Alien (dir. Ridley Scott): unique sci-fi/horror film with much to say about human society

Ridley Scott, “Alien” (1979)

In the wake of news that Ridley Scott has started work on “Prometheus”, the movie prologue to “Alien”, it’s timely to revisit the movie that started the whole series and made Sigourney Weaver a star. The idea of mixing science fiction with horror was not new in 1979 when the film was released and some of the ideas in “Alien” can be traced to various sources including a story in the British TV science fiction show Doctor Who “The Ark in Space”, broadcast a few years before “Alien”, in which an alien lays larvae in human hosts asleep in capsules in a space ship. What Scott brought to “Alien” that makes it stand out from its influences and from other science fiction / horror films before and after is its use of atmosphere, backgrounds, characters and plot to create a fusion of haunted-house horror, slasher flick and a survival film. The alien’s life-cycle becomes a central part of the film’s horror and this together with the alien (played by Bolaji Bodejo) itself have come to embody human fears and misunderstandings about sexuality, pregnancy and birth.

In the distant future a company cargo space transporter, the Nostromo, is bringing a refinery and various minerals back to Earth when it intercepts an apparent SOS from a spaceship on a distant alien planet. The crew of seven is awakened from deep sleep and on discovering the signal, land on the planet to investigate its source and provide assistance. The signal is traced to a crashed alien ship and the crew, led by Dallas (Tom Skerritt), sends out a rescue team. One of the team, Kane (John Hurt) is injured during the search, and is brought back to the Nostromo. Too late his crew-mates discover he has been infected by an alien parasite which has deposited a larva in him; the larva emerges in spectacularly erect fashion in the communal dining-room – it always has to be a dining-room for the yuck factor – and zooms off to hide in the Nostromo’s various labyrinthine networks, holding bays and other nooks and crannies. From then on, the movie is a mixture of hide-and-seek / cat-and-mouse game as prey becomes hunter and the hunters become prey, and along the way audiences learn more about the true nature of the SOS signal and how the crew’s employer exploited them and put their lives in danger by not advising them of the true nature of the rescue mission.

The seven actors who make up the crew had considerable experience in theatre, film, television and other forms of drama when they were cast, and their performances as ordinary technical service personnel with all their concerns about pay, work conditions and treatment by their employer are good if perhaps not exceptional. Weaver as Ellen Ripley the unimaginative stickler for rules and regulations and Ian Holm as the Nostromo’s overly detached science officer Ash who harbours a secret deliver the stand-out performances with Yaphet Kotto as the would-be hero mechanic and Harry Dean Stanton as his laconic partner not far behind. Perhaps the best scene with respect to acting is Weaver’s scene where she confronts the alien directly and fights to control her emotions as she draws the creature towards her so as to position it for blasting into space via decompression: it’s equal parts cool-headed heroism, an unyielding will to survive and the fear and horror of violent death all feeding off one another.

The Nostromo should receive an acting credit as well: its labyrinth-like interiors in which the alien hides provide major opportunities for the simple plot to advance and the alien to bump off individual crew members. The colours of the Nostromo’s interiors are dark and shadowy which give the film’s early scenes a moody, suspenseful, almost film-noir atmosphere. Flashing lights, bursts of smoke and siren sounds in its narrow corridors in the film’s later scenes build up tension towards the climax in which Weaver’s character Ripley will meet the alien. Probably the only criticism to be made about the sets is that the ones that feature computer technology were becoming dated even at the time of the film’s initial release. Film crews, even ones with great imaginations, can only look so far into the future and guess at what technologies might be popular.

Where “Alien” really excels is in its careful detailing of the alien planet’s landscapes, the crashed ship’s strange, organic shapes and interiors, and the alien’s sexually suggestive appearance based on artwork by Swiss artist H R Giger who had a cult reputation in the 1970s. The very alien-ness of the film’s early scenes, in which the rescue team investigate the crashed ship, helps to set the mood of dread and mystery for the action to come. Once the alien is out and about and has got rid of a few victims, the tension starts to ratchet up steadily and the noir-like mood gradually disappears to be replaced by a new atmosphere of competitive, urgent struggle as Ripley decides to blow up the Nostromo and sets its self-destruct mechanisms in place.

The film makes insinuations about the future society that provides the context for the nightmarish scenario the crew find themselves in: for a company to be able to send large cargo ships into the far reaches of space to ferry ores, it must be extremely rich and must hold considerable political as well as economic power. The company also has a large human workforce, so large that a few missing, even killed deliberately, barely make a dint on the company’s occupational safety records. It prefers to keep valuable knowledge and secrets in a robot that lacks an inbuilt system or database of ethics, forces humans to follow company orders and spies on them as well. One would think a company that rich and powerful should be able to build cargo ships that are entirely self-operating and need no humans, not even in emergency situations where lateral thinking is required. Perhaps this company operates on thin profit margins that don’t allow it to continuously update its operations but manages with a mixture of old and new technologies. In such ships, humans are needed in much the same way as pilots are needed on airbuses and jumbo jets, mainly to land such vehicles and set them up for take-off, and to perform other jobs as the company requires. The fact that Ripley and the other crew members address company headquarters staff collectively as “Mother” suggests the company plays a nanny-state role in its employees’ lives – among other things, it might provide housing for them and their families, schools and teachers to educate their children, and doctors and nurses to monitor their health and determine their fitness for company employment – in a way viewers would find highly intrusive and hard to understand. The company literally has the power of life and death over its workers.

Science in such a society becomes nothing more than a weapon or a mechanism which the company uses to enrich itself and its owners, and to expand its power. No wonder that the company sees value in obtaining the monster – thus its directive to Ash to preserve the monster’s life at any cost – to the extent that it would sacrifice the Nostromo’s crew. Ash admires the monster for its “purity”, meaning its lack of self-awareness that would require possessing some sort of moral code, a sense of right and wrong. The monster exists to survive and replicate itself in aggressive ways and the company wants to know what motivates this kind of behaviour in the monster. Anyone familiar with the way movie science fiction works can easily figure out what this might lead to: insane fascistic fantasies about creating hierarchies of human-alien hybrid soldiers and worker drones to colonise the universe. The mysteries of human sexuality and reproduction become an elaborate if mechanised form of mass factory production of the kind Aldous Huxley wrote about in “Brave New World” in which human embryos were customised by chemical and/or cellular manipulation to fit into particular pre-determined social and economic niches in the novel’s hierarchical society.

At least Ripley and the others discover who the real monster in the scenario is – and it ain’t the one hiding in the air shafts hunting them down. The film is not very subtle about that fact – indeed much of it plays out like a B-grade horror film – but in its set-up and characterisation that provide the basis for the plot, it makes assumptions about the future evolution of human society and its relationship to science and technology that would have most of us hanging our heads in despair.

Elite Squad: powerful and thought-provoking study of police corruption and violence

Jose Padilha, “Elite Squad” (2007)

An examination of corruption and brutality in a special forces unit of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro state in Brazil as it battles drug dealers in the slums of Rio (the city), this film by Jose Padilha is worth seeing, despite its frequently shocking violence, for its depiction of the super-macho culture within the unit and the dehumanising effects this has on the individuals serving there. How the officers then spread that psychological degradation through their violence to their families and the favelas they operate in is also portrayed to good effect. At the same time, audiences need to be fairly thick-skinned and forgiving as the film can go into what seems like unnecessary plot diversions which eventually converge into the main story that includes the transformation of one initially well-meaning and intelligent police officer into a hardened killing machine.

The film’s events play from the viewpoint of Captain Roberto Nascimento (Walter Moura) who does the voice-over narration and who is as unreliable and blinkered in his outlook as first-person narrators can be; he’s one of the leaders in the BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) charged with eliminating the drug trade in Rio’s slum districts, known as favelas. Nascimento is suffering from burn-out and realises his work is affecting his marriage; his wife is about to give birth and he wants to see his child grow up. He wants to resign from front-line duty but must choose his replacement; his choice narrows to two men, Matias (Andres Ramiro), a level-headed, almost intellectual type whose passion for front-line work is untested, and Neto (Caio Junqueira) who has the heart and energy but tends to act before he thinks. Nascimento’s seniors order him to stay in the force until after the Pope’s visit to Rio which is several months away, well after the birth of his first child. Office politics, training a successor and personal issues aside, there is also the problem of Matias’s law studies which bring that man into a group of university students who work with a group of cocaine dealers led by a guy called Baiano in one favela, giving Nascimento no end of headaches in the short time he has before he can rejoin real life.

The narrative does jump around from one plot diversion to another with much of its first hour revolving around Matias going to lectures and visiting some students working in a favela with a social worker, and Neto arguing with a mechanic over police car repairs, interspersed with a drug raid which the two men as regular police officers participate in. The second hour begins with Matias and Neto undergoing training with other officers to join the BOPE. With the film’s pace and tension going up and down, some momentum may be lost as the focus swings from one plot strand to another. Eventually when Baiano and the uni students figure out Matias’s identity from a newspaper article and Baiano decides to trap and kill Matias, not knowing that in the meantime Matias has joined the BOPE, the plot diversions merge and from then on the film’s momentum rises steadily to the climax; but not before viewers learn something of the day-to-day life of the BOPE members, their peculiar gang-like ways, bonding customs (which include Neto getting the BOPE emblem tattooed on his arm), initiation rituals during training and, most of all, their narrow perspective which sees all drug dealers and the people they deal with and supply to as just scum.

With lots of often jerky handheld camera shots and constant panning between people conversing together, the film has a strong documentary feel that elevates the impact of the violence when it occurs. The frantic rush of drug raid scenes, with hurried tracking shots, is leavened with more leisurely flashback of scenes of Matias strolling to university or the social worker’s office, and of brief scenes of Nascimento at home arguing with his wife, cradling his newborn son or scoffing tablets to cope with his anxiety attacks and dizzy spells. The film’s strong focus on Nascimento and Matias, and what their behaviour reveals about BOPE beliefs and practices, means that theirs are the only fully developed characters and viewers may sympathise with their viewpoints and actions, no matter how reprehensible and unethical they are. As Nascimento and Matias, Moura and Ramiro play their parts effectively as two police officers required to suppress their feelings and personal opinions and give their lives over as servants of an institution much greater than themselves, doing God’s work as it were (with inquisitorial zeal).

The film does an excellent job showing up the hypocrisy of the middle and upper classes, represented by the young and naive university students, who condemn the police for their brutality and corrupt practices yet co-operate with Baiano in his drug-trafficking activities and buy the drugs themselves, supporting the trade. There is the suggestion that they help him police the favela with his own brand of stand-over tactics and violence. What the film fails to do – and this is its major weakness – is show the effects of the war between the police and the drug gangs on the favela residents themselves; the poor are merely passive bystanders or victims to be shot at or harassed for information. We see their neighbourhoods being turned into war zones but we learn nothing of what they think about the drug trade, the warring sides and how the conflict hurts them and their communities.

“Elite Squad” is a skilfully made film that forces viewers to question their assumptions about the drug trade and its conflicts between drug gangs and the police in Rio. By not taking an obvious stand for or against the police, Padilha draws viewers into the BOPE operations and lets them decide for themselves the extent of the corruption that exists there. No-one comes out of the showdown between the BOPE members and Baiano’s side with moral integrity intact and everybody, from the dealers and the students through the police to their superiors and their political contacts, emerges compromised in an ongoing path of social decay. Stomach-churning violence aside, there are very brief moments of black humour (such as Neto’s tattooing) and subtle commentary on the similarities between the BOPE culture and the behaviour of gangs generally in a winding plot. This may require at least one repeat viewing for some people to understand and appreciate fully.

The Motorcycle Diaries: road trip through South America is a hard slog

Walter Salles, “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004)

A film about two guys in their 20s riding on a motorcycle through South America in the 1950s should have been easy to make entertaining, especially when the travellers in question come from comfortable middle-class families in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the people in the places they visit are not only poor farmers, miners and labourers, these folks are also indigenous or part-indigenous people who might never have heard of Argentina or know it only as a country full of rich snobs. Add to that scenario the fact that one of the Argentine travellers is one Ernesto Guevara de la Serna or “Fuser” as he was known at the time by his pals: yes, that Ernesto Guevara aka Che Guevara the diplomat, writer, politician and revolutionary. Throw in side-trips to Cuzco and Macchu Picchu, sites of the once-mighty Incan civilisation, with the added attraction of magnificent Andean mountain settings for the latter place; journeys across the Argentine pampa and over the snowy Argentine-Chilean Andes down to Valparaiso in Chile; an ill-advised hike by foot and hitch-hiking through the Atacama desert towards Peru; and a 3-week sojourn at a leper colony in Peru’s Amazonian territory near the end. How can you not make of this mixture a colourful and invigorating road trip spiced with questions about how some parts of South America became rich and other parts poor, how the aboriginal peoples were brought down so low by European colonisation, and what can the travellers do in their small ways to make amends for this situation?

Amazingly “The Motorcycle Diaries”, directed by Brazilian director Walther Salles using Guevara’s memoirs of the same name, and featuring Gael Garcia Bernal as Fuser with Rodrigo de la Serna (in real life related to Guevara) as travelling companion Alberto Granado, turns out to be a hard and earnest slog starved for energy and vitality through an itinerary of touristy spots without the rip-off souvenir shops. The miners, farmers and other labourers Fuser and Granado meet add some substance and flavour to the places ticked off on their list but viewers get no sense of connection, of brotherly feeling between the Argentines and the people they meet. Part of the problem here is the blank-slate soporific acting style adopted by Garcia Bernal in playing Fuser: viewers have no idea of what Fuser’s early background was like apart from his being a medical student. Even in voice-over narrations when writing to his parents in letters and diary entries, Fuser never refers to past memories of family life which might hint at his relatively privileged childhood and the education he received. He comes over as a geeky and socially awkward young man with bland pretty-boy looks more likely to accept his doctor slot in the capitalist slave wage society, patching up people who get hurt in the course of being ground down by the system and fixing their problems so they can get back to being ground down, than as an independent-minded rebel in the making. The real-life Che Guevara must have been a much more intelligent, inquisitive and engaging man than the enervated and watery being viewers see in the film.

The other part of the problem is the narrative structure and the filming approach used to support it: “The Motorcycle Diaries” plays out in traditional story-telling mode about two travellers who want to go sight-seeing, pick up girls and have a good time; and the film crew use a mix of tracking, close-ups and occasional fixed shots to follow the duo. Very much a conventional way of recording Guevara’s memoirs in visual form but limited and alienating the audience as well: we go from A to B all the way to Z in a way that loses its zip as one picturesque scene after another ends up blending into a string of picturesque scenes all very much the same. There is no sense of a structure to the film other than a loosely knit series of both comedy and serious drama sketches in which Fuser and Granado suffer mishaps with the wheezing motorbike, get into scraps with men in small towns after flirting with their wives and girlfriends, lose their tent and beg for food, money and shelter from strangers; this could be any road-trip story with a couple of bumbling characters playing straight man and comic.

The film might have worked better if it had employed a more journalistic approach with occasional handheld camera shots of Fuser and Granado conversing with the people they meet, learning of their problems with their employers, landlords and the police, and put cameras on the motorbike itself in scenes where the men travel in the countryside and crash into cows or fall into ditches to convey a sense of movement, the thrill and dangers of travelling in unknown places where anything could happen, and the joy of being free and knowing that the people you will meet know nothing about you and have no expectations of you. A mix of different points of view or even using first-person viewpoints (Fuser or Granado) might have helped, particularly in scenes set in the leper colony so viewers get a sense of the ostracism and other indignities suffered by leprosy patients from the nuns, along with voice-over narration from Garcia Bernal as Fuser to put the scenes in both a historical and personal context that gives viewers some idea of what might have gone on in Fuser’s head and how he arrived at the conclusion that being a revolutionary would do more for the downtrodden and exploited than being a doctor.

At least the stunning landscapes, the towns visited and the indigenous people who share their problems with Fuser and Granado, as identified by Fuser/Guevara in 1952 when he took his trip, provide the film’s saving grace and make it worth seeing.

Johnny Mad Dog: clear anti-war message let down by generic portrayal of film’s events

Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, “Johnny Mad Dog” (2008)

A film of child soldiers set in an African country experiencing a long and protracted civil war, “Johnny Mad Dog” will be gruesome watching for most people. The movie revolves around the viewpoint of two teenagers, Johnny Mad Dog (Chirstopher Minie) who leads a militia of under-age soldiers, some of them barely into their teens, in a rebel army and Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy) who tries to save her crippled father and little brother from the rebels when they hit her town and kill or drive away the soldiers. The film’s narrative follows the boys from the time they receive their orders from the General (Joseph Duo), through their journey into a town and then into the capital city to meet up with other rebel groups fighting government forces; along the way the youngsters commit appalling and brutal acts of violence such as forcing a child to shoot his father, raping a TV news reporter and torturing a middle-aged couple by forcing them to have sex. In warfare, the boys efficiently despatch a sniper; in brief periods of “peace”, they quarrel, waste too much ammunition in the air, steal things and generally sort out their particular places in their little social hierarchy. In the meantime, Laokole is torn between getting her wounded father to hospital and keeping her brother safe: she decides to take Dad to hospital in a wheelbarrow but loses the small boy.

The depiction of Johnny and his unit as they alternately kill and plunder, and act like a bunch of typical teenagers obsessed with second-hand Western pop culture or stolen trophies like a pig, looks realistic if bizarre. Many child actors who appear had actually been soldiers and you wonder how they must have felt recreating brutal, nightmarish scenes. The often shocking contrast of the boys’ violence and their relative innocence and naivety is a reflection of the surreal society that produced them, a society where adults are helpless and passive – even the UN soldiers guarding the city hospital barely hold out against Johnny’s rabble – or are deliberately uncaring, cynical and lying; and children are the ones who take responsibility for their parents and siblings. The rebel leaders who lure Johnny and the other boys into their ranks promise the children money for their future and provide charms claimed to ward off bullets and injuries but betray the children by joining the regular army once the war is ended.

Using a mixture of jumpy handheld camera shots, fixed-film shots and scenes shot in slow-motion style, Sauvaire achieves an effect that is at once immediate and in-your-face, and at the same time in its own way, universal: children brainwashed, degraded and traumatised by ongoing war and extreme poverty, with the adults exploiting their innocence, eager energy and desire for security. The film looks beautiful, even artistic, even in scenes of parts of the deserted city where evidence of poverty and long-term government neglect might be expected; the forests look too green and lush, and the houses appear picturesque and colourful.

The country where the war takes place is never identified; this is at once the film’s weakness and part of its purpose, which is to show that the events could happen in any country where there is ongoing civil war, but this approach risks making the country, its people and places generic. The film narrowly focusses on the boys’ activities and interactions so they come across as little more than thuggish brats with AK-47s. Viewers never learn if the government the rebels fight against really is corrupt and favours some ethnic or religious groups over others. The rebel leadership is never identified so viewers have no way of knowing if Johnny’s general is just not a nice piece of work or is representative of the rebel army leaders. For all we know, the rebels may have had very legitimate grievances which would have given a context to the orders the boys receive from the General and the mayhem they cause, and the film an added complicated political-social dimension which would enrich the sparse plot.

The performances of Minie and Vandy as the teenagers on two opposed sides of the war, whose lives run in parallel save for two meetings, are pivotal to the film’s plot and both youngsters deliver excellent work particularly in their scenes together. Their first scene, completely wordless, holds the possibility of a friendship and possible redemption for Johnny, and the close-ups of the actors’ faces, frozen yet filled with conflicting thoughts and feelings, are stunning; the protagonists’ second scene together, in which all hope of reconciliation is gone, is terrifying in the way it suggests both youngsters have been completely corrupted and degraded by the adults and events around them and will remain enemies forever. For all his bluster and near-sociopathic tendencies, Johnny shows potential to be a more sensitive person – he refuses to blast away a group of UN soldiers, to his unit’s astonishment; he is concerned for a prostitute he names “Lovelita” when she is shot – if he had been given better luck in life; and Laokole shows an unexpected hardening, vengeful side.

The message that war dehumanises people, most of all children, is very clear but for all that, “Johnny Mad Dog” is one-dimensional and not nearly as effective as it could be. The journalistic concentration on the issue of child soldiers throws the spotlight onto the child actors but without the background context that might explain how and why the civil war in the unnamed African country broke out and whether the rebels had good cause to revolt – this could be completely fictional yet plausible as it would be reconstructed from real life events in various countries- the film undermines its message and becomes open to charges of racism and exploitation of its themes for the titillation of audiences within Africa and beyond. Nevertheless it’s a worthwhile film to watch for the work of its two leads in portraying two opposed characters.

The film was shot in Monrovia and other parts of Liberia but is based on a novel “Johnny Chien Mechant” by novelist and scientist Emmanuel Dongala, who used his experiences as a refugee fleeing Congo (Brazzaville) in the late 1990’s when war broke out there, for the book.

Inside Job: hard-hitting documentary about 2007/08 Global Financial Crisis

Charles Ferguson, “Inside Job” (2010)

 For many people, this incisive documentary on the immediate origins of the 2007 – 08 Global Financial Crisis will prove a real eye-opener into the workings of the various large American investment banks, insurance and other finance corporations all collectively known as “Wall Street” and of the failure of the US government and its agencies to monitor and regulate the industry’s activities. The consequences of the failure of successive US governments from the 1980’s onwards to control Wall Street’s rapacity and excesses are becoming all too apparent as “Inside Job” makes clear: collapsed banks and insurance companies; economic instability resulting in over-caution on lenders’ part, forcing businesses to downsize operations and lay off workers; huge public debts which force government cut-backs in spending on education, medical and social welfare services; increased debt burdens on households; people’s savings and superannuation and pension funds wiped out, among other results. Director Charles Ferguson who also wrote the script and produced the documentary tracks down and interviews a number of bank executives, public officials and economists about aspects of the GFC, and many of the interviewees who appear in “Inside Job” reveal themselves as corrupt or corrupted participants in and beneficiaries of Wall Street’s greed, arrogance and lack of ethics.

The film traces the roots of the GFC to the early 1980’s when the Reagan government began deregulating the banking and finance industry and watered down a number of government acts and regulations that came into force after the Great Depression of the early 1930’s. Even after the collapse of savings and loan associations in late 1980’s which should have been a warning that something was not right in the finance industry, deregulation continued well into the next decade and after the Cold War ended in 1991, a number of physicists and mathematicians entered the finance industry with ideas on playing the stock market like a giant casino, and many creative and convoluted ways of converting mortgage and other types of loans into more lucratvie financial instruments, backed by other weird, wonderful and wacky financial products whose origins were so diverse and complex even for finance industry workers to trace, came into being. Eventually a crisis of trust and confidence developed and spread like a wildfire, undermining large corporations like Bear Stearns, AIG and Lehman Brothers which ended up being taken over by large banking corporations, and the US government under President George W Bush was forced to bail out Wall Street for US$700 billion.

The film’s major strength is its examination of the incestuous links among US government officials and agencies charged with supervising and regulating Wall Street activities, the financial corporations themselves and university academics who basically performed a cheerleading function for the often unethical if not illegal activities of the banks. The interviews with two university academics at Columbia and Harvard Universities are very entertaining in this respect, with the questions hitting a very exposed raw nerve for one economist who challenges the film-maker to make the most of a suddenly shortened interviewing time of three minutes. Other entertaining interviewees include an expensive callgirl and a psychiatrist / therapist both of whose Wall Street clienteles must have overlapped considerably.

Unfortunately the film falls flat with a watery conclusion that Wall Street must be subject again to regulation to avoid repeat crises and leaves it at that. Having exposed the collusion that went on between Wall Street and the White House, Ferguson’s retreat into a call for re-regulation is a huge letdown and disappointment for this particular viewer. A future of re-regulation followed by deregulation followed again by re-regulation can never be a viable solution as long as an “old boys’ network” continues to operate between governments and the financial sector. As long as people forget or refuse to learn the lessons of previous financial crises and continue to believe in political and economic ideologies that prize self-interest, the quick accumulation of wealth at any cost and extreme dog-eat-dog competition (which feeds on fear and encourages a herd mentality and irrational behaviour), the global financial system will remain essentially unstable and prone to crises. The effect of regulation will only soften the more extreme effects of such a system but can’t prevent crises from happening. We need to re-examine our assumptions about our current financial systems, what place they should have in a real economy based on producing goods and services to suit all people, and in particular we need to question the role that money, debt and banks play. Already there are commentators like Ellen Brown (www.ellenbrown.com) and websites like Social Credit (www.bleedingindebt.com) who question the worth of a financial system in which money can be created and start to circulate only if someone asks for a loan and incurs a debt. There need to be better ways to stimulate production of goods and services other than creating debt that attracts interest that accumulates and produces more interest. Islamic financing which prohibits usury and systems based on social credit and ingenious forms of bartering are some alternatives that could be considered.

Apart from a weak ending, “Inside Job” is a thorough hatchet-job on the architects and builders of an elaborate edifice that took years to build but fell apart very quickly with effects on the economy, society and culture in the United States that may still be working (and wrecking) their way through. We may not have seen the full outcomes of the GFC and it may be that its worst effects will be felt by the very poor and most disadvantaged people in American society.

True Grit (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen): revenge film plays straight and narrow with problematic heroine

Joel and Ethan Coen, “True Grit” (2010)

Adapted from the 1968 novel of the same name by Charles Portis, “True Grit” can be read as both a revenge film, in which a girl seeks justice for the murder of her father, and a coming-of-age film where the girl’s quest for her father’s murderer has certain life-long consequences. It’s a likeable film with lovely prairie and snow country scenery which pays homage to the Western genre with a solid story driven more by its flavoured and eccentric dialogue and the quirks of its main characters than by action, but it appears small in its scope and ambition. Perhaps the Coens, in trying to be true to the novel in spirit if not in its details, and perhaps wishing also to respect the 1968 movie version that starred John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby in the main roles, opt for a straight and conservative interpretation of the novel with some humour and much attention to the characters’ mode of speech and their dialogue. This prevents any examination of the central character Mattie Ross’s motive for pursuing her father’s killer Tom Chaney and why she desires Old Testament “eye for an eye” justice for him.

It seems unbelievable that a 14 year old girl should take it upon herself to hire a US marshal and go after her father’s killer, even in the days of the so-called “Wild, Wild West” but this is the central conceit of the novel and the two movies based on it. Perhaps the decision to make more of the Rooster Cogburn character and less of the teenage girl in the 1969 movie was a better one: at least the story would have been more credible with Wayne garnering most attention as Cogburn and Darby as the girl trusting in his judgement and skills. The 2010 film now revolves completely around Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), the aggrieved youngster, who doggedly raises the money needed to hire the old alcoholic and vicious US marshal Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and makes sure he sticks to the “contract” they supposedly agreed on, to the extent that she buys a horse and follows him very closely into Choctaw Indian country where Chaney (Josh Brolin) is hiding out with an outlaw gang led by Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper). A Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), is also on Chaney’s trail but for different reasons. LaBoeuf and Ross clash and quarrel early on as a result: Ross simply won’t allow Chaney to be punished for killing another man, she wants him punished for killing her father. Why that should be so isn’t explained or pursued in the film; is a farmer in Arkansas any more important or special than a Texas senator? This simply speaks for an unpleasant and unimaginative character in a teenage girl, and the fact that Cogburn and LaBoeuf allow Ross to accompany them, rather than tell her to jump into the nearest snake-pit and let them sort out Chaney their own way, is a strange quirk that turns out to be one of many in the plot. Perhaps the novel in its own way is a comic undermining of assumptions in traditional Western literature and films, in which women and children knew their place (and that place was strictly in the men’s shadows), and the Coens, in following the novel closely, failed to capitalise much on the novel’s subversions.

The threesome travel both separately and together in tracking Chaney and there are some comic episodes, such as a cornbread-shooting competition between Cogburn and LaBoeuf to see who is a better shot, and oddball characters such as the boarding-house madame who snores loudly and hogs all the blankets, and a lone rider (Ed Corbin) wearing a bear’s head, followed by a horse carrying a corpse. The tension builds steadily and satisfactorily to Ross’s encounter with Chaney in a stream, at which point the drama, spiced with a little comedy from a minor character in Ned Pepper’s gang, kicks into efficient, no-nonsense action. This culminates in Cogburn’s challenge to the whole gang, at once serious and yet hilariously ridiculous: Cogburn riding full-tilt at the foursome with reins in his mouth and firing two guns, and managing to shoot all four of them, killing three, without suffering any injuries – hell, even his hat doesn’t blow off. The true climax comes soon after with Ross and Chaney again facing off against each other and this time, Ross gets her justice at last but with the recoil from the rifle (funny, Cogburn didn’t have that problem with the two firearms) throwing her into the, uh … nearest snake-pit.

Although the film is very neat and compact in its telling, its close attention to the quest of Ross, Cogburn and LaBoeuf allows for no examination of Ross’s character and motivations, or indeed of why Ross, as a mature woman 25 years afterwards, revisits this particular episode of her teenage years and why she holds it in such high regard to the extent that she has Cogburn’s remains interred in her family cemetery. What does she remember of Cogburn and LaBoeuf’s personalities? Does she remember them for being the first people to treat her as an adult and an equal? Is she grateful to Cogburn and LaBoeuf for getting her out of the snake-pit? If she had managed to catch up with Cogburn just before he died, what would they have talked about of that adventure? Why does she even want to see him again? Unfortunately the voice-over narrative, delivered by Elizabeth Marvel, doesn’t reveal anything of Ross’s reasons for wanting to see Cogburn again and the actress herself, playing the mature Ross, portrays her as an unpleasant and priggish spinster stereotype. It’s perhaps just as well that Cogburn dies before seeing her again as no doubt she probably would have demanded that he compensate her for killing her mount Little Blackie when it collapsed all those years ago.

The film’s thrust treats the relationship between Ross and Cogburn as strictly business-like and allows nothing deeper to develop between them: Ross as the substitute for the child Cogburn lost when his wife left him, and Cogburn as the father Ross lost. An opportunity is lost to make something more out of these two characters which might justify the tenderness Cogburn displays towards Ross when she is bitten by the rattlesnake. The Ross character remains one-dimensional while Cogburn, as portrayed by Jeff Bridges, emerges a complex character, one obviously liking his alcohol and not averse to bending the truth when it suits, yet brave, loyal and respectful of Ross’s precocity and stubbornness.

“True Grit” might have been a much better film if the Coens had deviated from the novel’s epilogue and portrayed the mature Ross as a changed and mellow character reflecting on how much her desire for vengeance and the adventure changed her life for better and for worse, and how life can dish out the worst tragedy at the moment of greatest triumph, demonstrating perhaps the pitiless nature of an uncaring universe; and if a father-daughter relationship had been allowed to develop between Cogburn and Ross so that both become better people at the end. Ross would come to appreciate that great qualities can exist even in the most “sinful” of men and Cogburn would find the family he had lost all hope of ever having. “True Grit” could have been as much a coming-of-age story about both Ross and Cogburn as a purely revenge quest for Ross and a test of reputation for Cogburn.

Niloofar: moving story examines ideals of honour, tradition and predestination

 Sabine el Gemayel, “Niloofar” (2008)

That familiar maxim “Less is more” applies as much to making movies as it does in composing music and creating other works in so many areas of art and literature. French-Lebanese director Sabine el Gemayel presents what looks like a simple and straightforward story in her debut directorial effort. An Iranian tribal village girl, Niloofar (Mobina Aynehdar), wants to learn reading and writing so she can go to the city and train to be a doctor. Her family has other plans for her: her mum (Roya Nownahali), the village midwife, needs a successor and Niloofar, her only daughter, is the logical choice; and her father, Abdollah (Sadegh Safai), needing to support two wives and their children, has agreed to trade Niloofar in marriage to Sheikh Abbas (Amir Aghai) who will split his property between himself and Abdollah once a council bridge over the land is completed. In the meantime, Niloofar takes lessons with a friend from a teacher known only as Banoo (Fatemah Motamed-Aria); in her leisure time, Niloofar chats to her uncle Aziz (Shahab Hosseini) and reads constantly. Time flies by: Sheikh Abbas gets impatient and leans on Abdollah to hand over Niloofar who must surely have reached puberty; the mother worries that Niloofar hasn’t started menstruating (with help from the second wife the girl has been hiding evidence of bleeding) and isn’t interested in midwife duties; and Niloofar is despondent and depressed, becoming more so when news reaches her that Sheikh Abbas allowed his own daughter to die in an honour killing. She goes to Uncle Aziz for help. The young man, remembering a girl he once tried to help and failed, is moved by Niloofar’s plea and hatches a plan.

“Niloofar” is a very moving story in its structure: it has humanity and urges compassion for people who find themselves in difficult situations which they try to deal with using what they know and have but come up against customs and traditions that limit their options. Into this story is woven an examination of concepts of honour, tradition and belief in predestination: that God has already determined a person’s path in life and the person must follow it in faith. As the movie progresses, the various characters who include Aziz’s fortune-teller grandmother start questioning in their own way what these concepts mean to them, especially in relation to Niloofar’s pending marriage. Abdollah is assailed by complaints from his wife that he didn’t consult her about horse-trading Niloofar; Aziz tells him that even the Prophet Mohammad consulted his daughter Fatima as to whether she wanted to marry and whom; and other characters tell him he’s going against God’s will in marrying his teenage daughter off to a much older man. El Gemayel shows the burden of family and tribal honour weighs as heavily on the men as it does on women, and how it traps families in dilemmas in which doing the “right thing” can end up tormenting them psychologically. Abdollah looks more and more like a trapped rat in a mess that’s partly his fault. After discovering that Niloofar has run away from home, the extended family gathers to discuss how to get her back and what should be done with her. Sheikh Abbas confesses to being troubled by his daughter’s death long ago and tries to plead clemency for Niloofar. The village elder decides on what to do with Niloofar; her father quickly falls in line with the decision while her mother, perhaps mindful of the fortune-teller’s advice about allowing a finger of hers to go away but still believing in the old customs and respecting the advice of the elder, steadily crumbles into tears.

The plot progresses steadily with a build-up in tension to two high points: one where Niloofar must decide whether to follow Aziz in hiding in a bus, the other where her brother finds her in a back-room at a town grocery and tells her he’s been ordered to kill her if she doesn’t return with him to the village. The increase in tension is relentless and conveys perfectly Niloofar’s growing despair and the worry and inner turmoil experienced by people close to her. The plot seems real enough up to the moment where the brother is forced by the family into travelling on his own into town and finding Niloofar: sending a child to fetch and kill the girl doesn’t seem credible at all. I imagine that in real life, the village would send two adult male relatives to get Niloofar and Aziz. It’s possible that the family, by sending a boy rather than a man or two men, is giving Niloofar a chance of escape while keeping the appearance of fulfilling tribal custom. The more realistic explanation is that Abdollah has no other close male relatives to do the job for him. At least the film ends on a hopeful note with Niloofar pitying her brother as she prepares to leave with Aziz for Tehran. The ending is deliberately left uncertain so that there’s the possibility that she changes her mind and returns home with her brother.

“Niloofar” is so naturalistic in its filming that it has a slight documentary feel. The documentary impression is especially strong in scenes that take in the landscapes around the village: el Gemayel uses many fixed-camera shots that show the characters at some distance though there are many close-up shots of Niloofar and others. The village scenes are very colourful and female characters especially wear bright clothing that contrast with the desert surrounds. There is a memorable sequence early in the film in which Niloofar and her mother help a woman give birth in a river; underwater shots of the woman’s clothed body and the baby floating in the water have a glowing, radiant quality. The effect of el Gemayel’s filming decisions and methods enables some distance between the viewer and the characters so that viewers can see the wider socio-cultural context in which people operate and how their beliefs and traditions limit their choices and decision-making and cause them anguish and sorrow. Although characters act in ways against their own interests and appear weak, stupid and vacillating, viewers are encouraged not to condemn them for what they do.

Though the film was made in Iran with Iranian actors, many of whom must have been amateurs with no prior acting experience, no clerics appear and Islam isn’t mentioned except as an excuse to justify folk beliefs. That’s sure to make non-Muslim Western viewers wonder just how much the name of Islam is used and abused by people, innocently sometimes, not so innocently other times, to support and force conformity with ideas, beliefs and customs that aren’t in the spirit of the religion.

“Niloofar” is a very moving film: it urges compassion for people caught in difficult situations who must make decisions affecting themselves and others but are subject to strict rules and expectations that make knowing what decisions to take. Is it any wonder that people end up making decisions that cause grief and regret for the rest of their lives?

The Draughtman’s Contract: perhaps too multi-layered but enjoyable all the same

Peter Greenaway, “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982)
 
British director Peter Greenaway’s first full-length feature film is a lovely feast for the eyes and ears, and the rest of the brain for that matter as it works on several levels: as an English country-house murder mystery, a subversion of social and political conventions and issues of the period in which it is set (the year 1694), a send-up of historical drama and an examination of what we see and assume is real versus the actual reality of what we fail to see. Brisk and business-like in pace with fixed-camera shots in which actors walk or run about often, the film makes maximum advantage of its garden and country settings to emphasise concerns of fertility and inheritance that underlie the intrigues leading up to and beyond the “murder” of the supposed head of the family. The plot is heavily dependent on dialogue which may require viewers to see the film at least two or three times to appreciate the double meanings of what various characters say to one another and to see layers of meaning in many shots and scenes.
 
A draughtsman, Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) is commissioned by a wealthy lady, Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman), to create 12 drawings of her house and gardens from different angles in 12 days. After persistent entreaty from Mrs Herbert, Mr Neville finally deigns to do so on terms he dictates – terms which include Mrs Herbert granting him sexual favours in secret while her husband is away on business, and the family taking its meals in the open air – and these terms are included in his contract. His work schedule is precise – he does sketches for all 12 drawings on the first day, then on each succeeding day elaborates on them further – and though he has given exacting instructions on what is to be included and to be left out for each scene on which each drawing is based, and he draws and details exactly what he sees, he discovers over time that the scenes change subtly: in one scene, a shirt in a tree changes position; in another, a statue changes position; in yet a third, various underclothes are strewn about. While not drawing, Mr Neville has his way with a reluctant Mrs Herbert regularly and becomes involved in the life of her household, in particular becoming chummy with Mrs Herbert’s daughter Mrs Talman (Anne-Louise Lambert) and arousing the jealousy and ire of her husband Mr Talman (Hugh Fraser). As the days pass the original contract is declared void. Mrs Talman suggests to Mr Neville that her father may have been murdered and offers the artist a contract of her own, and not long after their conversation the father Mr Herbert is found dead in a moat near an equestrian statue on the family property.
 
Mr Neville is a talented and successful but arrogant artist, sharp and crisp when he speaks, and his arrogance becomes his downfall as he appropriates Mr Herbert’s role as head of the household, only to be manipulated by Mrs Talman to service her sexual needs and being later disposed of by her jealous husband and his friends. Mrs Herbert initially appears fearful and downtrodden, and viewers might feel a bit sorry for her for allowing herself to be abused, but her victim status helps to lure Mr Neville into a scheme that ensures the Herberts’ property and wealth stay with Mrs Herbert and Mrs Talman’s descendants. Mr Neville believes his drawings reflect exactly what he sees and is mystified when Mr Talman sees evidence of sexual impropriety with his wife in the various works or when others examine them for clues to Mr Herbert’s murder and who may have killed him. The artist’s business-like approach to his work and everything he does – even his trysts with Mrs Herbert are conducted as cold-blooded business transactions (which they are so just who is the prostitute here?) – blinds him to hints within the drawings and the landscapes they depict of emotions and enmities that will bring him down.
 
The scheming that goes on in the Herbert household comments on the social relations of the period: Mr Neville, the son of a tenant farmer, tries to undermine the social hierarchy of his time in his own way, only for the aristocrats to put him in his place (an incommunicado one) and conveniently blame him for the murder of Mr Herbert; and the Herberts’ manipulations of Mr Neville imply that theirs is a corrupt class intent on using people for its own self-serving and materialist ends while preserving the appearance of innocence and propriety, symbolised by the white clothes and wigs of the Herberts and their household.
 
The actors are great to watch: their acting appears natural (apart from some scenes where actors may strike poses) in contrast to the hugely exaggerated costumes, wigs and make-up they often wear, and they are good-looking almost to the point of blandness: Lambert has a delicate, ethereal beauty that belies her character’s calculating nature and Higgins looks so po-faced that the barest emotion might crack his forehead. The diction is precise with a cut-glass edge: a necessary requirement as the dialogue includes complete sentences laden with puns, double meanings and references to classical Greek mythology which themselves have double meanings in the context of the film. Visual puns abound: naked male statues change positions, the equestrian statue sometimes loses its rider and the landscapes and buildings often look too perfectly picturesque and manicured. I suspect the English in the pre-industrial 1690’s were not greatly concerned with being punctual, neat and exact in their work. The water in the moat, still and lime-green, betrays no broken lines that might suggest something has fallen into it. Even the weather is unusually balmy and sunny.
 
Mention should be made of Michael Nyman’s musical score which is based on repeated motifs (what might be called riffs in some genres of rock and other popular music) by the 17th century English composer Henry Purcell; performed by various musicians who included Alexander Balanescu (later to form the experimental chamber music group The Balanescu Quartet in 1987), the music can be very intrusive, appearing when least expected and not complementing anything happening at the time, and has an odd shrill reedy sound sometimes but its artificial and theatrical style suits the film.
 
The camerawork includes lovely idyllic country and garden scenes that could be tableaux with hidden secrets, layered with meanings that change over the course of the film; unfortunately the camera doesn’t linger long over such scenes but its abruptness is in keeping with the cracking pace that Mr Neville sets for himself at work and for everyone around him. The way in which scenes are filmed not only draws viewers’ attention to the lush vegetation, it also distances the characters from viewers and underlines their connections with their environment, emphasising again the Herberts’ attachment – nay, obsession – to their lands and the wealth represented in them.
 
Funny how even in such a painterly film as “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, money manages to rear its ugly head: this is appropriate as in 1694 England was well on the way to becoming the centre of an empire that had its origins in trade and the quest for wealth. The whiff of enterprise and commerce exists throughout the film, in the way Mr Neville whips everyone into action as soon as the ink on his contract dries, laying down the law as to how the Herberts and their retinue must comply with his requirements, and how he attempts to usurp the “natural” order in the ladies’ household. People appear oh-so-refined and cultured but the things they really value are money and property (which itself generates more money). With so many contrasts, contradictions and the many pairings of opposites, this film is dripping – maybe too much so – with meaning but it’s an enjoyable intellectual romp all the same. What we see is what we necessarily don’t get (or grasp) and the murder – if indeed, a murder did occur – is never solved.
 
(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “Orlando” by Sally Potter and “The Shooting Party” by Alan Bridges from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

The Shooting Party: stodgy, genteel film detailing decay of British nobility

Alan Bridges, “The Shooting Party” (1985)

Mainly notable for being the last movie to feature James Mason before his death in 1984, this film about a group of British aristocrats gathering at a country mansion is a study in microcosm of the downfall of the British upper class and its values, and how their culture might have decayed over time. The film is set in the autumn of 1913, the last year before the outbreak of the Great War (World War 1) that engulfed much of Europe and destroyed monarchies in Germany and Russia.

A rich landowner, Sir Randolph Nettleby (Mason), invites several friends and their wives to his home to shoot grouse over a weekend. Other pastimes the host family and its guests enjoy include horse-riding, dancing, discussions, playing card games, going for walks through scenic country which includes a large pond for ducks and a fancy dress party. For much of the film, the audience is treated to investigations of the various foibles of Nettleby’s wealthy guests and his servants in a manner similar to Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” which also featured members of the British upper class gathering at an aristocrat’s home. Nettleby’s guests include Lord Gilbert Hartlip and his wife (Edward Fox and Cheryl Campbell) who more or less conduct an open marriage, as long as their liaisons remain secret: Lady Hartlip carries on an affair with a businessman (Aharon Ipale) who pays her gambling losses. Hartlip is jealous of another guest, barrister Lionel Stephens (Rupert Frazer), for his shooting skills; Stephens himself is besotted with yet another guest, Lady Olivia Lilburn (Judi Bowker) who is married to Lord Lilburn (Robert Hardy).

The film’s focus is mainly on Nettleby and his party of guests but covers, superficially at least, the life of the local rural working-men hired to drive the grouse towards the aristocrats, in particular Tom Harker (Gordon Jackson) who is also a poacher. Harker declares his support for the British politician David Lloyd George, a liberal-minded leader who initiated reforms that led to the development of the welfare state in the UK; he also happens to be friendly with Nettleby who sees him as having the simple country life he dreams of for himself. An outsider, Cornelius Cardew (John Gielgud), intrudes into the life of these men which revolves around the pub, waving slogans and pamphlets advocating animal rights and decrying blood sports and hunting. The upper and lower classes usually keep to themselves – a scene in which they have a break after a shooting session illustrates the social separation well: the aristocrats retire to a marquee for tea and champagne while Nettleby’s tenants gather around a table in the open air for beer – until a tragic hunting accident brings everybody together.

As the characters represent types, they bear most of the film’s investigation into the values and behaviour of the British aristocracy and so the movie appears plotless and lacking in direction, shifting from one set of characters and their interactions to another set. The pace is steady with the focus on people’s dialogue and there’s very little action until near the end. The symbolism can be over-obvious and clumsy – it doesn’t seem likely that a group of upper class men smoking cigars after dinner would be talking about the descent of Western civilisation and of their class at a time when British power was at its peak and controlled half the planet – and limits character development, no matter how well individual actors play their roles. Nettleby as portrayed by Mason is a warm if world-weary gentleman, dignified and gracious, troubled about the legacy he and his kind might be leaving to his country. Nettleby presides over his world as a benevolent but firm patriarch; his meeting with Cardew who disrupts a shooting session appears self-deprecatory and humorous but is actually a subtle put-down that asserts the aristocracy’s right of control over the birds and other animals that dwell on his properties. Cardew either takes the hint or allows himself to be led into a conversation about his pamphlets and the men soon part on good terms.

Nettleby represents a generation of leaders who made the British Empire what it was in 1913 but is concerned that the next generation of aristocrats, represented by the Hartlips, is self-indulgent and hedonistic now that the nobility has given up its role of ruling the country. The Hartlips represent the impotence of the new generation of upper class people: Lord Hartlip is obsessed about his shooting skills and his wife is addicted to gambling; her dependence on her lover for money in exchange for sex demonstrates the aristocracy’s dependence on self-made wealthy men to survive. (Lady Hartlip’s addiction might hint at the emptiness of her life as an aristocrat’s wife, forbidden by convention to do any meaningful work.) The implication is the Hartlips and their generation will sell themselves into a bondage they don’t understand to maintain their reputations. The secret liaison between Stephens and Lady Lilburn shows both the contrast and complementarity between the new world of commerce, brash and competitive, as represented by Stephens, and a more socially conscientious, well-meaning layer of the upper class, represented by Lady Lilburn. The lady rebuffs the barrister in spite of her attraction to him. Lady Lilburn’s husband appears typical of many upper class people in lacking the imagination, creativity and enterprise his class needs to survive in the new world to come.

The Hartlips’ obsession to keep up appearances and past (but fading) reputations and Stephens’s own competitve behaviour to please Lady Lilburn collide in a shooting incident in which Lord Hartlip, goaded by his wife, breaks an unspoken gentleman’s code by firing his rifle after the shooting session is declared finished. He ends up wounding Harker. Harker’s death represents the fate of soldiers from across the British Empire who were to die in the killing fields of Verdun and elsewhere during the War. Mason as Nettleby, watching over Harker, delivers a moving performance as he prays with the dying man  and sees this icon of simple country life slip away. Surely at this moment Nettleby realises the real incompetence and powerlessness of his class; he has had control over Harker’s life as the poacher’s landlord but cannot control the manner and moment of Harker’s death. Hartlip, standing by, is paralysed by the consequences of his senseless action and can only offer financial compensation – putting himself into his cuckold’s pockets.

The film overall is stodgy due to the burdensome symbolism, the earnest tone, the slow pace and apparent lack of purpose but there are some fine acting performances from Mason, Bowker, Fox, Jackson and Gielgud in very restricted roles. A small subplot in which Nettleby’s grandson is always looking for his lost pet duck with the help of a maid provides amusement and lightens the movie’s serious tone but even this diversion has its dark side as there’s the possibility that the duck might get shot. The movie is worth watching twice at least: the first time to see the entire story and the second time to absorb important details about the various characters, minor as well as major ones, and what these details tell us about the British aristocracy and its customs in the early 20th century. “The Shooting Party” is very genteel and oblique in its approach, and this isn’t likely to appeal to a wide audience who perhaps need to learn the film’s lesson about upper class arrogance and incompetence.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “Orlando” by Sally Potter and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

Orlando: lavish and lovely lightweight film with nothing to say

Sally Potter, “Orlando” (1992)

Based on British writer Virginia Woolfe’s novel “Orlando: a Biography”, this film by Sally Potter is a flimsy work that fails to say anything meaningful about the status of men and women in English and British society over a number of centuries, though I presume that must have been Potter’s intention. The events in the title character’s life take place over a period spanning nearly 400 years, beginning with the twilight days of Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp), in whose employ Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is a courtier. His youthful alabaster beauty attracts the aged queen’s attention and he briefly becomes her lover. On her deathbed, she endows him and his heirs with considerable wealth – money, a large property with a castle – on the condition that he remain ever young in appearance and spirit. Orlando makes the promise and moreover keeps it: but this promise is to be both his pride and agony.

The film is cut into discrete chapters which structure and simplify Orlando’s presumably complicated life along the themes of death, love, poetry, politics, society, sex and birth (in that order) for the audience’s understanding but which have the effect of distancing and alienating viewers from the character’s experiences and his (later her) responses to them. You’d assume Orlando matures over time and becomes wise and understanding of human foibles but the character remains the same empty person throughout the film; if anything, incidents such as being jilted in love, seeing someone shot dead, undergoing a spontaneous sex change and losing her inheritance (and the adjustments Orlando must have had to make as a result) seem to distance Orlando from humanity rather than encourage her to appreciate the joys, tragedies and niggly irritations that come with being ageless and immortal.

It’s understandable that an early brief affair with a Russian princess, Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), and harassment from his fiancée make a very young Orlando disillusioned with women and their behaviour. This negative attitude stays with Orlando for the rest of his time as a male, to the extent that he gives his life over to poetry – until his own writing efforts are debunked – and then to politics which enables him to travel to Constantinople as British ambassador to the Ottomans and indulge in the sensual life-style of the Turkish aristocracy. After becoming female himself, Orlando doesn’t appear to reflect on how he has treated women in the past, both as individuals and as a group, even as a group of poets invited to a salon she hosts criticises women and the British courts seize her lands on the legal basis that women don’t have the right to own and manage property. A brief affair with an American idealist and adventurer Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) parallels the affair with Sasha – both lovers are wedded to loyalty to their country or ideals – yet Orlando makes no comparisons between these and with any other liaisons s/he’s had over the years.

Viewers are entitled to know how Orlando copes after being divested of her wealth and lands. Having led a life of luxury and entitlement over two centuries, enjoying travel and literature, how does Orlando survive without servants and having to earn her own living? The film doesn’t say: it simply flips from 1850, when Orlando is informed that she has lost her property, to some time in the 1940’s when she is running across a bomb-scarred landscape. At this point in “Orlando”, Potter could have examined the social and economic status of single women over that period, how it compared to the status of single men then, and what society thought of single women having to work at a time when a woman’s overall social / economic status and reputation were defined by her marital status. It’s likely Orlando had to be governess to children of a wealthy family or a music teacher to survive but viewers unfamiliar with novels like Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” or other literature written during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) about upper and middle class women can only guess at how Orlando makes her way into the 20th century. There’s also nothing in “Orlando” about how the status of women varied in Britain over 400 years: women who lived in the 1500s – 1600s might have enjoyed a higher social and cultural status than their daughters in succeeding centuries. Nor is there any reference to efforts made by men and women in the late 19th / early 20th centuries to educate girls and women, and to get equal political and economic rights for both sexes. Yet it’s obvious by the end that Orlando has benefitted in some way from the advances made by other people on women’s behalf: she looks well-fed and happy with her lot and so does her child. Why so much of her life after 1850 and losing her wealth is omitted from the film is not just a puzzle, it’s an outrage. The implication that Potter isn’t interested in covering people’s lives if they aren’t wealthy or upper class comes to mind.

Looking more like a showcase of various historical dioramas of English / British culture and how sophisticated and multi-layered it must have been through the ages, with flamboyant costumes, lavish furnishings and the re-enactment of customs appropriate to each historical period, all of which was carefully researched, the film is a gorgeous visual treat. Some scenes are interesting if pretentious static tableaux in themselves and could be comments on the process and narrative function of making films.

The acting is very secondary to the plot and the historical settings with Swinton playing her part very minimally and her acting restricted to wide eyes, quizzical looks at the viewer and quips and asides that aren’t witty, cutting or illuminating: when Orlando comments on a performance of Shakespeare’s “Othello”, the remark is merely that it’s “a terrific play”. Though Swinton may be a good actor, she seems to have been cast for her particular colouring, red hair and alabaster skin, rather than for her talent and experience. Playing Orlando as a male, she is convincing in conveying male mannerisms – there’s a good scene where her actions are mirrored by a male actor and the likeness between the two in their behaviour is very striking – though perhaps, at the risk of parody, Swinton could have exaggerated her actions more in some scenes to be more masculine; likewise, in playing Orlando the woman, she could also have exaggerated some of her feminine behaviour, maybe even indulged in some “feminine wiles” (pleading, making big eyes) in her scenes with Shelmerdine.

Lovely to look at but under its golden sheen, “Orlando” is an empty vessel. I sense that it goes as far as it can in a narrow orbit and that’s it. Because if it did, it might be “controversial” and lots of people would be upset at some real gender politics, especially if and when expressed for comic effect. As a comedy, “Orlando” could have been a perfect vehicle to express uncomfortable opinions, make some observations about society that cut to the bone and question issues we take for granted with grace, wit and style.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “The Shooting Party” by Alan Bridges and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)