Farming: fictional biographical drama ignores its wider social context

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, “Farming” (2018)

“Farming” is a fictional biographical drama based on actor / director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s childhood growing up in Britain as a foster child parked with a working-class white family by his Nigerian parents in the 1960s / 70s. The practice in which Nigerian parents fostered out their children with white families in Britain grew out of traditional practices in parts of sub-Saharan Africa in which families sent their children to other families in other communities, often to pay off debts or to fulfill family or clan obligations, which would bring up those children as if they were their own or educate them in skills and knowledge that the birth families hoped would give the children social or other advantages when they became adults. Nigerian families in the mid-20th century, living in a country newly independent from British colonial status, neither saw nor anticipated the consequences that might come when they fostered their children with white families in Britain. In the case of Enitan (played by Zephan Hanson Amissah and then Damson Idris), the boy is fostered out by parents Femi and Tolu (director Akinnuoye-Agbaje himself and Genevieve Nnaji respectively) to a white couple Ingrid and Jack Carpenter (Kate Beckinsale and Lee Ross) living in Tilbury, a post-industrial working-class district in London. The Carpenters end up fostering Enitan’s two younger sisters and several other Nigerian children to get social security money, but this means the couple cannot give Enitan the love and sense of stability and belonging he needs. As the other fostered children are girls, they behave perfectly but Enitan is a dreamy boy given to playing with imaginary friends, living in a community where being a boy and being artistic and dreamy do not mix.

As he grows up, Enitan experiences a continual loss of identity and culture shocks due to constant racist bullying at school and subtle bullying at home, combined with his birth parents’ sudden appearance from nowhere to take him back home to Nigeria where he is beaten by a teacher for speaking only English at school and subjected to cultural practices he does not understand and which would be considered severe physical abuse in Western societies. His embarrassed parents dump him back with Ingrid and Jack and so the racism and bullying start again and escalate into his adolescent years. At the age of 16 years Enitan is suspended from school and through a series of harrowing incidents ends up joining a racist skinhead gang known as the Tilbury Skins, led by Levi (John Dalgleish). By this time Enitan has truly embraced his self-hatred and hatred of anyone and everyone who is not white.

While Idris, Beckinsale and Dalgleish give excellent performances – Dalgleish just about chews up every scene in which he is in, and only a python really threatens to steal his scenes from him – the film’s plot itself is something of a let-down. Enitan’s adventures with the skinheads are a dreary string of violent incidents in which the Tilbury Skins torment anyone and everyone who they don’t like the look of, including other skinheads. In this part of the film, one stereotype after another regarding the skinheads and their culture is paraded; why Enitan continues to stay with these people in spite of the continual dumping he experiences is hard to understand. Levi and the other guys in the gang surely see something in Enitan that they respect and admire, otherwise they would not allow him to tag along for fear of being attacked by other racist skinhead gangs. One paradox present at this point in the film is that when the skinheads visit their favourite pubs, also patronised by other skinheads, the music playing in the background is usually reggae, dub or ska – all music originating among Jamaican black people!

Eventually Enitan is rescued from skinhead culture by Ingrid and a saintly school-teacher (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) but the scenes in which Enitan is deprogrammed, learns that people do care for him and comes to accept himself as he is, and makes his peace with Ingrid and Jack, race by very quickly. The unfortunate result is that Enitan’s re-entry into society as a normal person seems very superficial and just as stereotyped as his acceptance into the Tilbury Skins. For that matter, the film’s portrayal of skinheads and skinhead culture as racist, degraded and brutish is just as one-dimensional: the reality is that during the 1970s / 80s, skinheads embraced all political, social and cultural points of view (thus explaining their liking for Jamaican immigrant and Jamaican British culture and music) and the stereotype of skinheads as white supremacist neo-Nazi thugs is a creation of British mainstream media at the time catering to middle class dislike and distrust of working-class people.

By concentrating on one character’s loss of and search for his identity and a community he can call his own, “Farming” ignores other related issues. Ingrid herself is a Gypsy and the discrimination and violence that Gypsies have traditionally suffered in Britain (and still do) are hinted at very faintly in the film. How and why Levi and his fellow skins are outsiders in the Tilbury community – they are shown living in a rubbish dump – is not explained in the film. Most disturbing of all, the film shows working-class people in the worst possible light as racist, ignorant and violent, and ignores the political, economic and social changes in post-Thatcherite Britain that have marginalised and impoverished working-class people, to be mocked by the middle classes, in the process turning the working class into the nightmare the middle classes fear so much.

Official Secrets: a modest fictional dramatisation of a whistleblower’s ordeal

Gavin Hood, “Official Secrets” (2019)

As fictional dramatisations of real events go, “Official Secrets” passes muster in its narrative of a translator working for the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) who follows her conscience and becomes a whistleblower to try to stop an illegal war in which hundreds of thousands if not millions of people will die. Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), working as a Chinese-to-English translator in early 2003, is sent an email memo from a senior official at the United States National Security Agency asking for GCHQ support in its attempts to spy on United Nations Security Council members Angola, Bulgaria, Chile,Cameroon, Guinea and Pakistan so as to obtain information that could be used to blackmail these countries into voting for resolutions favouring the US and its goals and objectives. At the time, the US government was preparing to invade Iraq to depose its leader, President Saddam Hussein, on the basis that his government still possessed illegal chemical weapons. Believing that making the memo public would expose the underhanded tactics being used by the US and the UK governments to pressure the UN into approving an invasion and war, Gun leaks the memo to a friend who is acquainted with Martin Bright (Matt Smith), a journalist with The Observer newspaper.

After verifying that the memo, written by Frank Koza, is genuine, Bright and Ed Vulliamy (Rhys Ifans), an American news correspondent, convince the newspaper editor to publish their report which makes front-page news a month after Gun had given the memo to her friend. GCHQ then goes on the warpath to find out who leaked the memo; after the staff go through a round of questioning and then are forced to go through another round, Gun gives herself up. She and her husband Yasar (Adam Bakri), a Turkish national on a temporary visa, are subjected to continuous hounding by the authorities which include Yasar being held by police for deportation.

The US invasion of Iraq goes ahead regardless of the UN Security Council’s decision not to approve it and Gun is released. She contacts human rights organisation Liberty whose lawyer Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) agrees to defend her if the British government charges her with treason under the Offical Secrets Act. Sure enough, several months later charges are brought against Gun and she and Emmerson agree that she will plead on a defence of necessity, that breaching the Act of necessary to stop an illegal war from going ahead.

The narrative suffers from breaks in continuity and points of view but otherwise it rockets along at a fairly fast pace which maintains the tension and keeps viewer attention riveted to the screen and Gun’s fate. The actors do good work with the script and give convincing performances, though some of Knightley’s lines do seem more like sloganeering advocacy than deeply felt opinion. Fiennes and Smith tend to steal their scenes from other actors though Knightley holds up well in the brief scenes she shares with both actors. In later parts of the film, characters suddenly seem to change their tune for no reason other than to hurry the narrative along. The climax may be a letdown for viewers. Apart from these minor technical faults, the film is worth viewing as an example of why people may turn whistleblower and the harassment and bullying they suffer as a result. The film might have been more realistic if it had shown Bright and Emmerson also suffering harassment but then the straightforward narrative might have become unnecessarily complicated and bogged down in detail.

The film is fairly modest in line with its subject matter – ultimately what Gun did had little effect on the US decision to go to war – but its themes and the issues raised about personal integrity versus loyalty to one’s employer, be it a spy agency or a newspaper eager to court favours from the government, or loyalty to loved ones who just want to keep their heads down and avoid the spotlight, are always important and relevant no matter what the historical context is.

O Lucky Man! – a blackly comic odyssey criticising capitalist ideology and values

Lindsay Anderson, “O Lucky Man!” (1973)

A satirical allegory that exposes life in Western capitalist society and the values and beliefs needed to survive successfully in it, “O Lucky Man!” presents as an odyssey of one Michael Travis (Malcolm MacDowell) who starts the film as a novice sales representative thrown by his employer Imperial Coffee into the deep end to market and sell coffee to various retail clients in northeast England after the regular sales rep Oswald disappears. During his time as salesman, MacDowell is seduced by Mrs Ball (Mary MacLeod), a housekeeper at the hotel where he stays during his business trips around the designated sales zone; he later discovers that a number of his company clients have closed shop and retrenched their workers (so they won’t be needing any more coffee to keep the staff happy) due to the prevailing economic climate of the period (early 1970s); and he ends up imprisoned and tortured at a secret government nuclear facility that happens to be a company client. (The bureaucrats there believe he is a Communist spy.) The facility has a fire emergency that blows up the buildings and sets Travis’ car on fire but Travis manages to find his way out of the secret facility.

He winds up at a private medical facility owned by Dr Millar (Graham Crowden) who is conducting secret genetic research that generates quite alarming results. Travis manages to escape and winds up with the Alan Price Band, travelling to a gig in London with groupie Patricia Burgess (Helen Mirren) in tow. Through Patricia, with whom he falls in love, Travis gets a job with her father Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson), a millionaire industrialist who sells a hideous napalm-like chemical euphemistically called “honey” to Dr Munda, the dictator president of Zingara, a brutal Third World police state that keeps its people in poverty and enslaved on plantations and factories producing products for the First World while managing at the same time to pose as a playground for wealthy First World tourists. Burgess, Dr Munda and their staff scheme to frame Travis as culpable for fraud and Travis ends up being convicted in a rigged trial and sentenced to jail for five years.

After serving his time, during which he studies philosophy and behaves as a model prisoner, Travis is released back into the community where he undergoes more trials involving contacts with the poor and the marginalised in society, culminating in a vicious attack on him by homeless people in a dump.

Interspersed throughout the film are shots of Alan Price and his musicians singing and performing songs that comment on Travis’ adventures and the pitfalls that await those who, like Travis, strive for material success, wealth and the admiration of their peers above all else. A subplot that starts with an “old” grainy film of Latin-American labourers harvesting coffee beans and one defiant worker (MacDowell) having his hands cut off by a foreman for a colonialist plantation owner and then demonstrates Britain’s downfall as an imperial empire to the extent that the country tries to maintain its status as a world power by engaging in indirect colonial rule through proxy dictators oppressing their own people, so that the British can continue to grab profits from exploiting former colonies’ natural resources, is threaded through Travis’ adventures: the relationship between the colonialists and the colonised may change and become more indirect and complicated, but the violence and exploitation remain much the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The exploitation and violence that Britain visits upon Third World populations with “honey” are soon turned on Travis himself; his innocence, helpfulness and ambition exploited by Burgess, he is soon sent to prison. After his five-year stint there, Travis is let loose in the streets with nowhere to go, despite his new knowledge of philosophy and the reading he has done; this is analogous to a layer of middle class people in Third World countries who absorb all they can of Western civilisation but can find no way of using it to benefit their poorer compatriots. Unfortunately the poor and the homeless are no better than the rich or the middle class in beating up on Travis and leaving him for dead; this may be director Anderson’s way of showing how capitalist ideology and values degrade all of society, not just its upper and more privileged levels.

Several actors play at least two or three different roles in the film which may highlight the apparent randomness (or not) in capitalist society in its selection of some people for fame and fortune and others for disaster. This fact is exploited for comic effect in parts where some of Travis’ fellow prisoners are played by the same actors who played the salesman’s fellow trainee sales reps near the beginning of the film. Even with actors juggling different roles, the size of the cast is still astonishing. Probably the most outstanding performances, aside from MacDowell who carries the film admirably on his shoulders, are those of Rachel Roberts in playing a corporate psychologist with a secret crush on Travis, Dr Munda’s secretary / mistress and Mrs Richards the suicidal working-class housewife; and of Ralph Richardson as James Burgess and Monty, a caretaker at a working-class hotel.

The film may be rather long in piling punishment upon punishment on Travis, particularly in his post-prison life where he is literally lost in a wilderness, unable to find a niche where he can survive without being kicked around. It does lose focus at times in a plot of black comedy skits barely hanging together but every so often Alan Price and his band appear in the nick of time to critique 1970s British society. The three-hour marathon running time passes very quickly as there is so much to absorb in each little episode – and the episodes featuring Dr Munda are not only at once droll and gruesome in their detail, they are also painfully contemporary and confronting in an age in which Western countries, in their long economic twilight of deindustrialisation, decreasing influence over other nations, and dealings with corrupt governments to safeguard their own interests, are going backwards.

Savage Messiah: fictional biopic critical of British class system and hypocrisies

Ken Russell, “Savage Messiah” (1972)

Idiosyncratic British director Ken Russell’s “Savage Messiah” is a fictional biographic drama of the short life of French artist and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891 – 1915: he died while fighting in World War I) who rejected conventional styles and techniques of sculpture then popular in the early 20th century and developed a more down-to-earth, rough-hewn style in which the tool marks and other impressions made by the artist are obvious and become part of the finished sculpture and its aesthetic quality. Through its portrayal of the sculptor’s life and his tempestuous relationship with Polish ex-governess and aspiring writer Sophie Brzeska, the film criticises the usual depiction of artists as beings somehow separate from the rest of society, showing the French sculptor (played by Scott Anthony) as much a workman and craftsman living and working in hard, usually impoverished conditions as he was an artist, and moving through the more genteel if rather fey bohemian artistic scene in the early 1910s with Sophie (Dorothy Tutin). The Gaudier-Brzeska couple love each other dearly, even pledging to marry, yet their relationship more or less remains sexless as Sophie is averse to having sex.

Through the depiction of the couple’s adventures in England after they arrive there from France in 1910, having been rejected by the Gaudier family because Sophie is at least 20 years older than their son, the film subverts the usual movie stereotypes about how romance should be portrayed and castigates the arts scene by showing art dealers, promoters and various art-scene groupies as monstrous individuals. Minor cast members like Helen Mirren (playing an aristocratic suffragette muse) and Lindsay Kemp (as art dealer / promoter Angus Corky) make the most of their time on screen. While their talents are clearly under-used, at least Mirren gets Botticelli Venus-style over-exposure walking down a carpeted staircase.

Compared to other films in his oeuvre, Ken Russell’s direction is fairly restrained, allowing Anthony and Tutin to run away with the film in their boisterous portrayals of the Gaudier-Brzeska couple. In some ways this is a pity because the excesses of Russell’s style serve to highlight the hypocrisies of upper-class and middle-class British society in its attitude towards art and artists, and the huge social gulf between those classes and the working class people with whom Henri Gaudier-Brzeska identified.

Judy: a character study of a Hollywood legend destroyed by an exploitative industry manipulating people’s dreams and hopes

Rupert Goold, “Judy” (2019)

Adapted from Peter Quilter’s musical stage drama “End of the Rainbow”, this bio-pic covers the last twelve months of Hollywood film legend Judy Garland’s life, during which she ( Renée Zellweger) attempts to reinvent herself as a contemporary popular music singer and performer. The film presents as a character study and a snapshot of Garland’s life while she embarked on a disastrous five-week concert engagement in London. From the moment the film starts, Garland’s life is in debt and disarray as she and her two youngest children Lorna and Joey Luft are turned away from their hotel, due to non-payment of their bill, after a concert in which the children had to perform as well and are forced to seek help from her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), the children’s father. (In the film, Lorna and Joey Luft are quite young though in real life they would both have been in their mid-teens.) In dire straits, and unable to find work in the US because of her reputation for being difficult and unreliable, Garland is forced to accept a contract to perform in London, though this means being separated from her children. She is flown to the UK where she meets the impresario Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) who organised the contract, and Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) who has been assigned to her as her personal assistant.

The concert engagement meets with numerous problems, most of which are Garland’s own making: she has substance abuse issues, is unable to sleep without taking sleeping tablets, she is late for her concerts because of anxiety attacks and low self-confidence, and most of the time on stage she appears drunk. During this period, a new friend and nightclub owner Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), whom she had previously met at a party thrown by her elder daughter Liza Minnelli (Gemma-Leah Devereux), turns up and keeps her company; he and Garland eventually become close and marry. In one scene, two gay men who are Garland fans ask her for autographs and the three end up going to the men’s apartment for a meal and drinks, followed by a knees-up at the piano and then the men’s emotional discussion with Judy about how her music and films have comforted them and helped sustain them and their relationship over the years before 1967 when homosexuality had been a crime under British law.

The film has no real plot as such and relies heavily on Renee Zellweger to pull off a bravura performance as Garland, which she does completely, disappearing entirely into her character with all her faults and the self-destructive behaviour that alienates the people who love and care for her, and which instead propels her to unscrupulous and powerful men who exploit her talent, determination and hard work. Flashbacks to Garland’s teenage years while working on the film “The Wizard of Oz” – here Garland is played by Darci Shaw – reveal Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio’s control and manipulation of Garland, in particular control of her physical appearance and weight. Studio head Louis B Mayer (Richard Cordery) and his executives force Garland onto a diet of pills to delay puberty, suppress her appetite, keep her as petite and slim as possible, and to wake her up or put her to sleep. In these flashbacks, we see something of Garland’s rebelliousness that led to her being difficult to deal with and her lack of punctuality and inability to stick to a schedule, as well as the source of her dependence on various prescription drugs, her inability to sleep and her eating problems. The character’s self-destructive behaviour, her low self-esteem, her vulnerability and reliance on other people (especially men) and her mercurial temper become understandable when her background becomes known. (Though it’s more than likely that the film plays fast and loose in cherry-picking aspects of Garland’s early film career to push its point about the effects of MGM’s exploitation of the actress.) The other actors are walking wallpaper around Zellweger, in large part because of the roles they have to play and often the limited time they are allocated to play them. Their overall performance tends to be solid and consistent if dull.

While the film obviously condemns Hollywood’s early exploitation of child actors such as Garland, it says nothing about the studio system in which actors, adult as well as child actors, were tied to particular studios in long-term contracts lasting several years in which they had to submit to being groomed and were required to perform in X number of films. “Judy” also has very little to say about how Hollywood exploited people’s hopes and dreams during the Great Depression (the period in which “The Wizard of Oz” takes place) and how Garland’s early girl-next-door reputation with its associations of wishing and hoping for a better life was forged in this context – and how the real Garland herself ended up sacrificed to this reputation.

Probably the closest the film comes to exploring Garland’s relationship with her fans, and the burden of expectations and hope that they place on her, as an extension of Hollywood’s exploitation of her, is in her relationship with Mickey Deans and her meeting with the starstruck gay couple, but these relationships are dealt with quite superficially: in particular, Mickey Deans disappears from the film after the couple have their first tiff. Garland’s encounter with the gay couple highlights the special relationship the singer / actress long had with the gay community but while the film emphasises how Garland had inspired the community to hope and dream for acceptance, it also insinuates (unintentionally, I suppose) that the gay community did not do much for Judy herself.

Ultimately, as an examination, however superficial or deep, of the way in which Western capitalist society manipulates people’s escape into fantasy from oppression and their hopes and dreams by placing responsibility for them on the shoulders of vulnerable role models like Garland – who was expected to perform like a trained monkey but was shunned when she ended up acting like a normal human being put under the same oppressive system for far too long, either by rebelling and being “difficult” or breaking down physically and mentally – “Judy” is silent on this irony.

The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: a survey of Russia under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership in the 1990s

Leo Mattei, Johnny Miller, “The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms” (PressTV, 2017)

Made for the Iranian news channel PressTV, this measured documentary turns out to be a detailed survey of the period of Russia’s transition from a Communist society to a capitalist one under President Boris Yeltsin (1991 – 1999) and the neoliberal economic reforms carried out under the guidance of the so-called Harvard Boys (US economists with Harvard University backgrounds tasked to assist the transition). These reforms privatised most state-run industries including the major energy industries and enriched a small number of well-placed people, many of whom were former Soviet government apparatchiks looking out for Number 1, while the vast majority of people in the new Russian Federation became impoverished. Living standards and life expectancies fell as people lost jobs and fell into despair; many turned to drink and dangerous drugs, and in parts of the country, the rates of new HIV / AIDS infections skyrocketed alarmingly. As discontent against Yeltsin’s policies became widespread, in 1993 the Russian parliament impeached Yeltsin who then dissolved the parliament; the stand-off resulted in military units ordered by Yeltsin storming the parliamentary building and the national TV station centre, killing nearly 190 people and wounding nearly 440 others. Yeltsin became a more dictatorial leader and economic “reforms” continued to devastate the country’s economy, especially its manufacturing industries, sending more people into poverty as jobs were lost. The country’s financial situation became dire and Russia was forced to rely on IMF loans which in turn tied the country even more to neoliberal economic policies, placing it on a downward spiral into more economic and financial destruction and instability, and with that political corruption and escalating levels of crime, including gang warfare and homicide.

Through interviews with people who were close to Yeltsin, such as his former bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov and former Soviet Deputy Prime Minister / founder of centrist Yabloko Party Grigory Yavlinsky, or observers of the period, such as sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky and historian Alexander Tarasov, the documentary follows the career of Yeltsin as President starting with a tour of the Yeltsin Center and its museum in Yekaterinburg. This is a strange and sinister place: it whitewashes Yeltsin’s career and encourages not only uncritical hero worship but rewrites Russian history in the 1990s. The interview with Korzhakov who wrote a book of his experiences dealing with Yeltsin in 1997 is an excellent remedy: Korzhakov is frank about the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and the deeply corrupt and despotic nature of his government. Kagarlitski, Tarasov and other interviewees discuss the economic policies of advisors and ministers such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais who favoured “shock therapy” privatisation. Ordinary people are also interviewed: they speak of how the Soviet aircraft industry, built up over decades, was effectively destroyed by the “reform” policies, and how the corruption in Yeltsin’s government (from which Yeltsin family members benefited financially) and among the country’s new rich elites, known as “oligarchs”, permeated Russian society generally, encouraging the growth of criminal gangs and other criminal activity across the country. Most disturbingly, photographer Alexander Poliakov, interviewed about the 1993 constitutional crisis, implies in his statements that the events of the crisis may not have transpired as reported in official accounts.

In the mid to late 1990s, the most significant events in Russia were the outbreak of war between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya (the causes of which Yeltsin himself must bear some responsibility for) and Yeltsin’s re-election as President in presidential elections held in 1996, for which Yeltsin needed US help in creating a marketing campaign playing on voters’ insecurities and fears, and the results of which (in some regions such as Ossetia) were likely tampered with or made up to help get Yeltsin back into power. Once returned as President though, Yeltsin gave himself over to the demon drink and allowed his government to fall into the hands of others. Powerful oligarchs meddled openly in Russian politics by buying up influence over politicians. The looting of the Russian economy continued with some oligarchs amassing tremendous fortunes reckoned in the billions of dollars. Corruption and crime were rampant throughout the country. Just when people could see no hope out of their predicament, Yeltsin surprised everyone by resigning as President in 1999 and nominating Vladimir Putin to succeed him as caretaker President. The following year, Putin won the presidential elections and since then has been President (with a 4-year break from 2008 to 2012).

The documentary flows smoothly and well, and does an excellent job in following the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and his disastrous policies on particular sectors of the Russian economy, the social fabric and day-to-day life for many Russian people. The film notes the insidious role the Boris Yeltsin Center plays in whitewashing the politician and the impact he had. Just as insidious though is how the film gives little credit to Vladimir Putin in ending oligarch meddling in the nation’s politics (by making an example of crooked businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky by jailing him for 10 years when he refused to give up interfering in the political process) and reviving the Russian economy, and insinuates that high global prices for oil in the early 2000s were mainly responsible for the Russian economic resurrection. As leader of a centrist, socially liberal party, Yavlinsky is not likely to have a neutral or positive opinion of Putin, and as a dissident academic, neither is Kagarlitsky.

The film ends on a warning note about how undertaking “wrong” economic reforms can ruin economies. This is an incorrect reading of what was done to Russia by neoliberal economic policies during the Yeltsin years: far more correct is that these policies were intended to destroy Russian power and break up the country so its resources could be seized by foreign corporations and elites, and so they were the “right” policies. Attempts by the Yeltsin Center and others to portray Yeltsin as a saintly leader and decision-maker are to be seen in a similar light, parallel to how other major world leaders who also introduced neoliberal economics in their countries have been sold to the public as wise or capable, even as their economic policies sent thousands or millions into unemployment, poverty and despair.

Nazi Quest for the Holy Grail: a pseudo-scientific project with sinister consequences

Tom Barbor-Might, “Nazi Quest for the Holy Grail” (2013)

Of the mish-mash of strange and bizarre ideas, beliefs, pseudo-science and superstitions that were subsumed into Nazi German ideology and helped justify Nazi German war crimes and genocide against various groups (Jews, Roma, Slavs, prisoners of war, people with mental or physical defects among others), few can have been more bizarre than the project delineated in a set of documents apparently found in a cave in southern Germany by American soldiers in 1945: a project to discover the supposed lost Aryan civilisation from which the Nazis believed the German people were descended. To that end, the project (driven by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the Schutzstaffel) was to be realised in three missions: the search for the lost island of Atlantis, believed to be where the original Aryan civilisation had been based; the search for survivors of the original Aryan master race in Tibet; and the recovery of the Holy Grail in southern France, site of the mediaeval Cathar civilisation. All these missions were related by their ultimate goal (recreating the Aryan civilisation and its creators), by the way in which they selectively used facts and fiction alike to bolster and justify Himmler’s beliefs and assumptions, and in how they corrupted actual research in Cathar history, traditions and culture. Above all, these missions, and the people who took part in them, were used to justify and condone war crimes against Jewish and other victims, and had the potential to discredit science and history, and the methodologies used in scientific and historical research.

Through interviews with historians and a journalist, and using historical film footage and photographs, the documentary carefully and leisurely builds up its narrative in which Himmler, obsessed with his racist beliefs and occult topics, attempted to create a religion to rival Christianity: a religion selectively built upon pagan Germanic beliefs and mythology, a weird cult of ancestor worship that venerated the SS, and a search for religious relics and artefacts thought to have occult power, such as the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus. We meet some deluded characters such as the scholar Herman Wirth who worked on the Atlantic project and believed that after Atlantis sank, Aryan survivors went out across the globe to found various civilisations in the Middle East and Central and South America; Otto Rahn, whose research on the Cathars was usurped by Himmler and the SS, and who ultimately paid for his collaboration with the Nazis with his life; and the sinister anthropologist / ethnologist Bruno Beger who participated in the anthropology trip to Tibet in 1938, collecting physical measurements of the Tibetan people, and who later (in the 1940s) was involved in selecting and measuring 100 Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz as part of a project to collect their skeletons: this meant that these prisoners had to be killed, though Beger was to claim later that he did not know the prisoners whose measurements he took were to be killed.

The documentary flows smoothly from one topic to the next, though we never really find out whether the information collected during the 1938 trip to Tibet satisfied Himmler, nor whether Wirth fared all that well with his bizarre ideas about Atlantic civilisation after the Second World War. The film says very little about the information Beger collected on the Tibetans and their culture and traditions, and where that information and any artefacts he brought back might have ended up. (One can believe such findings could have fallen into the hands of those intent on using them later against the People’s Republic of China when that nation incorporated Tibet into its territory.) The music soundtrack is annoying and unnecessary but apart from this, the film’s technical details and pacing are very good.

The sobering message from the film, as one historian interviewed puts it, is that beliefs, ideas, mythologies and narratives can and do have dangerous consequences that can result in the violent deaths of millions of people and destroy entire nations and cultures, particularly when such belief sets have enormous power and compliance behind them. The pursuit of science and history can be corrupted by personal beliefs and ideologies, to the extent that research in those areas most affected by such corruption can be held back decades, often to the detriment of people’s lives and health. This is a warning we would all do well to acknowledge in the current hysterical climate of Russiagate, the March 2018 poisoning of the Skripals (and the supposedly related poisoning death of Dawn Sturgess in July of the same year) in Britain, and the continuing mystery of the July 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

Father Brown (Episode 29: The Truth in the Wine): reconciliation and forgiveness win the day

Ian Barber, “Father Brown (Episode 29: The Truth in the Wine)” (2015)

Being laid up with flu recently restricted me to watching re-runs of old TV shows on commercial TV stations; one of the better of these was this old episode “The Truth in the Wine” from the third season of the British mystery series “Father Brown” which is loosely based on G K Chesterton’s short stories about the crime-solving Roman Catholic priest. The television series is located in the Cotswolds area of England, in a fictional village called Kembleford. An itinerant labourer is found shot dead in the study of local vintner / aristocrat Colonel Anthony Forbes-Leith, and money marked for servants’ wages is also missing from the safe in the study. The police quickly deduce that two bullets were fired. The good father (Mark Williams), in his customary humble and unassuming manner, follows what the police find and discovers his own clues and evidence about the victim and the likely suspects. Before long, the police arrest the colonel (Daniel Ryan) on suspicion of murder, since they now know that the victim, Gibbs, had threatened blackmail against the vintner. Can Father Brown uncover the real murderer and the motivation behind the crime and put up a good case before the colonel is sentenced (and perhaps put on death row) or tries to commit suicide a second time?

As you would expect, this particular murder mystery comes with many twists and surprises: the colonel is not at all what he claims to be, but then, neither is any of the household staff of his mother, Lady Edna Forbes-Leith (Sheila Reid), and even she has many secrets hidden beneath that fragile bedridden reclusive facade. Significantly (and spoiler alert here), Father Brown not only uncovers the real murderer but in order to do so, he gets everyone in the Forbes-Leith household to admit his or her secrets, and that way he also finds out who has been taking the money from the safe. With that evidence in hand, the priest races down to the police station where, surprise, surprise, the coppers tell him the fingerprints on the gun include those of someone thought least likely to hold a gun and shoot someone dead. The police then close the book on the case as an act of self-defence and the “colonel” is set free. The real climax of the episode comes when Father Brown effects a reconciliation among all the members of the Forbes-Leith household and the “colonel” is welcomed back.

There are many messages you could take away from this episode: the distaste of the upper class for those lower class people who would insinuate themselves into more socially elevated layers by dint of hard work and talent; the incompetence of the police; and above all, the power of forgiveness in freeing people from past secrets and horrors, so they can forge new lives for themselves and one another. Father Brown comes face to face with a white lie that helps to preserve the Forbes-Leith property and legacy and fulfills the original colonel’s wishes of building a vineyard.

Red Joan: a stodgy film skirting issues about loyalty, betrayal and the nature of the British state

Trevor Nunn, “Red Joan” (2019)

Adapted from the novel of the same name which as the film acknowledges is based on the real-life case of Melita Norwood, Britain’s so-called “Granny Spy”, “Red Joan” spins an intriguing fictional tale of a young British woman, Joan Smith (Sophie Cookson) who in the late 1930s briefly flirts with socialism at Cambridge University and makes friends with two student Communist followers, Sonia (Tereza Srbova) and Leo (Tom Hughes) there. Joan is recommended by Leo to a secret British military physics project whose chief professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) hires her. The project is involved in working out the physics required to discover nuclear fission and eventually build an atomic bomb before the Americans do. While she resists at first, the eventual news of the US atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 convinces her to change her mind and to pass on the secrets to Sonia. Amidst all of this, Smith becomes romantically involved with Leo at university and afterwards, and also with Davis who has long been estranged from his wife who refuses to consent to a divorce.

Eventually the British security forces become aware that British military secrets are being passed to the KGB and start hounding the unit where Smith works. Sonia flees Britain and Leo is found dead. Max Davis is arrested, charged with treason under the Official Secrets Act and is imprisoned. Smith does what she can to get Max out of prison and, by blackmailing a former university colleague, William Mitchell (Freddie Gaminara) who has achieved a senior position in the British Foreign Office, she and Max flee Britain with new identities as Mr and Mrs Stanley. For half a century afterwards, Smith’s treachery remains undiscovered until the early 2000s, when Mitchell dies and old government documents are declassified. The documents point to Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) as a long-serving KGB agent.

The story is told in flashback and pans back and forth between the present and the past as Joan Stanley reminisces to two British security officers about her past misdeeds in answer to their questions. Dench plays Stanley as a somewhat doddery old grandmother, the kind of slightly bemused elderly lady in whose mouth butter would stay solid; viewers may have some trouble matching the elderly Joan to Cookson’s more determined and steely character, but the lovable fuddy-duddy front falls away when Joan Stanley faces the press. The two actresses play their parts more or less well though Dench is clearly underused in her role. Cookson plays her intelligent but naive anti-heroine to the hilt. The rest of the cast is pigeon-holed into stereotyped backing roles: Sonia and Leo are portrayed as glamorous yet sinister, and the scientists Joan works with are obsessed with their own work to the exclusion of everything else, politics included. The modern-day British security forces are portrayed as efficient bureaucrats paying lip service to Diversity and Identity Politics.

In trying to develop the character of Joan Smith / Stanley as an anti-heroine viewers will sympathise with, the film waters down many aspects of Melita Norwood’s background – Norwood was a fervent Communist sympathiser – to the point of turning Joan Smith / Stanley into a bland generic character. As a result the decisions that the young Joan makes often seem bewildering and her justification for spying – that sharing knowledge is fair and, in the context of Cold War politics, has prevented the use of nuclear warfare for 50+ years – is very unconvincing. Stereotypical plot devices are used to tidy up the narrative: Sonia’s disappearance gives Joan a vital weapon with which she can blackmail Mitchell and very few viewers will believe the fantastically comical scheme in which Smith and Davis manage to escape Britain and flee to Australia. (At this point the film-makers decided not to explain how Joan later makes her way back to Britain.)

In spite of the use of flashback structuring to generate a sense of tension that should build up during the course of the film towards the present day, the film tends to be stodgy throughout its running time. Had British security forces been portrayed as sinister, menacing and violent towards both Joan and Davis, rather than as efficient, even sympathetic, the much-needed tension and fear could have been generated. The film fails to acknowledge the repressive and secretive nature of British society past and present, and to draw a parallel between this and Soviet repression and paranoia: the result is that the film, along with the other liberties it takes in reshaping the central character and her background, and in skirting other issues that arise about loyalty to one’s country when it conflicts with one’s ethics and values, does not rise above general mediocre entertainment.

Rocketman: the rise and fall and rise again of a beloved British rock / pop icon, with no reference to social and music trends

Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” (2019)

Rather than playing as a straight biopic – a template that felled “Bohemian Rhapsody” – this comedy drama portraying the life and career of British rock / pop-star Elton John from his childhood in the 1950s as a piano prodigy to the 1980s when he crashes into rehabilitation to seek treatment for various addictions opts for a surreal musical fantasy approach in which various of Elton John’s best-known songs illustrate the artist’s trajectory from shy young boy Reginald Dwight whose parents hate each other, quarrel and neglect Reggie’s emotional needs, to aspiring rocker teaming with lyricist Bernie Taupin to write songs, to glam rock performer whose personal life eventually spirals out of control with abusive relationships (including one with his manager John Reid), cocaine and other drug addictions, and bulimia. The result is an energetic, flamboyant and highly entertaining, if not exactly informative, account of Elton John’s rise and fall and rise again as a star and human being who gains some sort of redemption and finds some peace in accepting himself as he is, warts and all.

For all its zing and colour and outrageousness, the narrative turns out to be conventional and its message is nothing out of the ordinary: it’s the story of an ordinary boy with a musical gift who wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and who tries to find that special love and to be accepted, at the same time taking career risks that open doors and propel him onto a path of fame and fortune. His journey steers him into episodes of doubt, self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour: at one point in the film, he attempts suicide in spectacular manner by throwing himself into a swimming pool in the middle of a party. True to form, at the bottom of the pool he finds his childhood self tinkling on a toy piano singing one of his famous songs. Welsh singer / actor Taron Egerton does a sterling job playing Elton John in a fairly demanding role that requires him to be as much comic as dramatic actor wearing a full range of outlandish stage clothes and glasses along with a terrible haircut, and enduring psychological abuse from both his parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) and his lover / manager (Richard Madden).

It is to Fletcher’s credit as a director that the movie moves swiftly and easily through familiar musical numbers that take leaps and jumps through the decades, focusing on just a few significant events in John’s life. Strangely the film does not detail John’s obsession with his receding hairline and battle against baldness; neither does it note any friendships or rivalries he might have had with other British rock and pop stars. Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is not much more than walking and talking wallpaper. The film’s sets – the settings include John’s mansion in Los Angeles as well as the middle class Fifties home where he grows up along with the many venues he performs in – merit special attention as do the many costumes the performer donned over the years.

Apart from detailing how a beloved British music icon managed to navigate the perils of fame, wealth and celebrity to accept and learn to forgive himself, and to let go of the abusive people in his life, the film actually tells viewers very little about how Elton John came to be such a megastar and how he managed to stay on top for so long. Too much of his life is crammed into a couple of hours and the film tends to dwell a lot on his costumes and theatricality without suggesting why such flamboyance was a necessary part of his act. Significantly the film has very little to say about the social and musical trends of the decades in which Elton John’s career developed and catapulted him to worldwide fame and great material fortune.