Monday, September 29, 2014

There Is Power In A Union

Every so often a film is made in the UK which takes you so unawares, so by surprise, that it refreshes your interest not just in British film but in the medium itself.

I booked to see a preview screening at the National Film Theatre of the new British film PRIDE directed by Matthew Warchus, I thought I would have a punt on it as it starred a number of actors that I like but as I took my seat I also suspected that it would probably be the sort of film whose poster would boast "This Year's Full Monty" and that it was "heartwarming".  In short I expected something that would easily fit all that is required of the average Sunday evening television series: lovable working class scallywags, strong but silent wives, comic character parts, brass bands playing every 5 seconds and a happy ending guaranteed.

The remarkable thing is that all those elements are there but when the film reaches it's emotional climax it is genuinely moving as it has been reached in such an honest and restrained way by director Warchus, writer Stephen Beresford and a remarkable cast.

What made the film so special is that finally here is a film that makes me think "Yes that's my history, that's the 1980s that I lived through".  The film has conjured up that time of covert Government pressure on anyone who didn't fit with their world - now doesn't that sound familiar?  Here is a film that could not be more timely. 

The film is worth it's weight in gold for many reasons but primarily for shining a spotlight on Mark Ashton who spearheaded the LGSM group.  When we staggered out of the screening, Owen wondered aloud how so little is known about Ashton, a genuine gay hero.  I guessed that it's a case of history is written by the victors - not only were the Miners beaten but ultimately so was the gay activism that Mark Ashton and his comrades stood for.  As he is pointedly told at the Gay Pride march that ends the film, "It's all about celebration now".

So Gay Pride becomes a glorified excuse for crap pop acts to peddle their product to the pink pound and activism can be ended as we now have taken over Old Compton Street.  Hurrah, we have created our own ghetto.

Stephen Beresford's excellent script introduces us into Ashton's world through a fictional character.  1984: Joe is a closeted gay student who escapes his suburban prison to come to London for the Gay Pride march where he meets the Out-and-Proud friends Mark, Mike, Gethin, Jonathan, Steph and Jeff.  He stays with them into the night at the Gay's The Word bookshop where Mark proposes that they form a new action group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.

At first incredulous, the group is formed when Mark points out that the miners have the same enemies that they face: the government, the police and the media.  Soon they are raising large amounts of money but with nowhere to distribute it as their overtures are met with a refusal to accept their help.  A Welsh mining town is randomly picked and eventually they meet with Dai, a leader of the Strike committee in the Dulais valley who comes to London and accepts their passion to help.

A visit to Dai's village shows the group the depth of the struggle and both the activists and the miners find they have more than the perceived enemies to fight.  Behind all of this, the gay friends are having to deal with the growing shadow of AIDS.

Of course we all know the outcome of the strike but the coda to it was wonderful and as end titles told stories of the characters beyond the film's timeline it is impossible not to be uplifted, saddened and empowered.

Matthew Warchus guides the film with the touch of a master - only once, just before the end, does the pace seem unsteady - but otherwise he keeps a wonderful balance between the comedy and the drama while also finding small telling moments within the bigger picture - there is a wonderful cameo from Russell Tovey which is all the more telling for what is left unsaid.  Also memorable is a quiet scene between Imelda Staunton and Bill Nighy where an absolutely killer punchline is not allowed to puncture the feeling of friendship, sadness, dependence and community.

Stephen Beresford's script also deserves kudos for giving the quite large group of characters little moments to shine and for giving them all the dignity they deserve - even the villains of the piece.

Warchus and Beresford are also gifted with a cast that give the feeling of a real ensemble with no one pulling focus despite the opportunities to do so.

Ben Schnetzer - unknown to me before this - has a naturalness on camera and is charismatic as Mark Ashton, driven to support the miners against all the trepidations of his comrades.  I loved Joseph Gilgun as Mike, Mark's close friend who is equally as driven to help but is more steady than his excitable friend.

Warchus seems to allow all his actors to find their own rhythms which pays dividends with Dominic West as Jonathan, the older member of the group, which starts off as the cynical seen-it-all participant but which through the course of the film, slowly becomes a rounded and multi-layered performance.  Andrew Scott as Gethin also gives a performance of subtlety and gentle strength.  His tiny scene of Gethin visiting his mother while he is in Wales is all the more emotional for being so restrained.

George MacKay has a gauche charm as Joe (aka Bromley by his new family) and I really liked the delightful performances of Faye Marsay as spiky Stephe as well as Karina Fernandez as Stella, itching to start her own breakaway group of Lesbians Against Pit Closures.

Wonderful performances by Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy and Paddy Considine give the film a solid foundation.  As the members of the Dulais Strike Committee who are most welcoming to the LGSM they each give impassioned performances representing aspects of a quiet, hardworking community victimised by the powers that be.

Paddy Considine gives a performance of subtlety and warmth as Dai, the head of the Strike Committee, who can see beyond prejudice to accept the help the gay community are offering.  Imelda Staunton is delightful as Hefina, the rigid moral backbone of the community who welcomes the activists into the village and, in possibly the film's best performance, Bill Nighy is excellent as the committee treasurer Cliff.  A taciturn man made anonymous by his own secrets, it's a joy to watch him be re-born through his association with the gays from London.  All Nighy's usual shtick is swept away as he gives a performance of lonely grace.

Jessica Gunning is excellent as Sian James, a young married housewife whose life is transformed by her experiences during the strike and through her relationship with the gay activists.  I also enjoyed Lisa Palfrey's performance of the bigoted Margaret who does all she can to wreck the association of the miners and the LGSM.

It would be easy enough to play the 'villain' but Palfrey keeps you intrigued in her character throughout. There is also excellent work from Monica Dolan as Joe's mother, as tightly controlled as her suburban decor.

Tat Radcliffe's cinematography and Simon Bowles' wonderful production design makes the 1980s real again and there is an invaluable contribution by Christopher Nightingale with a moving and eloquent score.  Nick Angel's music supervision also contributes to the excellent sonic recreation of 30 years ago.

We were lucky at the NFT for the film to be followed by a Q&A with producer David Livingstone as well as Schnetzer (and what a shock to discover he's American!), Marsay and Scott who were all insightful into working on the film and what they have gained personally from being involved in telling the story.

The following Sunday there was another preview screening at the Brixton Ritzy which we went to again as we were so excited by the film.  Far from being ready for all the film's power, again we were emotional wrecks at the end of it and I stayed for the length of the closing credits to recover - not that I succeeded as the credits roll over "To A Friend", The Communards' contemporary tribute to Mark Ashton.

I cannot urge you enough to rush to see PRIDE, it will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you think, it will make you proud.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Dvd/150: THE HOLLOW CROWN: RICHARD II (Rupert Goold, 2012)

This trilogy of films based on four Shakespeare history plays, commissioned by the BBC for the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, are excellent examples of intelligent, gripping stage-to-screen adaptations.

All three are cast to perfection: Ben Whishaw is marvellous as Richard, fey, capricious and remote, who, like Lear, initiates his own downfall by banishing his cousin Bolingbroke to six years abroad then appropriates his cousin's fortune and lands when Bolingbroke's father John of Gaunt dies.

Rory Kinnear is fine as the conflicted usurper Bolingbroke, their scenes together have an electric quality especially in the riveting abdication scene.

Excellent support comes from Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt as well as David Suchet, Lindsay Duncan and David Morrissey among others.

Goold, whose adaptation with Ben Power has a fast-paced clarity, directs in a fluid style which leaves no symbolism unchecked and has a slight over-reliance on slow-motion detailing.

Shelf or charity shop?  I'faith my lord, shelf.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Kate Bush... 35 years later

One of my big 'claim-to fame's was that I saw Kate Bush live at the London Palladium during her only tour.  To be honest I don't remember that much about it - what I remember the most is that I was up in the Upper Circle and it's steepness gave me the feeling of being a mountain goat.  I also remember vaguely liking it but also being aware that it's reliance on mime trops played up the worst in the young Kate - that slightly tragic air of preciousness, the feeling of a 6th form girl being allowed the afternoon off lessons to prepare something artistic for the last day of term.

Since then I have bought her cds, some I have kept and loved, some I have dispensed with.  Around the turn of the naughties, I fell in with a particularly manic clutch of Bush fans and their constant whining about when will she release an album quite turned me off her so I didn't really pay any attention to her 'comeback' ARIEL.  Needless to say, when ARIEL was released, these fans started on about "when do you think she will release her next album".  After passing through them, I was ready to be interested in her again when she released her hypnotic album 50 WORDS FOR SNOW.

The shock of the announced residency at Hammersmith Odeon (as it always will be) gave way to the anxiety of could tickets be booked.  Of course they could thanks to Owen's super-fast clicky finger!  Then the long wait to the actual night of the show BEFORE THE DAWN...  which finally came last Friday.

Thanks to the stage being extended, our tickets went from being 8 rows from the stage to 4!!  Taking our seats after the very polite but vaguely irritating scrum at one of the merchandise stands and seeing how close we were to the stage was when the excitement kicked in.  We also started to ask a burning question... how would she actually get on stage? Walk on? Fly on? Bounce up through a trapdoor?

The answer came soon enough... when the onstage musicians launched into LILY and from stage left on came Kate, shuffling on in rhythm to the music and leading her onstage singers behind her - and it was, you know, it was Kate Bush. I'd know that face anywhere - and I would know her voice anywhere too.  The news that she was not singing anything from the first four albums suggested a diminishing in vocal range but she sounded great, her head and chest voice were superb and had real power.  Her fuller figure might have compromised her dancing but vocally she was excellent.

If she had just played the first section I would have been happy as that segment with Kate, band and the backing singers gave us - finally live on stage - HOUNDS OF LOVE and RUNNING UP THAT HILL.  To see her sing those was worth the price of the ticket alone.

After RUNNING UP THAT HILL it seemed natural to lead into KING OF THE MOUNTAIN but as that song built in clamorous intensity, certain elements of the stage set began to shift, the band's risers retreated to the back of the stage - and two onstage cannons shot a ton of small parchments into the auditorium on which were written the lines of Tennyson which inspired her song cycle THE NINTH WAVE.

Utilising all the Hammersmith stage - and auditorium - we were given a visual interpretation of that collection of songs starting with footage of Kate floating in the ocean wearing her life jacket for DREAM OF SHEEP which led into a full theatrical show with billowing material as the sea, the singers as sea rescuers and bone-headed fishmen fighting for possession of the hapless shipwreck survivor and an impressive lighting gantry/rescue helicopter that hovered over the audience, it's searchlight sweeping across the auditorium culminating in an onstage buoy for the woman to be rescued - or was she?

It was all fabulously imaginative and all achieved with a remarkable simplicity, wonderful but for one clunking mis-step.  Step forward 16 year old Albert McIntosh, billed as 'creative advisor' for the show, wannabe actor/singer... oh and the son of a certain K. Bush.  He popped up in an interminable scene between the lost woman's husband and son leading up to an appearance on the cramped box set of a ghostly Kate singing WATCHING YOU WITHOUT ME.  It was Amateur Hour in Dixie writ large and it stopped the momentum of the piece dead.

After an interval that found a good percentage of the audience on their hands and knees at the front of the stalls scooping up handfuls of Tennyson verse - we had ours that had landed on us tucked safely away - it was time for the second half, ARIEL'S song cycle A SKY OF HONEY.  Now Constant Reader, you will remember that I was very off Kate at the time of that album's release so I had no expectations, I just sat back and watched the spectacle.  

I was not as engaged as I was for THE NINTH WAVE - a combination of unfamiliarity with the material, a noticeable lack of choons (apart from what appeared to be Kate's version of LA ISLA BONITA) and the return appearance of son Bertie, this time in a larger role as a painter.  Dear God, he even had a solo.  Yeesh I don't think even Barbra Streisand allows Jason Gould that!  But it ended with a deliriously insane climax of Kate taunting her guitarist - everyone by now had bird skull masks on - and eventually, after an initial blackout, she seemed to fly.  


The show however ended finally with Kate alone at the piano singing the haunting AMONG ANGELS from her last album and the last song was a massive, rousing-sing-a-long version of CLOUDBUSTING.  And then, her thank you's barely heard over the huge loving ovation she was receiving, she was gone with a smile and a wave.

It was only after the lights came up that I realised that the odd feeling I was experiencing was due to the fact that while she had been onstage I had been smiling the whole time.  It was such a joyous experience to see her, seeming so happy and contented to be sharing her work finally with her enraptured fans that it was impossible not to surrender to her.

It was magical, uplifting, disturbing, haunting, touching - and maybe a little puzzling.

It was Kate Bush.