Letters from Baghdad

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?

 

 

 

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Denial

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?

 

The League of Gentlemen

This film from 1960 was a favourite of mine when I was growing up.  I must have seen it many times over the years, always on television and never minding that it was in black and white as the original film was.  Growing up in the 60s, one of the big differences between cinema and television was that the ‘pictures’ were always in colour while television was black and white. The films they showed on television back then were nearly all black and white so we didn’t miss out!

This film starred the great Jack Hawkins as a former army officer who hatches a plan to rob a bank.  He enlists other former officers, all in difficult circumstances who use their skills to gain entry to an army base in Dorset where they acquire weapons and supplies.

The film is a caper.  It was directed by Basil Deardon whose cast included Richard Attenborough, Nigel Patrick, David Lodge, Bryan Forbes and Roger Livesey.  Bryan Forbes also wrote the screenplay.

Such is the fun of the film that I wanted the thieves to get away with it.  However, the police are on to them and the ending, when it comes, is very clever.  The telephone ringing in the penultimate scene is highly effective.

Carry on Teacher

The final scene of this film moved me when I was a child.  It all seems a little sentimental now but the moment when Ted Ray stepped out to face his pupils who had wrecked his chance of promotion to prevent him from leaving them is one of my all time favourite film moments.

I was a fan of the early Carry On films.  This 1959 film was the third in the series that eventually totalled thirty-one.  I saw it on British television in the 60s since it was released in cinemas before I was born!  The black and white story of an ambitious headteacher who sees the arrival of inspectors as his opportunity to snatch the headship of a brand new school is a good one.

Two of his pupils overhear him telling a teacher that, should he get the job, there will be opportunities for others.  They decide that the only way to keep their headteacher is to ensure the inspection is a disaster and they enlist their friends to make sure it is.  The comedy comes from the thwarted efforts of the head to impress and the inability of the teachers to cope with the breakdown of order.

In the current British education system the inspectorate is a malign growth and there is little to amuse there but this is from a kinder age and the story leads to the final scene which I loved as a boy.

The ‘Carry On’ films continued into the 60s and 70s and I loved most of them until the bawdy humour became distasteful.  Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Charles Hawtry were favourites of mine but, in this film, Ted Ray was the star. It was his only ‘Carry on’ role.

‘Carry On Teacher’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Film 74

The announcement at the weekend of the death of Barry Norman was another sad passing of someone from my early years who played a significant part in building the person I am today; my interests were formed in my teenage years and have strengthened over the years.  Barry Norman was on one of the first experts I came across who talked to me about film.

As I remember it, Film 74 was a fortnightly programme broadcast by BBC television on a Sunday night.  Each other week, the book programme ‘Read All About It’ was screened.  I liked both!

The format was simple but effective.  Norman sat in a studio and talked to the camera about the releases of the week and clips were shown.  This was enough for me.  His comments were cogent and his tastes were mainstream but the idea of someone, who knew more than I did, telling me about something I wanted to know more about was just the sort of thing I needed.

I read in his obituaries that Barry Norman presented the programme from 1972 until 1998.  The title of the series made the small adjustment with each new year.  I first became aware of it in 1974 and watched until the late 70s when I left for university.  The programme became weekly at some stage and, although I still watched occasionally, my time in front of a television diminished and I found other experts on film to turn to.

However, Film… was part of my growing up.  It was one of the first places I realised that ‘foreign films’ were worth finding out and, each New Year, his programme of his favourite films of the year was a must see.  In essence, this is what made him the very best of critics:  he talked about what he liked and why and was unapologetic about the idea that the list was personal.  One person, talking to camera- amazing television.  They should do that again.

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.

BlogManInfinity

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?