Winter is upon us and armchairs beneath us if we’ve got any sense. Darkness descends early, but there’s nothing like movies to bring some light into our minds… especially when we contemplate the different kinds of darkness explored by the films in this selection.
The Ghost Writer
Roman Polanski (2010)
Ewan McGregor’s acting has an engaging lack of formality, just right for the sort of character you want audiences to go with to the frontier of conspiracy territories. As the years go by – and Tony Blair remains unconvicted of war crimes – this film will grow in importance. It should be understood as a suspense movie along the lines of John Huston’s The Mackintosh Man but with more thrills and tension for the intellect and less plot-spinning action. Both movies share an isolated and disquieting island retreat as settings, the refuges (at least in novels) of high-ranking criminals who exploit the political system. Polanski puts his neck on the block here. What could be more thrilling than a film with major distribution that dwells on perceived crimes by actual political figures involved in ongoing situations like war in the Middle East?
Through the character of ex-PM Adam Lang, excellently handled by Pierce Brosnan, The Ghost Writer comes a legal hair’s breadth from identifying Tong Blair as a cynical traitor in the pay of a major arms company. Just as daring as naming the culprit is a plot (from a novel by Robert Harris) which alerts an audience to the way in which secret services and/or huge corporations recruit young, bright, egocentric students to serve their interests and go on serving them. The suggestion that Blair or his wife were CIA recruits is probably too much for many people (certainly if they are unaware that many top British politicians from the main parties do much of their training in the US under schemes sponsored by the American extreme right), but this weighty suggestion gives the film a special naughtiness and continues the clever attacks that Polanski has for many years aimed at certain Anglo-American elements and attitudes. 8/10
L’Armée des Ombres
Jean-Pierre Melville (1969)
As severe and unsentimental as any screen portrayal of heroes ever made. You think of the WWII French Resistance and imagine the romance of bravery, exotic rendezvous to save one’s compatriots, the rewards of their admiring gazes and passionate camaraderie for your role in daring bombing and shooting attacks on Nazis… Think again. Melville’s superb and, for many years, overlooked masterpiece uses gentle, spacious photography and an exceptional central performance from Lino Ventura to tell an uncomfortably convincing version of how things really were. You live in the shadows and say goodbye to any further communication on remotely human levels with your fellow man. And that’s your lot until you meet your death which was likely to come soon and brutally. Cyanide your best friend, compassion your most dangerous ally, fear your most constant companion. What a way to fight a war. What a film by which to understand such things. 10/10
Yojiro Takita (2008)
Genuine cineastes have the patience to be dedicated searchers, and they will find rich rewards if they check old January shortlists for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2008, Departures was deemed superior to wonderful films such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys, and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. This film sips from the fountain of Japanese cinema greatness and with some delicacy, treating the very taboo subjects, in Japan, of death and funerals. An unemployed orchestra cellist is tempted to become a specialist in the funereal art of encoffinment (‘nokanshi’). It is well paid but considered unclean in Japan, especially by the cellist’s girlfriend. But the protagonist’s persistence in learning his ferryman’s skills from his intriguing boss (played by the venerable Tsutomu Yamazaki) is our opportunity to enter into a world of ritual. The beauty of this film is its use of the death ritual to bring relationships into focus – in particular, filial bonds – and its emphasis on how ritual can create a special kind of meaning in such relationships. Wise and warm. 7/10
Hue and Cry
Charles Chrichton (1947)
A film for children from the days when rumbling a gang of crooks was the kind of adventure that made youngsters tingle; days when youth did not exist. This was filmed in London exteriors in 1946, and its stark views of torn streets and the city’s devoted river line could be British cinema’s equivalent of Rossellini’s ripped Berlin in Germany Year Zero. Carefully directed, with great moments of cinematic pathos, you’ll find some rough edges in this tribute to crime comic books and, yes, to conspiracy theories. It’s a lovely document that cherishes the English capital and youthful optimism. 6/10