This 2016 film from director Henry Coombes only made it into my hinterland because the part of Albert, played by co-writer David Sillars, is so engaging and entertaining. He plays an older gay man in semi- retirement who is called upon by an old friend to help her grandson with his depression. Albert, once a Jungian counsellor, now spends most of his time in his dirty apartment painting. He does not welcome distractions but agrees to help out his old friend.
Ben, the grandson who arrives for his sessions, is sweet enough but in a relationship with a boyfriend so unpleasant that you sort of get the feeling that ditching him might be all the advice he needs from Albert.
The film works only because of the central performance of Sillars who is great when conducting counselling sessions and when dancing in the gay club. He carries the film and this does weaken the whole enterprise as, when he isn’t on screen, the story is less powerful. Power to the elbow of Henry Coombes for trying, though. The film is never less than interesting!
Michael Crummey’s novel of nineteenth century Newfoundland is another epic worth reading. John Peyton and his father live off the land and sea in a country where the native people, the Beothuk, have been driven away. The story centres on an unsettling incident where two Beothuk men are killed by a group that includes the Peytons. The fall out from this incident and how it affects both men is the central drama of the book.
The settlers see the land as theirs without any thought to who might have lived there before them. One of the settlers is called Reilly who has himself been displaced since he is an Irishman who lived in London before being exiled to Newfoundland. He is married to a Mi’kmaq woman so seems to have an affinity with First Nation people yet he is implicated in dark goings on with the Beothuk. Then there is Cassie, a woman employed by the older Peyton as housekeeper. John Peyton’s passion for her grows but he is inarticulate when faced with his belief that she is his father’s lover.
Themes of belonging, family, identity and inheritance run through the novel. The idea of settlers as pioneers making their way in a new world are challenged when the consequences of their actions on the existing inhabitants are considered.
‘River Thieves’ by Michael Crummey 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?
I first read this book in 1988 when it read more as reportage than history. Now, reading it again I am struck by how some things have changed but also by how much the issues remain relevant thirty years later.
I read Dervla Murphy’s book about Northern Ireland before I moved on to this, her account of living in Bradford and then Birmingham in 1985. These were significant years in race relations in Britain. In Bradford, the Ray Honeyford affair was causing rifts in the city between older white people and the growing population of Asians. Honeyford was a headteacher with strong views about Bradford Council’s anti- racist policies. His use of a right wing journal to express these views was unwise in the least and campaigns that I remember were set up to oust him from his post. This made him something of a martyr figure for the right wing; Margaret Thatcher invited him to Downing Street to participate in an Educational forum! Dervla Murphy found herself living in the very area where Honeyford was headmaster when it all blew up. Her account of life there is reasoned and does not take sides; she is at pains to say she knows and likes both Honeyford and the leader of the campaign to oust him. Here she records what she sees, knowing that as an observer she is also a participant.
This dual role has more impact when she moves on to Birmingham arriving in Handsworth just before the riots there. Her time here is more dramatic. She is both threatened and intimidated by groups who decide she can be nothing other than a police informer. Her frequent use of her notebook to record what is happening around her leads only to further suspicion.
Dervla Murphy is a thoughtful observer. She meets as many people as she can to gather their life stories as well as their insights into life in (what was then) modern Britain. What emerges seems obvious now: there is no black point of view but many views. The prejudices held by both sides are formed because of the lack of understanding and unwillingness to cross a divide.
Re-reading the book is fascinating: the mid- 80s came back to me. I was clearer when I was younger about where I stood on all these issues. Having re-read it, I can see that I have changed and, although my general political philosophy has not changed, I can see that life is more complicated than it can be painted by politicians.
Murphy uses the terms ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ to make distinctions between the Afro- Caribbean and the Asians. Mixed race children are discussed only in terms of problems; how will they cope in a world where they don’t fit in. I suppose it is a victory that we have better umbrella terms for races and that children of mixed race are celebrated rather than seen as problems.
‘Tales from Two Cities’ 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?