also quite honest about the anger and resentment that comes along with this as it grinds on (many of us will have been there, with the best will in the world there’s a moment where you just become so angry at the situation, the disease, even the person). Through it though is a shared love of music, drawing – quite literally here, the animator drew on record sleeves – on his father’s extensive vinyl collection as a way of connecting, something the illness could still allow him to do, while the use of record sleeves gives the visuals a distinctive flair.

A Taste For Music (Trailer) from Jordan Antonowicz-Behnan on Vimeo.

I was also delighted to see BAFTA-winning Ainslie Henderson return. I’ve seen Henderson several times at the McLaren Animation strand at the EIFF over the years – his film A Cat Named Dom won last year’s McLaren gong at the festival (see our report from the 2022 EIFF here on LFF), and am always looking forward to any new work. Shackle is a stop-motion piece (I love all animation, but have an especially soft spot for stop-motion work), with a couple of small woodland creatures, taking everyday forest objects such as apples and pine cones, then making art and music with them, while a more frightening version of these endearing creatures lurks in the dark version of the forest, looking on greedily and coveting what they have.

I don’t really have time to dive into every film screened during the Animated Shorts, but these are some of the ones that especially caught my eye. Again I am grateful the animators get a chance to show these in a cinema setting, with an audience, and talk about their works – we used to have the excellent Four Mations on Channel 4, and BBC2 used to do late night animation strands, years ago, something that seems to have vanished from media schedules these days, despite the phttps://www.liveforfilm.com/roliferation of more channels and the fact we’re still seeing new and established talents creating new, interesting works, but the main broadcasters seem to ignore them, which, I think, makes the film festivals all the more important as a chance to wave the flag for this time-consuming and inventive form of film-making.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh Film Festival – Superposition

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Superposition
Directed by Karoline Lyngbye,
Starring Marie Bach Hansen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Mihlo Olsen
(Danish language, with English subtitles)

Stine (Marie Bach Hansen), a frustrated writer, and her partner Teit (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), a broadcaster and podcaster, have decided to quit the rat race of life in urban Copenhagen, and are moving with their young boy, Nemo (Mihlo Olsen), to try living for a year completely isolated in a designer cabin, near a lake in the Swedish forest, with Stine planning to use the peace and space to get back to her novel, while Teit is recording regular podcasts on their experiences, although since they are too remote for any web access, he has to put his shows on a USB drive then mail them to his radio station and the people bankrolling their lifestyle change. It will not surprise anyone to learn that their plans to not go quite as expected, and they start to learn more about one another than they anticipated – in a rather unusual way.

Right from the beginning there’s a lovely visual style to Superposition by cinematographer Sine Vadstrup Brooker, with a view of the calm lake waters, the line of the opposite shore bisecting the middle of the screen, the water reflecting the trees and the clouds above, but tilted ninety degrees to the side, slowly rotating back to the more normal viewpoint; a beautiful image, but also one that whispers of something not right, something being out of kilter, in this remote location.

At first they settle in quite happily, exploring the very cool, designer cabin and surrounding woods and lake, their wee boy and dog, Tarzan, happily running around while they settle in. As Tein sets up the microphones for his first recording, however, the cracks start to appear, as an at-first genial discussion between him and Stine about why they came here and what they hope to get out of it, produces answers Tein isn’t too happy with. Stine points out that they agreed to be honest in these recorded discussions, something he likes to pride himself on, but we can already see that actually he’s quite sensitive to honesty when it concerns him.

This is all handled in a nice, quiet, intimate manner between the two characters, no histrionics, no shouting. It’s also a nice bit of storytelling economy – we get the gist of their relationship and troubles (he had an affair, cheating on her, she resents giving up her plans to be the Great Young Novelist she was earmarked by the writing establishment to become in favour of raising a family) in one short scene, along with the obvious fact that both are also creatives and seem a bit competitive on that front as well as on their personal relationship. It’s deftly done, no flashbacks or long expositions, we get it all in this quiet, neat way, letting us into the characters and their lives.

So far you could be mistaken for thinking this is going to be one of those films where people with troubles escape into nature and find the struggle to live in it helps them put their personal problems in perspective, and overcome them. But this is more “glamping” than really back to nature, whatever the pair of them think (fancy cabin, electricity, computers, music, wine, hardly roughing it). And there is something else going on – they glimpse another family of three, on the far shore of the lake.

This surprises them as the location was sold as being totally remote, with no-one else near them. Stine in particular seems very put out by this (given the vast spaces around them, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her here, she seems more petulant than anything else). They try to avoid these others, which should be easy as they are away on the other side of the water, but of course, we know sooner or later something will bring them in contact with one another. And when they find these others are, well, them, they are understandably confused. Why are dopplegangers of them here in this remote forest? Where did they come from, what do they do?

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Karoline Lyngbye 02
(Director Karoline Lyngbye, on the right, talking to the film festival audience, pic from my Flickr)

Although you can see little hints of the likes of Peele’s Us, this is a different beast, and uses this encounter to further explore the damaged relationships between the main couple in a rather novel way. Starting as a drama, Superposition mixes in elements of science fiction, thriller and horror into its DNA, and combines it with some lovely cinematography (riffing cleverly on reflections and duos), while scenes with the characters interacting with their duplicates are very well done (the director explained they had some of the visual effects team on hand during the actual filming to make sure it was done right, a laborious task involving multiple takes of scenes).

An intriguing, clever and beautifully shot piece of cinema from Denmark.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Camera Man – the remarkable Buster Keaton, celebrated

Camera Man, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century,
Dana Stevens,
Atria Books

I count the years of defeat and grief and disappointment, and their percentage is so minute that is continually surprises and delights me.”

I’ve adored Buster Keaton for as long as I can remember; when I was very young, the films of Buster, Harold Lloyd, Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy were a staple on television, often put on during the school holidays, and were the gateway into that long-ago era of early film for me (and for many others, I would think). I watched them with my dad (who would delight in telling me how he actually saw Laurel and Hardy when he was young, his father taking him to see them on their final UK tour – clearly love of this kind of humour runs in our family). Actually we still watch them together to this day, enjoying them as much, if not more, than we did when I was just a little boy. I imagine this is a scenario more than a few of you will recognise and likely share – not just watching these films and loving them, but sharing them with someone important to you (which always makes them better and even more special).

So, as you may guess, I was more than delighted to be sent a copy of Camera Man by Dana Stevens, film critic at Slate and also a lifelong admirer of Keaton’s work. I was even more delighted to find this is far more than a biography; yes, it does, as you would expect, contain a lot of biographic information, from Buster’s early days as a child star on the vaudeville stages with his family, performing unbelievable – not to mention dangerous – acts and stunts (that would stand him in such good stead when he moved to film), through early exposure to film work, finding his feet in the new medium, the changes as the years pass, the downs as well as the ups, his later life.

Yes, that’s all here, and it is fascinating. However, Stevens also does something far more interesting – she discusses what is going on around Buster as his life and career unfolds across the decades, in popular culture, society and in technology. This means not only taking in aspects of Buster’s world you might expect, such as how the new-fangled moving image (born in the same year as our man, 1895) would start to encroach on the older forms of popular entertainment, such as the vaudeville circuit Buster’s family operated on, or how the introduction of sound, or the emergence of the large studio systems, replacing the many small, independent, seat of the pants production companies, and how this affected Buster, determined his choices and options.

(Above: very early Keaton, from around 1917, working with Roscoe Arbuckle. Below: from both their late career stage – Keaton and Chaplin in Limelight, from 1952)

But it also takes in the wider world around him – we see an early American movie industry where many women held senior positions such as producers and directors, as well as being on-screen talent (sadly something that changed to the still too familiar patriarchal system with the coming of the big studios), we see early experiments in a totally new medium, artists figuring out what they can do with this flickering image, pushing what can be done on film. We also see the wider world around it – the “new woman” of the 1910s and 20s, the multiple connections across all levels of society (one early film critic, a great supporter of Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton’s art, would also become a speech writer for Franklin D Roosevelt), we see the emergence of that gloriously hedonistic 1920s Hollywood (so recently celebrated in the film Babylon), where a newly flush Buster buys a big home, with near neighbours like Valentino, and Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks (whose Hollywood mansion boasted a lawn so big the Goodyear Blimp could land on it!). Changes in gender relations, race relations and more as society alters and changes, it’s all in here.

It all serves very effectively not only to give an overview of Buster’s life, his craft and his body of work, it gives it all so much more context, placing it in the world he was in at each moment of that remarkable life, which is vitally important, because it’s all connected, it influences everything. Stevens doesn’t shy away from discussing aspects such as race – a common “minstrel” trope of the period, involving black face and a parody of an African American that is very hard for a modern viewer to watch is discussed, for instance, while she also notes the shoddy treatment Mabel Normand, one of the biggest women in film of her time (and so sadly often overlooked today) received (Keaton’s contemporary, Chaplin, was especially singled out for his chauvinistic stance to taking orders from a women director, despite her having far more experience than he has, just starting out in film). And, of course, it explores the darker moments – the marriage failures, the terrible time lost to alcohol abuse.

However, the main focus here is clearly in celebrating one of the most remarkable figures of early cinema, and rightly justifying why he is important, not just specifically in the history of comedy, but also in film history in general, for his innovations and techniques, his eagerness to embrace new technologies and see what he could do with them, and, most importantly, how he could use them to create a good gag and make people laugh. And there is a lot of laughter to be had here, rather fittingly – it’s hard to read some descriptions of moments from making those films and not to start giggling away with laughter. Frankly, I sat there with a big smile on my face for a lot of this book, pausing now and then to put the book down and then go and watch some of those films (fortunately so many available online now). In fact I think this is a book that encourages you to stop reading periodically and go and watch some of the films it is discussing.

Kudos also to Stevens for using the latter segments of the book to bust (bad pun intended, sorry) some of the myths about Buster’s later life – many still think he made just a handful of films after sound came in, then spent the rest of his life in the shadows of his former reputation, drinking away. And while he did go through some very rough times and a long, dark night of the soul, that’s far from the full truth. Stevens takes us through the 1940s, 50s and 60s; we see Buster still writing, still performing, on stage (at a sadly now gone famous Parisian circus post-war, where he was rightly acclaimed as a great artist) and then getting himself involved in another emerging new medium – television.

Yes, Buster had his own show for a little while in the early days of TV broadcasting in the US, and he found a new outlet for new gags and pranks to delight a new audience. This new medium – whose emergence so frightened Hollywood at the time – would also be a major part of the reason his and other performers from that era had their reputation and place in film history cemented, because some of those old films were unearthed and shown on the new “boob tube”. In much the way it did with Universal’s famous monster movies of the 30s, so long out of fashion, the TV screenings made them new to a different audience – performers like Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, Lugosi, Karloff, they all had a renaissance in popular culture this way, and that’s never truly gone away. The book also touches on the first stirrings, decades on from the Silent Film era, to find and preserve that rapidly disintegrating treasure trove before more of it was lost for all time (for which I imagine many of us are profoundly grateful), along with a cultural reevaluation of the importance of those works. He was still working away on new ideas and projects pretty much until the end.

A few years ago I went to a Keaton screening at my beloved Filmhouse in Edinburgh (home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival – sadly closed suddenly last autumn, you can read my report on that sad news elsewhere on LFF). It was a weekend matinee, the cinema actively encouraged family groups with children (with very low ticket prices too). The screening was a bunch of Keaton shorts, then an interval, and the second half was the feature, Steamboat Bill Jr- yes, the one with the front of the house falling on Buster, who emerges unscathed through the window frame (this was all shot for real!). That was also his last independent feature; after this he was folded into the new studio system, working for MGM, who removed his artistic freedom and ruined what could have been good films (sadly a tale many artists in many a medium are too familiar with to the present day, the Suits telling the Talent what works).

A couple of rows in front of me was a man with his two wee boys, maybe around six and seven years of age. They laughed with their dad all through the endless gags of the short films. I found myself wondering how they would react to a feature length silent in the second half; I needn’t have worried, the little boys sat spellbound at Buster’s athletic stunts and laughed and laughed. I include this little personal moment here because it illustrates something Stevens does so well with this book – Buster is as wonderful and funny to new audiences as he was in his 1920s silent-era heyday, and he’s always being discovered by someone for the first time, just as I first found them when I was a kid, watching with my dad, and here I saw that process taking place again. More importantly I got to sit in a cinema, watching a man long dead, restored to life by a magical, flickering beam of light, and that man made people smile and laugh. What a wonderful gift and legacy, one rightly celebrated in this book.

Camera Man is published by Atria Books, out now in hardback, with the paperback release this April.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Film remembered

Nice, short video from TCM, remembering many of the film people we lost in 2022 (so sad that I have to add my beloved Filmhouse and Edinburgh International Film Festival to that list – see here):

The Filmhouse

Oh, where to start with this? Like many in the film world, especially in Edinburgh, I am still reeling from the shock of the sudden closing of the city’s wonderful Filmhouse cinema, home also to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, also shuttered. The evening before the news broke, I was booking a screening for the weekend. In fact, I am writing this piece at the time I should be sitting in screen one of the Filmhouse to watch a tribute to the late Jean-Luc Goddard, with a screening of A Bout de Souffle (Seberg in that fabulous pixie haircut, the irreplaceable Belmondo, sigh). And then I should come out of the theatre, a satisfied smile on my face, and head into the Filmhouse’s lovely cafe-bar for a post-film relax, drink, chat, food and just plain sit there and enjoy the atmosphere.

It’s not a newsflash to say cinemas have been struggling – we all know it, I’m sure most of us who read LFF are worried about it and trying our best to support our local cinemas, especially the independent and arthouse theatres like the Filmhouse. But the suddenness of the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), the charitable body that runs Filmhouse, declaring itself in administration has taken all of us by surprise. Only a few weeks ago I was busy filing reports from the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) right here on this site, waving the flag for interesting new films and new movie makers. I’ve been going to that festival for thirty years – this year the film festival, the oldest continually running film fest on our planet – celebrated its 75th birthday.

Filmhouse at night

Filmhouse 01

And now this.

Many in the arts are struggling right now – Covid, of course, put a huge torpedo beneath the waterline of many arts organisations and venues and creators on a global scale. The final weekend before that first Lockdown, I was going home from visiting a friend, knowing it may be my last chance for a while (we had no idea just how bloody long then). I passed the Filmhouse about 11 on a Saturday night. Cinemas, theatres and bars had already closed before the Lockdown. The street was deserted save for a couple waiting at a bus stop. City centre on a Saturday evening on a street with theatres, cinemas, bars and restaurants, dead. It was a chilling omen.

Filmhouse Noir

As restrictions have eased, and cinemas returned, then had to close again, then re-open, and the struggle to get studios to get the big film content back out on schedules again so a reluctant, scared audience had more reason to go out to the cinemas again went on (thank you, Chris Nolan for sticking to your guns and supporting cinemas for your release of Tenet), we’ve seen audiences come back, but often not in the same numbers as pre-Covid. It’s a pattern I have seen repeated all over the arts, even here, in the arts festival capital of the world. The Fringe was busy this summer, but nowhere near old levels. It was wonderful to be back to a couple of weeks of film festival, but while I saw good audiences, few of the screenings were quite as busy as before. I’ve seen similar even at book events, from in-store, small scale events to the big Edinburgh International Book Festival (some big crowds for certain names, but again that feeling that the same numbers are not coming back).

Between this and the huge rise in the cost of living, with the worst of the energy price rises looming, it was too much for an organisation that had already suffered through two years of hell nobody anticipated. How many businesses and venues have had the same problems?

For me, personally though, this is a wretched blow. I first encountered the Filmhouse when I moved to Edinburgh as a student in the autumn of 1991. The generous student discounts helped me go see more films, and as film was a part of my college studies, I could bunk off classes to go to the cinema and pretend it was research (any excuse). The lovely cafe-bar has long been one of my Happy Places, one of those spots where I can go when I am having a rough time, and always feel better just being there, even if I’m not going into a film. And, of course, after making it a second home for three decades, it is packed with memories for me.

I met new friends there – the former Filmhouse education officer (outreach was always an important part of their community-minded remit), Shiona, who was a guest lecturer at my college, and who became a friend (taken far too soon from us, but I still feel her presence every time I am at the FH). I felt encouraged to try films I may not otherwise have seen, at least not on the big screen (where the experience is always different). From new European and world cinema that nobody else in town was showing, to classics , from Buster Keaton to a 70mm print of 2001. I went with friends to the film study courses during the winter night, a screening then a lecture, then, of course, a good discussion about it all in the FH bar afterwards. Again it often opened me up to film-makers I may otherwise never have encountered.

And then there’s the film festival, headquartered in the FH’s19th century building. The buzz in the FH cafe-bar at 1am, coming out of a late night festival screening was something else, often some of the film-makers would be hanging around happily chatting to people over a drink, nobody wanting to go home, all on a festival high. At a festival retrospective on the works of Powell and Pressburger, I took a dear friend to see A Matter of Life and Death, which she had never seen. Just before the film, the festival announcer produced a surprise: a very frail, elderly man walked slowly onto the stage; it was Jack Cardiff, Powell and Pressburger’s now legendary cinematographer.

He told us of being given his break by them, of working on those movies – surely some of the most beautiful British films ever made – and I swear this very old man grew straighter and younger as he talked to us of those days of post-war British film-making. Remarkable experiences like that happened at the EIFF. Ray Harryhausen chatting to an audience, Dame Evelyn Glennie coming out after a documentary about her, to entertain the audience with a solo music performance using only a single snare drum, French actor Dominique Pinon in conversation, Karen Gillan using her post Doctor Who fame to help get her own Indy film made and then screened at the festival.

Dominique Pinon at Edinburgh Film Festival 05

Kevin Smith at Edinburgh Film Festival 05

New talent like Gareth Edwards standing on stage with his actors at one in the morning after screening Monsters, long before Lucasfilms would tag him to direct Rogue One, young animators at the McClaren Animation strand, quite a few of whom would go on to BAFTA and Oscar glory later with the films they showed us and talked to us about afterwards. Sir Sean Connery, a long-time supporter of the festival, waving from the red carpet at the opening gala, at a venue that was just a few moments walk from the streets where he delivered milk as a boy, before global stardom (often wondered what went through his head when he was back in that old neighbourhood). Kevin Smith running well past his allotted speaking time after a late night screening, and nobody cared because we were all sitting there with Kevin Smith. One year I even got invited into the projection booth and met Sid and Kenneth, the venerable cine- projectors (FH being one of the few places still with trained projectionists and the ability to show actual celluloid); the magic lanterns behind the curtain.

Magic lantern 03

late night at the film festival

The people who worked at the Filmhouse and the Festival weren’t just working there -like many of us who work in arts-related fields, they were there for the love of it all. Most were well-educated and could find much better-paying jobs, but this was a special place, warm, welcoming, inclusive, and the shared love of the medium shone through it all. Being made redundant is hard enough, as I’m sad to say I know too well; the shock, the up-turning of your regular existence, the awful worries about loss of income and how you can afford to live, how hard it may be to get another job. And if it is somewhere like this, that is compounded by the sudden loss of your surrogate family, a place where you didn’t just work, you liked being there, you liked what you did, you cared about the medium, about the people , the audiences, who came to share in it. All suddenly taken from over a hundred staff, just like that.

I really don’t know what the answers are here – we’ve lost a number of arts venue in the last couple of hard years, and I think we all fear losing more. These places enrich our lives, our culture – Filmhouse and the EIFF have been a vital part of my city’s cultural life, their demise is noted on the global scale, with even Variety and Hollywood Reporter lamenting on the sudden closure. And how many other venues are wobbling right now, how many may be finished off by the surge in prices this coming winter? I wish I had a Great Idea to fix it all, but I don’t . All I can say is when you have places like the Filmhouse or events like the film festival, cherish them and support them as much as you can; just like supporting your local, Indy, neighbourhood shops, if we don’t, we lose them, like we lost the Filmhouse, and we have damned well lost enough these last couple of years.

There is a public outcry for something to be done to save both the Filmhouse and EIFF; I don’t know if they will be saved, or if they are, in what form. Fair to say the entire arts community here is still in shock at it all, and there’s no indication yet of what, if any, help may be available, we can only hope. Meantime an online petition has been started asking to save both the Filmhouse and the EIFF; fellow movie lovers sharing the link and signing it would be very much appreciated.

This article was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Witch Hunt

Directed by Ella Callahan,
Starring Gideon Adlon, Elizabeth Mitchell, Abigail Cowen, Christian Camargo, Echo Campbell

Ella Callahan, who both writes and directs here, delivers a compelling take on witchcraft that explores its historical overtones, rooted in men’s fear of powerful, independent women and their compulsive need to control and dominate them into submission. While the Witch Hunt is set in contemporary America, and touches on modern issues, it also traces its lineage back the days of the early colonists, long before America was a nation, opening with a highly disturbing sequence – in this new land of growing intolerance it isn’t enough simply to persecute any woman who shows magical abilities, to deny them the normal rights of any citizen, they can and are subject to the barbaric, monstrous death sentence passed down through history for witchcraft: being burned alive.

Right from the start Callahan shows us this repressive, brutal society in action, a red-haired woman tied to a public stake, the looming figure of the Witchfinder, seen at first only from behind, clutching the burning torch, the flames lit and rising, the desperation on the woman’s face, then the screaming as the heat, smoke and flames reach her, her skin burning as she is forced to endure this utterly horrific, violently painful and prolonged death. The god-fearing citizens watch the spectacle, among them her own two young girls, the older sister Fiona (Abigail Cowen), and her much younger sibling, Shae (Echo Campbell), forced to watch their mother’s death, powerless to help, aware how easily the crowd could turn on them for being “different”.

This isn’t even a society where witches are hunted for practising dark magics on anyone – simply being born with magical ability is enough. The magical beings are all women, the witch hunter force we see are usually male, lead by Christian Camargo’s officer, who proudly explains that his family have been witch hunters for generations. To him this is a matter of honour for his family, but in reality it simply shows how the same lies, fears and bigotry are perpetuated endlessly through the generations and years. This is a US with border wall to stop women fleeing to sanctuary in Mexico, where schools indoctrinate the students into unquestioning belief in the constitutional amendment that covers the witchcraft persecutions. Schoolgirls are routinely subjected to medical tests for “witch marks”, those who do not pass are given a modern form of the medieval “ducking”, strapped to chairs, dunked into the school swimming pool to check if they are witches or not (something which can obviously go horribly wrong).

Martha Goode (Elizabeth Mitchell) is a single mother, bringing up her teen daughter Claire (Gideon Adlon) and her two smaller boys after the death of her husband, in a large, remote old farmhouse. She is also a part of a modern day “underground railroad”, which, like its predecessor before and during the US Civil War in the mid 19th century, uses a network of safe houses to transport and hide victims before smuggling them to safety. Of course this comes with enormous risk – the authorities are now pushing not only for more sanctions on witches but to also impose them on the children of anyone found guilty of witchcraft, regardless of what they have or have not done.

Claire doesn’t understand why her mother risks them all for strangers – she and her teenage girlfriends have been brought up to accept the witch hunting as necessary and required, so she is already suspicious of these desperate women (in much the same way the Nazis ensured all levels of society were given the same brainwashing of anti-Semitism in the 1930s), and being a teen she also resents the fact that this means she doesn’t get to do regular teen stuff like have her friends over (obviously impossible in case they saw one of the hidden witches in the house). When Fiona and little Shae wash up on their doorstep and a breakdown in the usual underground chain means they have to stay longer than usual, it puts the family at far more risk, but also means Claire starts to get to know the similarly aged Fiona, and this begins to change things.

This is a fascinating and disturbing film – it harks back to the earliest histories of Europeans in the Americas, with the bloody, violent witchcraft persecutions of innocent women (even Martha’s surname Goode, could be seen as another nod to that terrible time as several women famously accused during the infamous Salem trials were from the Good family), but it also draws heavily on the modern day. The large wall along the southern border and the callous men of the witch hunting department who patrol it has obvious echoes in the recent Trump era in the US, while the fact that, as with earlier historical cases, this modern witch hunting uses society and law to police and control women, keep them in their place, with men ensuring the laws are carried out without mercy. It partakes as much of Atwood’s superb Handmaid’s Tale as it does historic abuse of women for witchcraft, touches on the #MeToo era movement, the slavery era, even the Suffragette era (as with that time, many women have been conditioned by their society to believe and support these laws which harm other women), and draws in feminist iconography from pop culture, such as Thelma and Louise.

I suspect this is one of those films where the more you think about it, the more you will see in it – it’s a gripping and frequently disturbing narrative in its own right, not least with Camargo’s witch hunter who is so matter of fact about the rightness of his brutal repression and the almost powerlessness of the women caught up in this system, but there are so many elements to think about here that it will resonate in your head long after viewing. Forget that pretty generic poster and cover artwork, this is a far more complex and mature work than it would suggest, and well worthy of your time.

Witch Hunt is released by Signature Entertainment on DVD and digital platforms from July 5th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films 

Reviews: The Darkness

The Darkness,
Directed by Tharun Mohan,
Starring Amelia Eve, Cyril Blake, Katherine Hartshorne

Like many, young couples Lisa (Amelia Eve) and David (Cyril Blake) are eager for an escape from the pace and pressures of city life, so when they have the opportunity to stay in David’s grandmother’s country cottage in rural Ireland, they take it. David has a new business scheme he wants some peace and space to work on, while Lisa, a writer, is planning to work on her next book. Naturally it doesn’t quite work out that way – we all know from our movies that if you move into an old house in the country, there’s bound to be something spooky!

It starts with small things – lights going on and off, something being moved, a figure glimpsed briefly out of the corner of the eye. Lisa goes from being unsettled and disturbed by these events to becoming quite obsessed with investigating them, using her research skills as a writer to start exploring the history of the cottage and the nearby village. She discovers a woman raised as an orphan once lived there, Niav (Katherine Hartshorne), a century or so before, finding love and marriage with the man who owned the cottage, finding the family she had never known in her younger life. Lisa herself has a not dissimilar background, so she feels some kinship with Niav, but very soon her research starts to resemble a dangerous obsession and it isn’t clear if there are really strange events happening, or if she is simply becoming more erratic and unstable.

The Darkness mines that seam of “is it real or is it in her head” well, to increase the sense of unease and wrongness, using elements of the psychological thriller-horror alongside more traditional haunting tropes to good effect, as Lisa finds there may be a far more disturbing, hidden past than anyone in the village (with the exception of a now mentally disturbed old priest) knows of. Rather than going down the straight haunting or possession route though, The Darkness instead uses its location wisely and draws on Irish folklore and myth, mixed with human chicanery, to flesh out this hidden history Lisa is now finding out about.

While not perfect, this is an interesting take on the urban couple relocating to the isolated countryside trope – we’ve all seen a hundred horrors along those lines, after all. The Darkness may be small budget with an equally small cast, but its use of local folklore and building the sense of unease slowly works well, and the Irish folkloric aspect lends some freshness to it.

The Darkness is available from Reel2Reel Films from Monday 3rd May

This review was originally penned for Live For Films 

Reviews: Brooding, disturing Gothic horror in Reunion

Reunion,
Directed by Jake Mahaffy,
Starring Julia Ormond, Emma Draper, John Bach, Cohen Holloway and Nancy Brunning

I went into this Kiwi film knowing very little about it, other than it had attracted some good word of mouth via the film festival circuit (which is usually a good sign), and that its small cast included Julia Ormond. Sometimes you just get a vibe about a film and know you have to have a look at it, and I had that feeling with Reunion. I’m glad I listened to that instinct, as Jake Mahaffy (he both wrote and directed) has created a superb film which takes in elements of the dysfunctional inter-generational family drama, the horror genre and includes some well-crafted disturbing scenes and imagery that will get under your skin.

Heavily pregnant, Ellie (Emma Draper), reluctantly returns home to the large, brooding, family home and her mother Ivy (Julia Ormond). It’s clear right away that Ellie really doesn’t want to be here, and that she and her mother don’t get along, but we get the impression she’s had little choice in where to go, having broken up with her partner and father of the child she is carrying. The large, old house still also includes her father Jack (John Bach), once an eminent doctor, now confined mostly to his bed or wheelchair and unable to communicate very much, a shadow of the dominant man we see in later flashbacks to Ellie’s childhood, or in the old VHS tapes of family life her mother still has.

Reunion plays with the viewer, only giving us limited information – we have to try to discern what is going on and what the family dynamics are by the impressions we are given, then some flashbacks and old family videos, while later Ellie experiences dreams or visions of moments from her childhood, including a horribly traumatic moment over her deceased half-sister Cara. However, sometimes these visions and flashbacks are distorted, sometimes they play out differently; likewise when she argues with her mother the viewer gets the impression that Ellie is not really a reliable narrator.

We learn she has long-running mental health issues and has been on medication, and we don’t know if we can trust her version of events or if it is all the product of a very troubled mind, and Draper does a remarkable job in conveying a woman in turmoil, worried about impending motherhood, haunted by her past (which may or may not be as she recalls it) and constantly arguing with her mother; it is hard to know if you want to root for Ellie or to dislike her, and I think that’s a deliberate ploy on behalf of both Mahaffy and Draper; it makes the drama and the mystery far more intriguing and draws the viewer in further, I think.

Her mother seems at first to be the practical, put-upon mother who, with a sigh, just gets on with things in that way that mums often do: invalid husband, she looks after him and takes care of what needs done around the family house (it is filled with boxes as Ellie arrives, preparing to clear it out and sell if off, their shared history concealed inside boxes, a metaphor for their actual lives). Her troubled daughter who tried to make a go of it away from the family nest forced to return, yes, mum will sigh and then get on with trying to take her in hand too.

Except as the film progresses we start to question Ivy: is she really the selfless mother taking on care for an invalided husband and an adult daughter who can’t cope on her own? Or does she have other, hidden agendas? As she and Ellie argue we slowly start to move from thinking Ellie’s memories are distorted by her mental illness and trauma to wondering if perhaps she is right, or at least partly right, and perhaps Ivy’s matriarchal stance conceals some dark secrets, that perhaps it isn’t all in Ellie’s head and that Ivy is lying to her, even gaslighting her into believing something that isn’t true. It’s hard to know who to trust, who has the correct version, and perhaps neither of them truly do, and it makes the mystery all the darker and more intriguing.

Mixed through this Mahaffy makes great use of the large, old country house, a place which would have once been impressive, bustling and now houses only three broken souls, personal items boxed up to go, many doors locked (Ivy carries a bunch of keys with her everywhere she goes, a symbol of her attempt to control the narrative of their history as much as it is to control the house). Glimpses of things out of the corner of the eye, doors that move by themselves, glimpses of the ghost of Cara, still the child she was when she died (or is this vision also in Ellie’s troubled head?), it all induces a claustrophobic sense of unease, of something trying to pretend to be a normal family home but not really managing. Woven into this are some superbly disturbing moments, which I am not going to ruin here with spoilers, but suffice to say they added greatly to the brooding, disturbing atmosphere which lies over Reunion.

This is a highly effective, slow-burning, atmosphere-building horror-drama, rewarding the viewer with some deliciously disturbing elements that will remain in your mind’s eye; part family drama, part Gothic horror, part ghost story, part mental health tale, it takes all of these and creates an absorbing narrative, beautifully shot, with Ormond and Draper carrying the film. Highly recommended.

Reunion will be released by 101 Films on digital from March 22nd

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: The Final Stand

The Final Stand,
Directed by Vadim Shmelyov,
Starring Artyom Gubin, Lubov Konstantinova, Igor Yudin, Aleksey Bardukov, Yekaterina Rednikova

Russia, 1941: the full weight of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, is upon the Russian people. The Nazis, having already taken Western Europe with their Blitzkrieg tactics, have turned this ferocious might on the vast lands to the east, storming through huge areas so swiftly that defences are overwhelmed before they can make a proper account of themselves. The enemy is trampling almost at will over the Motherland, seemingly unstoppable, with Moscow itself now in imminent danger of being overrun. The Red Army is bringing in more troops and equipment from far afield, but desperately needs time to marshal them for a defence. The cadets of the Podolsk infantry and artillery schools are going to buy that time.

The Final Stand begins with some beautifully shot battle scenes – if that’s not oxymoronic. Crisp, high-definition shots in slow-motion capture pouring rain (you can almost see the droplets hitting the helmets of the troops), the expressions on the soldier’s faces as they yell in alarm, the mud splashing around them, explosions. And as the film goes back to normal speed we realise this is the cadets in training, not in combat. It’s a good opening, on the one hand Shmelyov is setting out his stall – this is not a film which will hold back in depicting the realities of combat, and it will use refined film techniques to capture them in fantastic clarity – on the other hand it brings in a moment of light-heartedness to contrast against the brutality (the film mixes in some welcome little bursts of humour here and there, it isn’t all action and suffering).

The cadets are all young, so very, very young, just as their real-life counterparts would have been. They are aware of the war coming their way, most have not seen battle but feel they must do their duty to protect the Motherland. They’re willing to serve and risk their lives, but it’s also obvious that these young, untried cadets have that invincibility of youth feeling – while they know many are dying, they don’t quite get that, they are young, unstoppable, eager to prove themselves, it is almost an adventure, they are courting some of the equally young military nurses (their officers, older, more seasoned, know what is coming and are trying to prepare their young charges). Despite the advancing Nazi invasion their mood is high, but they are about to be put to the test, and a great many of these eager young cadets will not return to tell the tale.

While the film has its flaws – Shmelyov is a bit too fond of the high-definition slow-motion, or the fast action that suddenly goes to slow-motion then back to fast (which can be an effective technique, but needs to be used sparingly, I think), the characters and main plot are fairly generic (the big, tough lug with a heart of gold, the shy one, the schoolboy one etc) – it has some damned impressive moments, and some interesting details, such as the threat of Russian-speaking Nazi infiltrators in Soviet uniforms going ahead of the main forces, or the small forces of special troops who operate behind the enemy lines to get information back to the main forces.

And the main battle sequences are impressive set-pieces – screaming artillerymen trying to drag and move their cannon and line it up quicker than the turret on a German panzer can turn and target on them is tense and terrifying. The fearsome Stuka dive-bombers screaming out of the sky – the Russian airforce at this point having been largely knocked out of the game by the Luftwaffe – bombing and strafing almost with impunity, and its horrendous. As with the scenes as German aircraft attacked the almost helpless soldiers on the beach in Nolan’s Dunkirk, you can feel the visceral horror and terror of it, and you’re aware that what you feel is only a shadow of what the real historical characters went through.

While it does have some generic elements and sometimes leans too much on certain visual techniques, like the aforementioned slow-motion, it is beautifully shot, clarity and production values matching any Western war or action film. Like many of a certain age I grew up on war movies, The Longest Day to Reach For the Sky, In Which We Serve, Battle of the River Plate and more, and I still have a soft spot for WWII films, which were once such a huge part of cinema but, like the Western, is a genre that has largely faded these days to a few entries, so I’m always intrigued to see a new one appear, and in this case it is also very interesting to see the Russian perspective.

In Russia the Second World War is often referred to as The Great Patriotic War; while the West took its share of the horrendous butcher’s bill of the war in both military and civilian casualties, the sheer scale of the Soviet losses is just unbelievable. Shmelyov knows he cannot depict all the millions lost in the maelstrom of the Eastern Front, but his group of young cadets, answering their country’s call in its darkest hour, allows those few to stand for the many. A solid, beautifully shot war movie.

The Final Stand is released by Signature Entertainment on DVD and Digital from March 8th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gR3fbtXm1nA&feature=youtu.be&ab_channel=SignatureEntertainment

Reviews: Jennifer Kent’s powerful The Nightingale

The Nightingale,
Directed by Jennifer Kent
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, and Baykali Ganambarr

Aussie director Jennifer Kent’s debut, The Babadook, blew me away, and many other audiences around the globe. It didn’t just give us a fascinating, engrossing horror, it had such fabulous emotional complexity to it, matched by some beautiful crafted visuals. It was hard to believe this was the work of a debut director. The Nightingale, Kent’s second feature film, has again left me quite happily astonished at how incredibly confident and assured she is in bringing her vision to the screen and getting the best out of her actors. With great accolades accrued on the international film festival circuit, it is now getting a richly-deserved special edition Blu-Ray release by the good folks at Second Sight, which gives us a great excuse to revisit this powerful and compelling film.

It’s the 1820s in Van Diemen’s Land – what would later be called Tasmania – during the era where the Land Down Under was still being used by the British Empire as a colony built using exported convicts, many of whom would have committed what we would consider tiny infractions (stealing bread to stay alive, for instance), and found themselves sentenced to Transportation to the other side of the world, to a land totally alien to them. It was a cheap and exploitative way for the British authorities to start settling this vast new southern continent (well, new to Europeans who, as usual in history, pretty much ignored the fact that others had lived there for thousands of years already, such was the colonial mindset of the era).

Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict, in a remote settlement overseen by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). She’s already well past the duration of her sentence, but Hawkins simply won’t sign her release papers. Claflin makes a wonderful job of delivering his Hawkins, a petty man desperate to be The Big Man (he’s clearly relishing the chance to portray such a nasty character). He’s in charge here, but only of a ragged troop of very sorry looking soldiers and a few convicts, taking every opportunity to show his power over them, but painfully aware of his own junior rank by a visiting superior, and that there are others above him who hold power over him as he does over the people below him, and how he hates that.

The Nightingale is not an easy film to watch – its subject matter is fiercely strong, including gender and race issues, violent sexual assaults and brutal torture and murder of Aboriginals, and that content is there from very early in the film, where Clare is forced to sing to entertain the troops before the visiting senior officer (who Hawkins hopes to impress as he tries to gain a promotion), with the drunken rabble leering horribly at her, followed by Hawkins inviting her to sing to him in his quarters, where he forces himself on her.

Franciosi’s acting is utterly remarkable throughout this film – a scene following this rape sees her lying side by side with her baby, telling her stories by the firelight. Franciosi perfectly captures the competing emotions running through Clare; she is smiling for her infant, bonding with her baby, but behind that smile you can see micro-expressions, especially around the eyes, the trauma manifesting itself, that “what just happened to me, how could that happen?” feeling, and you can see her struggling to hold it in check, to be warm and loving and strong for her child while fighting the effects of the brutality visited upon her. It’s a small scene but just one of many where Franciosi’s acting craft is displayed; she clearly cares about her character deeply and wants to convey all the contrasting emotional depths of Clare.

In one of the many extras on this special edition there is an interview with Franciosi, where she reveals how drawn she was to the part. She tells us that Kent had a psychotherapist in the production, and she was free to constantly talk to the therapist about people who had endured traumas and PTSD, how they reacted both physically and mentally, as well as them taking her to visit women in refuges who had been in violent relationships so she could talk to them. She also commented that some of those women found those scenes hard to watch (they are, and they should be), but also pleased that these issues were being raised so viscerally and visibly in a public sphere, because these are not just historical atrocities but sadly a very modern reality for too many (likewise the abuse and murder of Aboriginal people being shown so clearly was also felt deeply by contemporary Aboriginal viewers).

Clare is put through worse, however, driving her into an almost Western-style quest through the outback for vengeance, with Billy – Baykali Ganambarr – as her Aboriginal guide. At first she’s as bad as the English officers and soldiers, seeing “the blacks” as monsters, not human, likely to turn round and cut her throat if she isn’t careful. She even spend the first part of their trek through the forest with her rifle pointed at Billy. As their perilous trip continues they very slowly start to realise how similar they are, how both have been robbed by the brutal, uncaring Powers That Be, with everything taken from them, their lands, their families. Baykali Ganambarr’s performance too is just something else to behold – modern Australia is still coming to terms with the historical abuse of Aboriginal people, and it seems clear this young actor took very seriously the chance to portray some of that history on the screen. A scene where he is treated with some small humanity by an elderly man sees him break down in tears, “this is my land, this is my land…” he weeps as the gentle treatment breaks the emotional dam within him.

These actors are put through the emotional wringer repeatedly, without even so much as a soundtrack to distract from the vicious horrors inflicted upon them, and yes, it is hard to take – it should be hard to take, after all – but ye gods, the acting craft on show here from these young leads is just superb to see, and the way it is constructed and put together so assuredly by Kent I was again constantly reminding myself that this was only her second feature film, and yet here was this immensely powerful subject matter, deftly handled by director and actors, unflinchingly presented with assured hands on the tiller. I’ve got Kent marked down as one of my directors to watch out for in the future. Like Karyn Kusama after watching Destroyer and The Invitation, I now have Kent on my list of film-makers where I will watch any new work they do (and come on, we all love film here, so I am sure many of you also love finding new talent like this too).

This limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight comes with a pile of extras, including numerous interviews (some had to be recorded during the ongoing pandemic and so aren’t shot in quite the way they would be normally, but that’s to be expected in current conditions, and in fact I think kudos go to the Second Sight team for being able to arrange them during these wretched Covid days). I found Franciosi’s interview in the extras to be the most compelling; I said earlier how deep her acting felt to me, and in this extra she revealed a lot of what went into that performance, and also how much it took out of her (I was unsurprised that at the end of filming, emotionally and physically exhausted, she told her agent to hold offers for a while because she needed the rest). All of that performance, that authenticity, that depth of expression and emotion, is all up there on the screen, a testament to the cast and the crew,

The Nightingale is released on a special limited edition Blu-Ray by Second Sight on February 8th. This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Reviews: The Night Porter

The Night Porter,
Directed by Liliana Cavani,
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Phillipe Leroy

Cult Films brings a sharp, 4K restored version of Cavani’s 1974 controversial classic to Blu-Ray, and the passage of the decades has not lessened its impact, the ability of this film to be simultaneously fascinating, compelling, provocative and disturbing. Max (Bogarde, an actor too often overlooked these days, I think), is working as a night porter, manning the desk in a hotel in 1950s Vienna, where he and several other old comrades meet regularly to plan how to keep their wartime records in the SS concealed and themselves safe from any possible justice for their actions as part of the Nazi regime. They ensure documents are destroyed and any potential witnesses dealt with to ensure their anonymous safety. There is no hint of regret for their part in the atrocities performed by the SS, only the ruthless desire to avoid ever being brought to account for it.

Max is quiet, not just a man keeping a low profile, Bogarde invests him with a real feeling of a damaged person who has retreated from much of the world, not only to hide his past, but because he feels self-revulsion, even preferring to work night shifts because the harsh light of day shines too bright a light on his life and guilt. He is tightly buttoned, quiet, fastidious in appearance, not rocking the boat with his old SS comrades but neither fully joining in either. When we see him in a scene in his apartment we see behind this quiet, impeccably turned out exterior, his hair awry, pulling his curtains against the coming day, shuddering and crying as wartime memories overwhelm him.

When a famous conductor arrives at the hotel with his wife Lucia (Rampling), the pair recognise one another, triggering flashbacks for both: Max as an SS officer in one of the death camps, Lucia as one of the inmates who captures his eye. It’s an interesting reversal – from the wartime camps where Max held all the power and could indulge in exploitation as he wished, with impunity, now he is the one who is frightened, his potential survival threatened as she now has the power over him.

Except Night Porter isn’t that simple – you might expect after the initial shock of encountering this former SS officer who used her, Lucia would be angry, seek justice, tell her husband and then the authorities who Max really is. But that doesn’t happen – both she and Max struggle with the rush of barely repressed memories, but what transpires, both the wartime events and the current events in the hotel, is a more complicated mix than oppressed and oppressor, there is a strange relationship here. A twisted, very damaged relationship, to be sure, but there is something there, and they feel its compulsion once more, falling into a strange, often sado-masochistic, dark form of romance.

A lot of the criticism of this film, then and now, is that it is basically Nazi sexploitation. And while, yes, it does feature a lot of very odd sexual scenes – a shorn-haired prisoner Lucia, half naked in an officer’s cap, singing Lili Marlene songs as she dances seductively for the SS officers in the camp, for instance, or vulnerable, naked prisoners being filmed by Max as they are interviewed – I don’t hold with the sexploitation label myself. Despite the sexual scenes and nudity it’s often not what I’d think of as erotic, more disturbing, an exploration of two fragmented , damaged psyches. Cavani always maintained that it wasn’t really about the sex, and I tend to agree, those elements are more visual symptoms of the trauma both have lived with.

I first saw this film many decades ago, and this is the first time I’ve rewatched it since – I found it a remarkable and unusual film then, and even more so today. Cavani frames some astonishing scenes – the half-naked cabaret scene I mentioned earlier is a visual that sticks in the mind – but the real standout here are the performances from Bogarde and Rampling, so much communicated through very small gestures, body language, tiny changes to expressions to indicate the whirling turmoil within Max and Lucia.

Cult Film’s 4K restoration does justice to this unusual, provocative movie, showing it off, and including extras such as new interviews with both director Cavani and Charlotte Rampling, both of whom have some interesting insights into this very unusual slice of film history.

The Night Porter gets its 4k Blu-Ray release by Cult Film on November 30th. This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Walkabout

Walkabout,
Starring Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg, David Gulpilil,
Directed by Nic Roeg

During the Lockdown, BBC4 in the UK broadcast David Stratton’s “Stories of Australian Cinema”, a three part documentary on the history and evolution of film-making in that vast, continent-sized country. Naturally one of the films covered was the legendary Nic Roeg’s 1971 movie, Walkabout and I’ve had a strong urge to revisit this film since watching the series. And then Second Sight announced a limited edition Blu-Ray of Walkabout (packed with extras, including interviews with Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg, in a box set complete with James Vance Marshall’s original 1950s novel), and there I was losing myself in this classic again.

Both then and now there was some debate, not least in Australia itself, around whether Walkabout is really an Aussie film – a British director, US money, but shot in Australia. For my money it is very much an Australian film, not just because of the location, but the way Roeg makes that vast, ancient land an important part of the film. These are not just locations for a scene, the land itself often is the scene, or a strong part of it; the small-scale human interaction within it may drive the actual narrative, but the land itself surrounds everything they do and say, the two English children (Agutter and a very young Luc Roeg as her small brother) in their school uniforms and prim, plummy accents, outsiders in an environment they not only don’t understand but aren’t really equipped to even really try to comprehend, Gulpilil the Aboriginal boy on Walkabout, brought up to respect the land, the stories that go with it, that form his culture and his guide to survival.

The story is essentially pretty simple – the two children, Agutter and Roeg – are stranded in the Outback desert when their father, who has driven them there for a picnic, loses his mind, and attempts to kill them, before setting fire to the car and taking his own life. Agutter hides the suicide from her young brother, grabs some of the food and the two start walking. But they are from a city environment, and a strata of society that back then still had a middle-class that basically tried to recreate the middle-class English existence, there’s no attempt to adapt and assimilate into this other country, it is more an attempt to push a transplanted cultural imperialism onto it, and means they haven’t the faintest idea about the vastness of the Outback, much less how to survive (when they encounter Gulpilil Agutter asks him for water. He doesn’t speak English so she simply repeats herself as if speaking to an imbecile, before muttering that she can’t be any clearer. It’s a polite version of the modern, mono-lingual Brit abroad who thinks if they shout loudly in English the other person will understand them somehow).

The good-natured Gulpilil communicates with them through mime and gesture, mostly with Roeg’s younger brother, the two forming a bit of a bond together. Gulpilil generously helps the pair find water and shares his hunting kills with them, slowly guiding them back towards their own world after some shared travels. You could see it as strangers in a strange land fable, as a coming of age story (especially Agutter and Gulpilil, the two teens on the cusp of adulthood and all that brings with it), or as a survival story, or a mix of all three. And indeed yes, Walkabout is all of these things, but really, those are just the skeletons the film is draped over.

No, the real essence of Walkabout isn’t really those elements, it is a wonderfully-realised dream-like state, using clever imagery, symbolism and cross-cutting and editing, to create an atmosphere and imagery that is as rich as the Outback environment itself, a filmic version of the ancient Songlines and Dreamtime of Aboriginal culture, sometimes languid, like the dream of a half-waking doze on a warm day, sometimes sudden, even violent, mixing Aboriginal culture (Gulpilil, already an experienced dancer despite his young age here, crafts an intoxicating scene entirely through traditional dancing) and allusions to the Garden of Eden, innocence and its loss, nature and the urban.

This isn’t a film that is easy to review, because it’s more than a film, Walkabout is an experience, a waking dream on celluloid that can be shared, and how each of us reacts to those images and sounds will be different. It is a film to lose yourself in, to drink in those rich images, that landscape and nature. A commercial flop on its original release, it remains an important film, lauded by many critics and the BFI as a classic – it helped to kickstart the new wave of Aussie film-making which has gone on to enrich world cinema (something we here obviously care deeply about), and it launched the then-young Gulpilil onto a career which has seen him become an iconic figure in Australian cinema. If, like me, you haven’t seen this film in a long time, this is a very welcome chance to revisit this moving dream of a movie; if you haven’t seen it before then sit back and let this classic wash over you with its rich imagery.

Walkabout will receive a limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight from 27th August

This review was originally penned for the Live For Films site.