Reviewed today: Battle For Haditha, Boy A, The English Surgeon, Far North, I'm Not There.
1.15pm: Boy A
A few years ago I had a big scary birthday, and I chose to spend it in Dublin. The main focus of the weekend was the Lisdoonvarna music festival, but anyone who knows me will realise that a movie had to be part of the celebrations. So on the big day, we saw Intermission, a local production that wasn't going to hit England for another couple of months. Written by Mark O'Rowe and directed by John Crowley, it was like Ireland's contribution to the tail end of that post-Pulp Fiction tradition of multi-character narratives with unexpected combinations of violence and comedy, even managing in the process to finally make me see the point of Colin Farrell. (At least, until he murdlerised I Fought The Law over the closing credits.)
Crowley and O'Rowe could have started off a promising movie career off the back of Intermission's success, but instead they chose go to back to their origins in theatre: it's only now, four years later, that they've come up with a follow-up, made for Channel 4. Adapted from a novel by Jonathan Trigell, it's the story of young Jack Burridge (Andrew Garfield), who we first meet on the day when he's released back into society after a period away, starting up a new life in Manchester.
Part of the impact that the film has comes from the way information is slowly drip-fed to the viewer. We know that Jack has a counsellor Terry (Peter Mullan) on call should anything go wrong: we know that Jack Burridge is a fake name that he's chosen for himself: and we know that he's been locked away so long that things like DVDs and paninis are foreign to him. We realise that he must have done something terrible as a child to justify this treatment. At some point we're going to find out what that is: but the same also applies to the new friends and colleagues that Jack has made.
Boy A is almost a great film, though inevitably some of its power is leeched from events in recent British history. It sets up our sympathy with Jack very neatly: we get to see him gradually making his way into his new life before we're given the first hint of what he's done. The trick the film needs to be able to pull off is to keep our sympathy once we find out more about him, and a spellbinding performance by Andrew Garfield as Jack allows that to happen. There's a real tension in the first three-quarters of the film, as you're on the edge of your seat willing things to go right for him.
It's not giving too much away to say that eventually, things start to go wrong - if they didn't, we wouldn't have a story. But after the slowly ratcheting tension of most of the film, the actual climax feels somewhat botched (mainly through largely happening offscreen), not giving us the dramatic release we need at the end. Which is a real shame, because Garfield's winning performance deserves better. Nevertheless, Boy A's an engrossing watch for much of its running time.
6.00pm: Far North
The second in a day's worth of films by English directors - in this case Asif Kapadia, whose The Warrior caused a bit of a stir a few LFFs back and won the Sutherland Trophy. His new film is set in the frozen north, where two women - Saiva (Michelle Yeoh) and the younger Anja (Michelle Krusiec) - eke out a living in the treacherous conditions. They avoid contact with other people, as Saiva has always considered herself to be under a curse which will affect anyone who spends any time with her. So when the soldier Loki (Sean Bean) suddenly appears, the fragile stability of their existence starts to crumble.
It's a slight story - apparently Sara Maitland's original takes up no more than six pages. Kapadia and his co-writer Tim Miller do well to add a level of backstory that wasn't there before, and exploit the huge open snowscapes to great visual effect. The film manages to achieve an epic look, while being about little more than the relationships between three characters. But for the story to succeed, it needs to have the larger-than-life quality of myth: it's possible that Maitland's story had it, but Kapadia's film never achieves that.
I felt moderately stupid at the Q&A afterwards when someone brought up the obvious comparison point I'd missed - the Japanese horror tale Onibaba, which also deals with two women's relationship destroyed by the arrival of a soldier. In that film, there's a slow-building atmosphere of unreality, which leads you to believe anything can happen - and when the story takes a turn for the supernatural at the climax, you're prepared for it. There's a similarly ballsy tonal shift towards the end of Far North, but at that point the film simply isn't big enough to accommodate it. I can see exactly what Kapadia was trying to pull off with the ending, and if he'd succeeded it would have been astonishing. But, unfortunately, he doesn't.
9.00pm: Battle For Haditha (official site)
Not only are all three of today's films British in origin, they've also all got Film 4 money behind them. So, will the connection go even deeper, to the extent that Battle For Haditha will also start out strongly and then cock it up in the final reel? Happily, no.
In fact, Nick Broomfield has so much confidence in his film's climax that he gives it away in his opening caption: assuming you weren't previously aware of the story, of course. In November 2005, an American Marine was killed in the Iraqi city of Haditha when a roadside bomb went off. The Marines' response resulted in the deaths of 24 Iraqis and the injury of many more. Broomfield's film is a dramatisation of the events before, during and after: it follows the US platoon led by Corporal Ramirez (Elliot Ruiz), the insurgents who planted the bomb, and the Iraqis like Hiba (Yasmine Hanani) and her family who were caught up in the ensuing firefight.
Inevitably, with Battle For Haditha coming towards the end of the Festival and Redacted coming at the start, comparisons are going to be drawn between the two. Both films concentrate on a single incident in the Iraq War which shows the US Army in a bad light, looking at the facts from a variety of viewpoints. But where the technique in Redacted ended up distancing the viewer from the action, Broomfield uses his experience as a documentary filmmaker to draw you right in. It's the most cinematic of his films that I've seen, with an incredibly mobile camera that frequently has the viewer just one pace behind his fast-moving actors.
As in Broomfield's previous film Ghosts, those actors are non-professionals with similar experiences to the characters in the story - in this case, former Marines and expat Iraqis living in Jordan (where this was filmed). I know a couple of people who found that this unskilled, semi-improvised approach didn't work for them on Ghosts - The Belated Birthday Girl is one of them, which is why she's currently on the other side of town watching footage of brain surgery. But here - possibly because a lot of Haditha is about reacting to circumstances that they're intimately familiar with - Broomfield's cast does just fine.
You could argue that the process of converting this incident into a story has its own problems: specifically, the feeling that we're schematically introduced to several Iraqi characters just because they're going to die a bit later on. But the second half clusterfuck of the story is powerful enough to steamroller over any objections on that score. And Broomfield is careful to show that although both the Iraqis and Americans are claiming victory by the end of the day, in effect everybody loses. People on both sides are being manipulated by those in power: the sheiks who accept the deaths of innocent families as material that can be used for propaganda purposes, and the generals who send in troops and refuse to accept responsibility when things go wrong. It's raw, powerful stuff, and a story that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.
Notes From Spank's Pals
I'm Not There (official site)
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - When I was a kid I used to collect books on The Beatles alongside football programmes (never quite remember which ones I had more of). So I remember reading somewhere that when Bob Dylan first came to Britain, he and his entourage made a beeline for The Beatles and subsequently The Stones (during the course of which he was to form a life long friendship and artistic collaboration with George Harrison). Anyway John Lennon (easily the sharpest and most sardonic of The Beatles) was later to admit that he was intimidated by Dylan's intellect and wit and always felt uncomfortable around him.
I rehash this because there is a complete drought of intellect and wit in the incoherent ramblings of the various Timelord Dylans on display here. As such the script is usually something you are more likely to come across around closing time at your local boozer. Thus the various Dylans (the Cate Blanchett mid-Sixties version being the worst example) don't actually converse with anyone. Instead they just make a series of 'profound' (?) statements. Now I haven't see many interviews with the great man myself, but in the few I have, he always came across as short, sharp, to the point, whilst often deflating the pomposity of those around him. The dialogue here however runs like a poor man's version of Subterranean Homesick Blues stretched into two and a quarter hours.
Okay so what else don't I like? Well as you ask, the structure is all over the place, stepping back and forward in time whenever the mood takes. Now the problem with such an approach is that it immediately then makes an almighty big assumption that everyone coming to this is fully clued up to Dylan's career, and can immediately identify where the Tardis has just landed. Well I have a sketchy idea, but unfortunately that wasn't enough to make sense of this (is that my fault?). My guess is that the dyed in the wool Dylan aficionado would have a real struggle as well. As such, nothing really happens, and two seminal moments in his life (his motorbike crash and mid-Seventies conversion to Christianity) are just skirted over without a sense of happening or context.
All that said, the house full cinema audience applauded enthusiastically at the end, but as a former boss of mine used to say 'bullshit baffles brains'.
The English Surgeon (official site)
The Belated Birthday Girl - The original title of this film - Russian Roulette with Two Revolvers - is taken from an analogy made by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh: on the one hand, the risks of carrying out brain surgery may include death or disablement, but this has to be weighed against the risks of doing nothing. The film accompanies Marsh on one of his trips to the Ukraine, where he provides equipment, assistance and moral support to fellow neurosurgeon and friend of 15 years Igor Kurilets, and follows him through clinic sessions with queues of people desperate for some - not always possible - last hope; an operation on a brain tumour under local anaesthetic (it allows the surgeon to be, in Marsh's words, "braver", as he can check the patient's motor responses better during surgery if he is awake); and on an emotional trip to the family of a girl he operated on some years before.
Marsh's attitude, humanity, sense of humour and showmanship are key to making this an effective documentary, as is the determination of Igor, working in a difficult and resource-starved system. The central section of the film focuses on the operation, and is the sort of thing you'll either find fascinating (even if the description of the noise levels of drilling into your skull while you are wide awake might make you grit your teeth), or, if squeamish, unwatchable - fortunately, I fall into the former camp. But the film is infused throughout with compassion, and threaded with many very funny moments.
Made for the BBC Storyville strand, I imagine this will appear on a TV near you, and is well worth catching, but if you get the chance to see it in a cinema, it is worth the effort.