I have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film. Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East. In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.
The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen. That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected. Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.
The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one. Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War. Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed. In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’. She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives. She was not really accepted in either group.
The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out. It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman. ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Some films rise above cliché, or rather they take the clichés and make the most of them! This film, like ‘Dead Poets Society’, has some moments that steer close to sentimentality without overdoing it. The effect is uplifting and within the realms of realism.
This is another film set in the confining spaces of a private school. This one, in Ireland, is ruled by rugby. The boys who are good at sport are the top dogs and the misfits, like Ned, have to live with the taunts and insults; the biggest insult of all is to be called ‘gay’. Into this world comes Conor, a star rugby player from another school. His reputation precedes him as a great sportsman and a boy who fights all who annoy him. He aims to keep his head down but this is a school that desperately wants to win the title and they see Conor as the answer to their prayers.
Ned and Conor are made to share a room. The others sympathise that Conor must share with Ned but are then wrong footed when the two become friends. Ned is abused for being gay and Conor is actually gay. As the film progresses we see Conor deal with this identity conflict.
Add to the mix another ‘Dead Poets Society’ touch with an English teacher who inspires (some of) the pupils. Connor sees in him something of himself and tries to seek his help.
Andrew Scott plays the teacher and Nicholas Galitzine plays Conor. Fionn O’Shea plays Ned in this John Butler directed film. It is the type of movie that is feelgood without playing for easy laughs or simplistic endings. Ultimately, the film is about identity and acceptance and we can never have too many films that tackle homophobia.
This film from director Peter Weir dates back to 1989 and remains in my hinterland as it was the perfect reflection of creativity as a means of forging an identity. In a superior and self- regarding school in Vermont, USA in the 50s, a new English teacher is appointed. He, too, is a former pupil of the school so knows the expectations and the code of such an institution. Yet, he sees English Literature as the perfect model for teenage boys to learn about life. His teaching methods are unusual but they inspire one group of boys in particular.
Enamoured of their teacher, the boys research his time at the school to discover that he was part of a club- the ‘Dead Poets Society’ of the title. Without telling him, they re-form the club and use it to celebrate poetry and the idea of living life to the full.
I saw this film on the day of its release in UK and loved it. Over the many years since then, I have seen it from time to time and. while understanding that the conventions (and clichés) of Hollywood can be clearly seen, it is still a heartwarming film.
The idea that teachers can change lives is a key theme and so is the idea that enthusiasts can ignite interest in people who thought they might not be interested. So, too, is the idea that breaking out from conformity brings risks to all involved. The film caught Robin Williams, so good as the inspirational teacher, at the cusp of his career from comedian to more sentimental roles. His performance here is more restrained than some of the later crowd pleasing turns. The performances of the younger actors, Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke in particular, were also strong.
‘Dead Poets Society’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This gentle film from director Marco Berger covers an unusual angle in a relationship. Bruno’s girlfriend ends their affair because she has met Pablo. His plan to split the couple and get revenge on Pablo does not go well for Bruno. First, when he sleeps with Laura again this does not bring about the desired result. Instead, he decides to pretend to have feelings for Pablo himself and lure him into a position where he can expose him as gay.
Bruno befriends Pablo as part of this plan B only to find that he actually does like him. The more time they spend together, the more they discover they like each other and then, of course, they reach a point of questioning their own sexuality.
The film meanders to the point where their feelings are revealed but it is the better for this slow pace. It handles well the point of disbelief when two men have to admit to themselves that what they are experiencing is love.
‘Plan B’ by Marco Berger is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This Spanish film from director Alberto Rodriguez is set as the country emerges from the Franco regime. The significance of this is seen through the background of one of the police officers investigating a murder in the marshlands of the title. A journalist following the story remembers his actions from the time of Franco and warns the officer’s partner about him. Both police officers have stories from their past that follow them around and they make every effort to keep them hidden as they follow the case.
The film itself follows the usual pattern of police officers sent to a backwater to solve a crime. The closed community, while distressed at the murders and abduction of young women, is not ready to welcome or trust outsiders. What emerges as the case is investigated is the unhappiness of families trying to make a living in the poor region of the Spanish south. Any chance to get away is seized upon, making young women, in particular, easy targets for preying men.
The strength of the film, apart from his moody quality, is its exploration of the moral ambiguity of police enforcers continuing in work having been on the payroll of oppressive regimes. The fact that it is a Franco enforcer who makes a breakthrough in the case poses difficult questions. The resolution of the case does not bring about a resolution between the two officers with the final scene leaving things open to viewer interpretation.
‘Marshland’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This documentary film is an essential meditation on matters of race and identity. Effectively using archive footage from James Baldwin’s appearances on television and in front of the Cambridge Union, the film covers the writer’s thoughts on civil rights and the treatment of black people by the powerful (mostly white) population. Footage of events from more recent times is also used, making the all- too- depressing point that the same issues exist today.
Baldwin knew three prominent figures of the civil rights movement in the United States of America: Medgar Evers; Martin Luther King; and Malcolm X. All three were murdered and the toll on the spirit of Baldwin is clear from the words spoken here. Samuel L Jackson speaks lines from Baldwin’s writings, including a manuscript that was unfinished at the time of his death.
The footage of the family of Medgar Evers at his funeral is heartbreaking to watch.
James Baldwin fought battles on many fronts in his life. The thing which is most impressive to me is his consistency of message. Throughout it all, his sense of injustice has been clearly and calmly articulated.
The documentary was directed by Raoul Peck and was nominated for an academy award in America.
‘I Am Not Your Negro’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
As a fan of David Hare’s work, I was pleased to see this 2016 film. He wrote the screenplay based on the real events surrounding the legal action taken by Holocaust denier David Irving against historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books. Lipstadt had named Irving as a holocaust denier in her book and, as a result, he sued her in the UK courts. The location is important since in British libel cases, the burden of proof is with the accuser. Lipstadt, an American academic, therefore had to fight the case in Britain or choose not to do so.
The story is a compelling one; it was by no means clear that Irving would lose since he made the case that he genuinely held the views he did and the other side had to prove that he lied.
The cast is a strong one: Rachel Weisz played Lipstadt; Andrew Scott played Anthony Julius, her solicitor; Tom Wilkinson played the defending barrister; and Timothy Spall played Irving.
We follow the case through the eyes of Deborah Lipstadt who is initially disbelieving at the steps she has to take to defend her honour as an historian. She does not always like the advice given to her by her legal team. In one poignant scene, she is horrified that her barrister, on a visit to Auschwitz, treats it like any crime scene and displays little emotion. At one point, she is invited to a dinner party where some prominent members of the British Jewish community urge her to settle out of court. Their fear that Irving might win was their motivating factor.
Having successfully portrayed Lipstadt as being on the back foot, the film shows the legal team in action as it dismantles the case of the Holocaust denier. It is a film about justice and standing up for the right things when the easier option might be to walk away.
‘Denial’, directed by Mick Jackson and written by David Hare, is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?