Zero: teenage survivalist making a critical decision about her future

Keith and David Lynch, “Zero” (2019)

In a post-apocalyptic world, when robots and humans have fought each other almost to the death in a long drawn-out world and there are few survivors, a father (Nigel O’Neill) teaches his daughter Alice (Bella Ramsey) how to survive on her own in a derelict house with enough food stockpiled to last five years. One day a mystery electro-magnetic pulse cuts off technology and kills the father who is wearing an internal pacemaker. For the next several years, Alice, having been drilled to stay in the house and never to leave it, never to trust anyone and never to allow anyone inside the house, bears up through sheer grit and determination. One day as the fifth year nears its end, Alice comes to a decision about her future and what she will have to do to achieve it.

The film appears to be a proof-of-concept short created to attract attention and garner support for a television series or a full-length movie treatment. Due to a strict budget, the film relies on main actor Ramsey to deliver a convincing performance about a young teenage girl left alone and to find some purpose in living. Ramsey puts in an excellent effort as Alice in a dark and near-monochrome environment. The film has the look (if rather clean) of post-apocalyptic survivalist films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and Konstantin Lopushansky’s “Dead Man’s Letters”. Daily life with nothing to do comes across as harrowing as if Alice had to work at a dead-end job full-time with no time off.

The pace can be a bit slow and leisurely and it only picks up right near the end when Alice has made her decision. At this point the film draws back to show the context into which Alice is walking: she is wading into a world that has become a tabula rasa on which there will be many opportunities for a youngster like her to make a significant mark.

The film has something to say about allowing survivalist rules to dominate your life rather than using them as guidelines; and by extension allowing past tradition, custom and history to dictate future decisions and actions. While Alice’s father tries in his own way to protect his daughter, he ends up turning her into a prisoner bound not only by the physical prison but also by mental bonds (expressed in reminders around the house) and her loyalty to him. At the end, Alice has to decide on whether she will continue to be bound by invisible fetters or not.

Don’t Look Now: an eerie and profound Gothic horror film of grief, trauma and misperceptions

Nicolas Roeg, “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

Adapted from the short story with the same title by Daphne du Maurier, this famous British cult horror film is ostensibly a study of grief and how it affects a family’s ability to cope with life’s daily routines and informs family members’ perceptions of the world around them. On another level, the family affected by the death of a young child lives in a universe where time appears to be of a different dimension than how we experience it, in the way the past, the present and the future seem to bleed into one another and people may just as readily have premonitions of what will happen as they have memories of past events. After losing Christine in a drowning accident back home in the UK, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) Baxter dump their son in a boarding school and flee to Venice where John has taken up a job helping to restore a Roman Catholic church’s mosaics. The couple meet two elderly sisters, one of whom is blind but has the gift of second sight: she sees the spirit of Christine, still clad in her red raincoat in which she died, hovering around the couple, and tells Laura. After a fainting fit, Laura informs John of what the sister has told her but John remains sceptical.

Over the next several days, while continuing to reside and work in Venice, John and Laura experience flashbacks of the drowning accident and John himself has strange visions in which a small figure in a red raincoat roams the bridges and streets of Venice, and in which (after Laura returns to the UK on being informed by long-distance phone by her son’s school that he has had an accident and is in hospital) his wife is still in Venice but is clad in black mourning clothes and flanked by the mysterious elderly sisters sailing on a vaporetto draped in black. Meanwhile the police in Venice are finding dead human bodies in the canals of the city and realise there may be a serial killer on the loose.

The plot is very clever if not completely plausible: the tragedy is that John has been gifted with second sight, as one of the elderly sisters recognises, but because of his scepticism and belief in rationality, his ability causes him endless trouble and also gets the two sisters detained by the police, which event forces the sighted sister to make arrangements to leave Venice permanently, a move which upsets her blind sibling; and his inability to recognise his gift but to confuse it instead with his memories of his daughter’s drowning leads him on a path to tragedy. In this, the past, present and future intersect in a way that suggests in the universe in which the Baxters live, the events of one’s life really can be predetermined by the decisions and actions one takes.

Various occurring motifs of bright red raincoats, breaking glass, images and their mirror twins, doppelgangers and duplication, and water as the giver of life and bringer of death run throughout the film to reinforce the notion of the Baxters living in a seemingly time-less world where the past could be the future and the future could be the past. Even John’s work in the restoration of the church’s artistic works involves duplicating old glass pieces with new pieces. Misinterpreting incidents and mistaken identities are a major theme in the film. The climax of the film is shocking and viewers quickly realise nothing is what it originally seemed to be: people thought to be innocent turn out not to be so, and those believed to be sinister turn out to be protective.

The film works as it does by drawing inspiration and elements from the work of Alfred Hitchcock and from the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges whose literary concept of the world as a labyrinth is extended to the portrayal of Venice as a city of seemingly endless mazes through its paths, bridges, tunnels and even its canals. Roeg’s use of editing in which shots of two events are spliced so that they appear to be running at the same time, most famously in the scene in which John and Laura have passionate sex and get dressed to go out for dinner, reinforces the idea of a universe in which past, present and future do not follow a linear structure. The actors do excellent work in their roles as the troubled Baxter couple, experiencing the usual ups and downs in their relationship while at the same time recovering (or trying to) from a major trauma. Venice is a significant character in the film: a grittier and darker side of the city is shown, with buildings almost falling into disrepair, streets and tunnels conveying sinister menace, and the city’s bright facade for tourists hiding bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. The film could not have been made anywhere else in the world but Venice.

Roeg’s unusual filming techniques and the way in which he places his motifs at significant points in the film to advance the plot and send the characters on their destinies from which they are unable to deviate give “Don’t Look Now” an eerie and haunting Gothic feel that in its own dark way is very profound and beautiful.

Invaders: a whimsical Christmas SF film provides some sobering food for thought about human social needs

Daniel Prince, “Invaders” (2018)

Playing as a homage and parody of the 1980s film “Batteries Not Included” in which a bunch of tiny extraterrestrial cyborg spaceships save an apartment building from a property development, “Invaders” is a whimsical Christmas short in which three mischievous UFOs explore a house on Christmas Eve and have some amusing adventures and misadventures with various Christmas decorations until one of the UFOs meets Santa Claus. The result of the sudden meeting is rather catastrophic and changes Christmas forever for millions of children around the world – but the naughty cyborgs manage to zip away into space without having to face justice for their misdeeds!

The film proceeds a bit too slowly in its early half and relies on its viewers being familiar with scare stories and conspiracy theories about crop circles and UFO abductions, and 1980s science fiction films dealing with human and alien encounters. Included is a theme about the need for belonging and how that need can be manipulated by others to bully, and lead both bully and victim alike to commit deeds of cruelty, violence and murder. A sobering lesson might be found here about how human societies have treated other human cultures on discovering them for the first time: all too often such contacts result in one attempting to exploit and manipulate the other in order to steal the other’s territory and any wealth that territory contains. Another analogy may be drawn between this film and US drone operators whose targeting and destruction rip apart families, traditions, history and culture in distant lands, at no cost to the operators themselves.

The film is remarkable mainly for its technical achievements in combining animation and computer graphic effects. While it seems slow in getting its plot off the ground, once the story has described its cyber-characters and their relations with one another, the film develops a faster pace and becomes frantic at its climax with quick, sharp shots hinting at a very gory confrontation. For a whimsical short film with a fairly simple plot, “Invaders” does manage to pack in much food for thought.

Sorry We Missed You: a social realist docudrama that feels not a little exploitative itself

Ken Loach, “Sorry We Missed You” (2019)

He may be well into his 80s but Ken Loach continues to make social realist film dramas that document those aspects of modern British society that oppress its most vulnerable segments: the poor, the weak and those who may be only a pay cheque or two away from grinding poverty and the tender mercies of an uncaring and inhumane State bureaucracy. In “Sorry We Missed You”, Loach turns his attention to the latest trends in employment in post-Blair neoliberal capitalist Britain, principally what is called “freelancing” or the so-called “gig economy” and zero-hours contracts. In Newcastle, the major city in the poorest region (the Northeast) in England, the Turners are a family of four who have struggled to make a life since 2008, when they lost their home and work as result of the Global Financial Crash that felled Northern Rock building society. The family has since had to rent a terrace home and Rick (Kris Hitchen) has tried to make do with a series of jobs in the building industry. He is encouraged to become a self-employed delivery driver at a parcel delivery courier company run by tough manager Maloney (Ross Brewster). For this, Rick needs a huge deposit on a new van which he gets by selling the car his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) needs to provide home nursing to various elderly patients in her contract job.

The film follows the fortunes of the various Turner family members as the parents struggle with the long hours imposed by their respective jobs and the stress their work places on their relationship with each other and with their children Seb (Rhys Stone) and Liza Jane (Kate Proctor). Seeing no future in continuing school studies and dismayed at the prospect of going to university with no promise of a job at the end and only a hefty student debt to show for the work, Seb cuts school to spend days with a graffiti crew. This gets him in trouble with his parents, the school and the police, and places extra stress on the parents. Liza Jane is traumatised by the fights at home and tries to intervene at one point by stealing Dad’s van keys. One incident after another lands Rick into deep shit with Maloney. Despite Abby and the children’s realisation that Rick’s job is sinking all of them into a hole of ever-burgeoning debt and the stress this will cause, Rick is still determined to keep on working for his company – even to the point of dying for it.

Based on actual interviews with gig-economy delivery drivers and care workers, the film packs in so much to make its point that its plot does appear very contrived and manipulative. The daughter’s ruse of stealing the keys seems out of character for the child. Most characters are played by non-professional actors and sometimes these actors seem a little awkward, particularly at the beginning of the film. They do warm towards their characters and as the film progresses they produce some stunning virtuoso performances – in this respect, Honeywood and Stone are outstanding. Hitchen and Proctor put in good work as well but they are stymied by the nature of their characters.

While the film does deliver a very hard-hitting message about the effects of new temporary working arrangements in new industries such as delivering goods ordered via the Internet and home-based health care on the people who provide these services and on their families in a society where trade unions were smashed in the 1980s by the Thatcher Conservative government and political parties of all stripes have been captured by neoliberal capitalism, the film also captures the alienation and anguish of people caught in a never-ending cosmic hamster-wheel, in which everything they do to improve their lives only makes it worse, and what is promised to them as “freedom” and “independence” is only slavery and oppression in a new guise. In the end, all that the Turners really have, in a neo-Dickensian world fragmenting and falling apart around them, is one another. Abby does derive a little consolation from the people who depend on her to care for them – but at the same time, Abby and her patients are also exploited by her invisible employer who treats her just as badly as Rick’s company does him. What society exists around the Turners is just as bleak: the over-worked and under-funded NHS comes in for quite a hammering and a well-meaning police officer can only utter the same old platitudes that countless past generations of rebellious teenagers like Seb have heard over and over.

Unfortunately the bare-bones docudrama framework of the film delivers an open-ended conclusion in which viewers can only imagine the Turners on a continual downward spiral that must end in tragedy for one of them. There is no suggestion in the film that Rick and his fellow delivery drivers come to a joint realisation that they are being exploited and that they should band together, even use their employer’s scanners, apps and other technology, to form a union to resist further exploitation. In the same year Loach was making his film, thousands of Uber and Lyft gig-economy drivers around the world were on strike for better pay and working conditions, and similar industrial agitation was developing among other gig-economy workers in other industries.

For a film depicting a such a bleak society, with all the social and economic burdens the society has had to bear for the past 40 years, it seems odd that Loach depicts the Turners and others like them as passive and helpless, at the mercy of predatory companies and the governments they curry favour with, and the technology that is supposed to help them but instead chains them into slavery.

The Good Liar: a story of identity, reinvention and revenge shafted by a superficial script

Bill Condon, “The Good Liar” (2019)

Getting two giants of British stage and film proved to be the least of director Bill Condon’s problems; the biggest turned out to be finding a script that was worthy of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren’s talents. Although the two actors put in very good performances, “The Good Liar” turns out to be a pedestrian work. Serial grifter Roy Courtnay (McKellen) manipulates people into handing over their finances through various deceptive schemes, usually by employing false identities. One ruse is to go on dating websites to find and scam vulnerable widows: his latest victim is one Betty McLeish (Mirren), a sweet old lady who recently lost her husband Adrian and has inherited a cool three million pounds. Thereupon the two embark on the usual round of meeting for lunch or dinner at smart restaurants, going to the cinema to see third-rate Hollywood war films or walking in the park hand in hand. When not occupied with McLeish – and to his surprise, the widow insists that he stay in her house to recuperate from a gammy knee – Courtnay teams with fellow con-man Vincent (Jim Carter) to fleece another victim, Bryn (Mark Lewis Jones), of his money in an elaborate fake offshore financial scam. When Bryn realises he has been robbed, he secretly follows Courtnay but Courtnay tricks him into following him (Courtnay) into Charing Cross tube station where the experienced grifter brutally attacks his victim and sends him into the path of an oncoming train.

From then on, Betty McLeish and Roy Courtnay become ever closer to the extent of agreeing to combine their bank accounts with Vincent’s help, to the chagrin of Betty’s grandson Steven (Russell Tovey). Betty insists on taking Roy to visit Berlin where Steven is doing research on World War II history. There, Roy is unexpectedly confronted with his past as a soldier working with a German-English translator Hans Taub, seeking a Nazi war criminal …

At this point the film becomes less credible, as not only Roy but other people he thought he knew turn out to have false identities; and on learning those people’s true identities, he is forced to accept the consequences of past heinous actions which impact on his life and transform it forever. He is literally left a broken man. We do not learn however if he learns a lesson from his past crimes, and this is one aspect of the film that detracts from it overall. We also do not learn whether Betty regrets what she believes she has had to do – or even whether she had any legal authority to do what she does – to avenge the suffering that was done to her parents and siblings more than 60 years ago (at the time the film is set) in a distant country and period. Is she afraid that what was done to her then might happen to her grandchildren? Does she even consider that what she has done in the film might come back to bite her, just as what Roy did in the past came back to bite him? Again, the film is silent on this question, and this silence diminishes the film further: there is no suggestion that Betty’s vengeance, even in the context of a society that no longer cares about the suffering of victims of past wars (unless they are favoured victims of a particular historical narrative), might not be the moral thing to do.

Details of the plot, such as the ages of the protagonist and antagonist – if they were teenagers during World War II, then they’d have to be well over 80 years of age when they meet in the film’s present – and the way in which the revenge plot is resolved, with two characters from earlier in the film unexpectedly turning up at the climax, are simply not plausible. The punishment meted out to Roy is excessive, even for someone (spoiler alert) as psychopathic as he turns out to be.

The film could have delivered a profound message on identity and reinvention of oneself, to escape a troubled past (which ends up intruding on one’s present in unexpected and unpleasant ways), and on the nature of revenge, and how it might or might not resolve suffering, but the opportunity was frittered on a simple and superficial story. As former Shakespearean actors, McKellen and Mirren are far better than this and deserve better scripts.

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.