The Man Who Knew Infinity

This film, while not destined for classic status, reminded me of the Merchant Ivory films of the 80s when historical settings showed Britain as a good-looking country at the same time as reminding us that the views and standards of the time are best left in the past.  In this case, the story from the early part of the Twentieth Century is based on the real case of an Indian man whose genius with number leads him from his home to Cambridge where he studies with the famous G.H Hardy.


Srinivasa Ramanujan was born into a poor family in Madras, India.  He performed menial tasks to earn a living but found beauty in mathematics.  His employers realised he had exceptional skills and used him for accounting purposes until they decided his personal journals on number should reach a wider public.  This led to Britain, Cambridge and Professor Hardy at Trinity College.

The stuffy and hierarchical nature of Cambridge is well portrayed along with the stereo-type that academics are not quite part of the real world.  Real enough, though, is the racism Ramanujan faces in pre- First World War Britain.  Not only are the dons suspicious of his ability but they also see him as an upstart for moving into their world without moving through the proper channels.

There is a sub-plot set against the First World War showing how academics split in terms of their support for the war.  Key figures from that time took different paths: Bertrand Russell to pacifism (and consequently to prison) and John Edensor Littlewood to the army (to help with ballistics).

Dev Patel played Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons played Hardy, the significant difference in their ages not reflected in the real story!  It works as a film, though, because it shows that some people will fight against racism and pursue their ambitions despite it.  It also shows that academic endeavour is worth the years of struggle.  For Ramanujan, the return to India, while in triumph as an accepted academic, was personally difficult and he did not have a long life.

Jeremy Irons is always worth watching and so, it seems, is Dev Patel.  This film is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Chariots of Fire

I love the films that take true events which are little known and turn them into stories which illustrate a larger theme.  ‘Chariots of Fire’ is one such film.  I saw it while a student in Oxford and, partly because of that time and place, it has fixed itself in my memory.

The tale of two runners who come from very different backgrounds to compete for Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics is a compelling one, especially as it is the story of two outsiders who enter the heart of the British establishment.  Eric Liddell is the Scottish son of missionaries who believes running is one way he can show his love of God.  Harold Abrahams is an outsider because of his Jewish religion.

Both men are selected for the team, alongside members of the aristocracy and graduates of Oxford and Cambridge.  The team is the cream of the establishment’s sporting class and the film shows the difference between those born to rule and those who earn their place through effort and talent.

When Liddell and Abrahams run in the same race, Liddell wins causing much anguish to Abrahams.  He takes on a coach, a move that offends some as beneath the dignity of a sporting gentleman.  The true drama takes place in Paris, though, when the Olympics are staged.  When Liddell learns that his race is to be held on a Sunday, he withdraws on faith grounds. Despite strong pressure from the Olympic committee and the Prince of Wales, he refuses to race and it looks as if he will forego the opportunity to win a medal.  The day is saved, though, by Lord Lindsay who offers to stand aside so that Liddell can race on a Thursday in what would have been his heat.

It is well documented that both Liddell and Abrahams won gold medals but the manner of their winning makes a great film.  Ian Charleston played Eric Liddell and Ben Cross played Harold Abrahams in a film written by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson.

‘Chariots of Fire’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


The Last Emperor

This British- Italian film from the 80s is the type of film they don’t make any more, or at least they don’t make them in the same way anymore.  The most amazing thing about this film is the scale; all crowd scenes were done without any special effect, just human beings!

It is the story of Puyi, the last Emperor of China, from his ascent to the throne to his fall at the hands of the Chinese Communists. He was imprisoned and re-educated so that he could take his place in the new China.  One of the themes the film covers so well is the transition from one form of prison to another, the Forbidden City being as much of a cage as the one he later found himself in.

Bernardo Bertolucci directed the film and co- wrote it with Mark Peploe but the producer Jeremy Thomas, the British independent producer who saw the project through to completion despite many obstacles. It was the first western film authorised to film in the Forbidden City and, despite the subject matter, was supported by the Chinese government, at least in the sense that they did not ban it.

John Lone played Puyi as an adult and Peter O’Toole appeared as the tutor to the young emperor.  As the film is told in a series of flashbacks we see the way political forces have always determined the course of Puyi’s life.  From the start of the twentieth century through to 1967, when he died, we see how one life reflects political changes.

The film won nine American Academy awards as well as the 1989 BAFTA for Best Film.  ‘The Last Emperor’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?


There is a story behind this film for me, and part of the reason it is in my hinterland.  I wanted to see this film version of the stage musical by Lionel Bart when it was released at the end of the 60s but getting my parents to take me to the cinema was quite a job back then.  Instead, I decided to watch it when it was broadcast on British television some time in the mid 70s. It was a time when the family television set was colour but we also had a small black and white one upstairs.

On Christmas Day, ‘Oliver!’ was broadcast in the afternoon when I knew my parents would be asleep.  I didn’t take into account my older brother and his domination of the television and there was no way he was going to let me watch a musical!  So I was banished to a bedroom to watch what was left of Carol Reed’s superb and joyous film in less wonderful black and white.

The story continues:  a few years later, but still before video and DVD,  I noticed in the newspaper that a local cinema was showing ‘Oliver!’ for one night only.  I went along only to find myself at the end of a very long queue and I didn’t get in.  I eventually saw the whole film in splendid isolation in the late 70s when I had access to a colour television.  It was a fantastic hour or two.

Lionel Bart’s musical is wonderful, the songs especially, and the trimming of the story to shorten it and clear it of the complexities of the Dickens novel made it stronger.  Mark Lester was the perfect innocent and Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger made it hard for anyone else to follow in this role.  Ron Moody as Fagin was the charismatic heart of the film despite playing a morally dubious character.

‘Oliver!’ remains a fantastic film despite its age and I agree with the film critic I admire Xan Brooks who stated that this film improved on the weaknesses of the original Dickens novel, weaknesses exposed in a novel that started life as a weekly serial.  I didn’t read the actual book until several years later and was surprised by the ‘extra’ parts of the story.  It is hard to think now of the story of Oliver Twist without also thinking of the songs from this film.

‘Oliver!’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Son of Rambow

This 2007 film has real charm.  It is the story of a young boy, different from others because of his family’s religion, who meets another outsider in the school corridor.  Young Will comes from a family of strict church goers. He is not allowed to watch television so when his class watch a video clip in lesson, he has to step outside into the corridor.  There, he meets Lee Carter who has been sent out of class for disrupting the lesson.  They have nothing in common except their banishment to the corridor.

Lee is the sort of person Will would always avoid.  When there is an accident in the corridor, Lee steps in to protect Will but he has a price and the rest of the film shows how the boys bond over the project Lee is passionate about: making a film for a television competition.  Will has to lie to his single mother about his free time activities and Lee has to try to make his ‘Rambo’ film despite his family’s mistreatment of him.

Director and screenwriter Garth Jennings has crafted a film about growing up, dealing with difference and not judging people before you get to know them.  A background story of a French exchange highlights the theme of living up to, or trying to escape, the labels pinned on you by others.

The ending is not the one you would expect which makes it a better film.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Bulldog Breed

Norman Wisdom was one of my childhood heroes.  His films were shown on television from time to time and I loved them.  I even went to the cinema to see one called ‘Press for Time’ but, mostly, they were films I watched at home with my family.  My favourite of all was ‘The Bulldog Breed’ from 1960 in which his character, also called Norman, gets everything wrong including his attempt to leap off a cliff when he is rejected by the girl of his dreams.

He is rescued by a Naval officer who persuades him that life will be better in the navy, especially as he will meet many women.  He decides to join only to find the friendly officer is not so friendly to recruits.  ‘Norman’ is not a good rating and the comedy is in the way he mishandles every aspect of being a sailor, usually making a fool of himself in front of a superior, in this case an Admiral.  As I recall, one of the punishments was for Norman to take charge of walking the Admiral’s bulldog.

In many ways, Norman is a childlike character and to me, as a boy, he was appealing because of the way his misadventures exasperated the adults.  Yet he was well-meaning and it was his misreading of the social expectations that often got him into trouble, just like a child.

This film is no classic!  Instead, it is a film that I think back on fondly and remember enjoying so much.  For that reason, it is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


Anne of the Thousand Days

Thinking about ‘Walkabout’ reminded me of the film club organised by a teacher from my secondary school.  The films shown were ones that had some sort of educational dimension or were seen as ‘worthy’ but they were all quality films that had been shown at cinemas in Britain at least a few years before.   I may be wrong but it seemed that back in the 60s and 70s the delay between a film’s release and its first showing on television was longer. That provided film clubs, like the one at my school, with an opportunity to show films that would be new to us.

‘Anne of a Thousand Days’ is an excellent film from 1969 that I would have seen in the early 70s.  We studied the play as well as the period of history but I always loved cinema  and the ability of film to bring stories alive for me, complete with period detail.  This film had two amazing performance at its heart: Richard Burton as King Henry and Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn.  Burton in particular filled the screen.  Subtlety was not his forte so a character as large as Henry the Eighth was a good one.  I also remember Anthony Quayle as Cardinal Wolsey, the person who thought the king’s infatuation with Anne would be a phase; his misjudgment cost him his position.

The plot is straightforward.  The King meets Anne Boleyn and wants her so needs to have his first marriage annulled.  The lengths he goes to achieve this cause the break up of the catholic church in England and its replacement with a Church of England.  At the forefront of his mind is his desire to have a son to rule when he dies.  He thinks this can best be achieved by marrying this woman he has fallen in love with. They marry but a daughter rather than a son is born and a new woman enters Henry’s sights.  His need to be rid of her to leads to further court intrigue.

The best scene of all is in her prison cell in the Tower of London where Anne counts out the days in love, out of love, in favour, as a queen and so on.  Her total is 1,000 years.

‘Anne of the Thousand Days’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?