The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles is not a typical period romance, and this is reflected in this dynamic screen adaptation. Directed by Karel Reisz and with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, the film has all the characteristics of a Victorian costume drama but also captures the essence of Fowles's narrative vision, bringing a refreshing, modern-day perspective to this genre.
Using the film-within-a-film approach, the original storyline is cleverly combined with a contemporary plot, following two actors, Anna (Meryl Streep) and Mike (Jeremy Irons), who are playing the lead roles in a production of Fowles's novel.
The Victorian story begins with Charles Smithson (Irons), an upper-class gentleman from London, travelling to Lyme Regis to formalise his engagement to a wealthy heiress, only to meet and fall in love with Sarah Woodruff (Streep), the resident social outcast, who has been tainted by her alleged liaison with a French sailor. Sarah is an intriguing mixture of victim and femme fatale. Dubbed 'Tragedy' by the local people, she initially appears as a melancholic recluse, but later begins to display a rebellious nature, playing up to her reputation so that she can live life on her own terms.
Charles, who up until this point has conformed to the strict social conventions of his time, is completely bewitched by this free-spirited woman who has unlocked his dormant desires. Embarking on a series of forbidden trysts, Charles is seen in passionate pursuit of Sarah, who uses their blossoming bond to liberate herself from the community that has vilified her. At the same time, reality and art begin to merge as the relationship between the two actors, who are having their own affair, starts to mirror that of the characters they are playing, setting up the finale of the film.
As a story conceived during the later twentieth century, The French Lieutenant's Woman challenges idealisations of the Victorian period. In one scene, Anna and Mike discuss the harsh treatment of Sarah by a society that was obsessed with morality, yet in which, as Anna discovers through her research, there were high levels of prostitution, showing a wide gap between what was practiced and what was preached. In this respect, the modern storyline is used as a means of translating John Fowles's social commentary from the book, as well as the novel's multiple endings: an appropriate resolution for Charles and Sarah's melodramatic romance is juxtaposed with a more realistic and symbolic conclusion for Anna and Mike's transient relationship. Thus, apart from offering insights into the mores of Victorian England, the film also provides an interesting comparison between the two different eras, showing how the status of women has changed greatly over time, whereas the positions of the two male protagonists are roughly similar.
Both Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons are highly believable in their dual roles. Streep is excellent at conveying Sarah's struggle, counterpointing this, in her performance as Anna, against the cool confidence of a modern woman in control of her destiny. As for Irons, he admirably expresses his characters' desperate infatuations, which lead them to near-collapse. Add to this some picture-perfect moments provided by the cinematography of Freddie Francis, and the result is a film that may divide audiences, but adds a radical twist to the period drama formula.--Kamran Riaz-Mohammed
Before Ken Russell became a controversial rebel of English cinema with notorious films such as The Devils, he made some documentaries about famous composers for the BBC, beginning with Elgar. Lyrical, charming, and with brilliant landscape photography by Ken Higgins, the film is flawlessly paced. It is no wonder that it was chosen as the one hundredth programme in Huw Wheldon's arts series Monitor.
The film was made at a time when Elgar was profoundly out of fashion, seen as a musical reactionary. Russell, almost defensively, shows all the composer's many sides: the poor boy made good, the Catholic visionary, the tender pastoralist, and the devoted family man, in addition to the patriot, while suggesting that Elgar was not the mindless jingo of popular perceptions. Many little-known facts about Elgar's background are emphasised, such as the social handicap that he suffered as a Roman Catholic -his wife Alice and her offspring were cut out of her parents' will for marrying him—and the fact that his initial break came in Germany, with the intensely mystical oratorio The Dream of Gerontius (based on a poem by Cardinal Newman), rather than in England.
Russell brings out Elgar's humorous, high-spirited side (even as a grown man, he loved to slide down grassy hillsides on tea-trays, and he immortalised the bulldog of the organist at Hereford Cathedral in one of the Enigma Variations) as well as his tendency towards depression and eccentric hobbyism.
Technically, the film is a masterpiece. Film of actors playing Elgar and his wife is intercut with archive news reels and shots of family photographs and postcards. In the most stunning and affecting sequence, full of bitter irony, footage of Edwardian military parades, the 1914 volunteers, and the carnage of the Western Front is edited to Land of Hope and Glory, so that it becomes a relentless march to Armageddon. In this part of the film, the anti-Establishment attitude that would characterise Russell's later work is already marked. Higgins's photography of the Malvern Hills and the surrounding area is astounding, particularly the way it captures the play of sun and clouds, paying homage to a man who said "I do all my composing in the open air….music is all around me." Its touching use of silhouettes is also noteworthy.
There are some factual errors, particularly the film's suggestion that Elgar became completely disgusted with Land of Hope and Glory -in fact, though he never liked the words, he always loved the tune—but these are small flaws in a generally brilliant and moving work. This release by the BFI is beautifully restored and remastered, with some rather special extras: some silent movies of Elgar with friends (including an extremely old George Bernard Shaw), and footage of him conducting Land of Hope and Glory at the opening of the Abbey Road Studios. There is also an informative, if somewhat sleepy, commentary by the director and Michael Kennedy. This release is an excellent chance to rediscover one of English cinema's greatest documentaries, profoundly influential in reviving interest in the work of a composer who had suffered a long period in the wilderness.-Isabel Taylor
Directed by: Wendy Toye, 'In the Picture' / David Eady, 'You Killed Elizabeth'/ George More O'Ferrall, 'Lord Mountdrago,' 1955
English film-making has a long tradition of producing horror and supernatural anthologies. Some, such as Dead of Night, are widely recognised as classics, while others have acquired cult status amongst 'B' movie enthusiasts.
Three Cases of Murder falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. It is an intriguing example of the portmanteau style because of the way it transcends the traditional horror genre, by stretching the boundaries of fantasy and reality.
This trilogy of films is introduced by Eamonn Andrews in a style reminiscent of Rod Serling's in The Twilight Zone, or the narration of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. Like those programmes, these stories combine mystery and suspense with nightmarish moments and dark humour.
'In the Picture' is a tale about a painting that has a life of its own. The plot follows an obsessive artist played by Alan Badel, who strives to find the perfect detail that will complete his masterpiece. To achieve this, he enlists the help of a hapless museum worker, Mr Jarvis (Hugh Pryse), and takes him on a terrifying journey into an alternative universe that exists beyond the painting's landscape.
'You Killed Elizabeth' is a straightforward 'whodunit' story concerning two lifelong school friends, Edgar (John Gregson) and George (Emrys Jones). When George falls in love with Elizabeth (Elizabeth Sellars), he couldn't be happier, but his joy soon turns into despair when the roguish Edgar steals her away from him. Feeling betrayed, George hatches a plot to gain revenge by using his old friend's weakness against him.
Adapted from a Somerset Maugham short story, the final film stars Orson Welles in the title role of 'Lord Mountdrago.' After destroying the career of a young Labour politician (Badel), the arrogant Conservative Foreign Secretary, Mountdrago, is haunted by a series of bizarre nightmares in which his adversary stalks and humiliates him. Driven to the edge of sanity, Mountdrago finally takes matters into his own hands.
While the first and third parts of this trilogy contain lots of imaginative scenes and cunning plot twists, and could be considered genre classics in their own right, the second story is pedestrian in comparison and lets the collection down as a result. 'You Killed Elizabeth' lacks any real tension and at times feels almost like a comedy sketch, full of posh wooden characters from the 1950s with Received Pronunciation accents.
By contrast, 'In the Picture' has a real psychological edge: the viewer can actually feel the horror creeping up on Jarvis as he becomes aware of his impending fate. While the mood is suitably enhanced by sinister music and the disorienting camera work, it is Badel who really creates this unnerving atmosphere. With his piercing eyes and maniacal laugh, his character starts off as an enigmatic artist but ends up completely unhinged as he reveals his twisted nature.
The third film is notable for its brilliantly conceived dream sequences, which feature some unexpected and surreal moments. Orson Welles is at his extravagant best during these scenes and provides some unforgettable touches of farce, but he also captures his character's anguish when Mountdrago eventually realises that he cannot escape his tormentor.--Kamran Riaz-Mohammed
This beautiful, moody, and languorous version of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is both faithful to the novel and a work of art in its own right. While it has a surrealistic edge, as one might expect from a former member of Beyond the Fringe, it is never overtly bizarre.
A dreamlike atmosphere pervades the entire film. This feeling is cleverly, and subtly, created using slightly drunken camera movement, occasional distortion, and very diffuse lighting that is meant, as Miller explains in his fascinating director's commentary, to evoke the pioneering Victorian photography of Julia Margaret Cameron, and Lewis Carroll himself. Indeed, Dick Bush's hypnotic camera-work is the film's strongest point: for example, during the lazy summer afternoon which precedes Alice's venture down the rabbit-hole, the picture wavers to suggest heat haze. The most cinematic scene shows Alice, a doll-like figure with her full and frizzy Victorian hair and bell-shaped Victorian skirt, trotting along a long hall of open windows framed by gauzy, floating curtains. The film's trance-like atmosphere is enhanced by the soundtrack, with its eerily loud birdsong, the buzzing of winged insects, Victorian hymn tunes, and plaintive sitar music composed and played by Ravi Shankar. The locations are magnificent, with more than a hint of Gothic decay.
In the commentary, Miller mounts a persuasive defence of his decision not to put animal heads on the actors. This has the advantage that all the big stars -Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud, Peter Sellers—are immediately recognisable, but the viewer needs to be very familiar with the source material in order to grasp, for example, that Redgrave is supposed to be the Caterpillar. Some of the cast members put more into pretending to be animals than others. Alan Bennett is amusingly squeaky and donnish as the learned Mouse. (Incidentally, Miller's theory that the animals in the book represent the various Victorian faculty and College staff whom the real-life Alice, as the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, would have encountered in the corridors and quads of Oxford seems brilliantly insightful, explaining the characters' tetchy, self-important and pedantic dispositions.)
Amidst all the concentrated star power, John Gielgud is outstanding as the Mock Turtle, infusing his performance with melancholy, gentle whimsy. His eccentric dance with Malcolm Muggeridge's Gryphon at Pegwell Bay is a delightful and touching moment. Peter Cook's Mad Hatter is a disappointment, however, with an inappropriate comic curate voice and no manic energy. Alice herself is played by eleven-year-old Anne-Marie Malik, who has an authentic Victorian look, but, following Miller's directions, is inexpressive in the part. The whispered voiceovers that convey Alice's thoughts add to the sinister effect produced by Malik's performance.
The film tilts at 'Victorian' attitudes and morals, sometimes a bit too obviously. The Caucus Race is performed by a group of stereotypically stuffy Victorians (including an Anglican clergyman) in a ruined chapel, and ends with a lot of High Church self-crossing, which, though a dig at the Oxford Movement, could offend some viewers. Nor was it necessarily a good idea to make the Queen of Hearts look like Queen Victoria.
Overall, however, the film is a triumph, not least because it captures the child-like gravity of Carroll's novel, avoiding the syrupiness and jokiness that have dogged some other adaptations. It peerlessly evokes the heightened reality of dreams; each scene is full of sharp and unexpected detail, such as a nest full of eggs on a table in the Mad Hatter's garden. Based on Miller's interpretation of the novel as a meditation on the loss of Wordsworthian childhood enchantment, the film combines moments of gnomic humour with an elegiac sadness. This disc contains some fascinating extras, such as a couple of early silent films of Alice, along with a glowing print of the film.--Isabel Taylor
This profoundly peculiar film was the brainchild of the late Vivian Stanshall, often described, somewhat pessimistically, as the last great English eccentric. Chiefly remembered now for the gin-sozzled line "If I had all the money I'd spent on drink, I'd spend it on drink," the film is a long-drawn-out attack on the aristocratic Establishment, with duck-shooting, racism, and illicit trysts among its many targets.
The plot, if such it can be called, revolves around the violent Sir Henry Rawlinson's murder of his brother Humbert, who returns as a ghost trundling up and down the corridors of Rawlinson End and has to be exorcised by the avaricious local vicar. Then there is Hubert, Henry's son, who is more than a little odd, played by Stanshall himself. Among various other tasteless elements, two German 'prisoners,' left over from the war, keep Sir Henry amused —and earn the pay he gives them— by periodically carrying out inventive, but unsuccessful, escapes. The film ends with what seems to be a Viking celebration that leaves behind several casualties. Little wonder that Bizarre magazine called this the All-Time Freakiest Movie.
Incredibly, the film-makers managed to prevail upon Trevor Howard, erstwhile romantic star of Brief Encounter and numerous other classics, to play Sir Henry. He entertainingly chews the scenery in a style that makes Uncle Matthew from Nancy Mitford's Radlett novels seem easy to get along with. Patrick Magee is amusingly creepy as the vicar, but one half-suspects that Stanshall is not acting at all as Hubert. The soundtrack, with songs by Steve Winwood, is interesting and sometimes charming, especially the off-kilter Song of the Garden Gnome.
The choice of sepia for the film was inspired, since it admirably suits the atmosphere of seediness and decline. The script is justly famous, containing manic word-play that puts one in mind of Edith Sitwell. Indeed, the narration preceded the film as a radio play, and in some ways it worked better this way, since the calm mellifluousness of Stanshall's reading made the grotesqueness of the material more palatable. In the film version, the frenzied action on the screen sometimes distracts from his dulcet tones.
Despite the dazzling linguistic inventiveness and some very clever scenes, there are a number of cringe-inducing moments, including a lot of racist language. The difficulty, as so often, with sending up racism is that it is all too easy for the viewer to think that it is being condoned.
Always strange and frequently disgusting, this film is not for those of a delicate disposition, but those who like their English eccentricity neat or have a penchant for absurdist comedy will adore this new Digital Classics DVD release. It is well presented, with many features of which Stanshall would have thoroughly approved: not only a very odd commentary rendered indistinct by much eating of sandwiches, but also a section of extras entitled Inedible Muck, where Stanshall fanatics can read scripts for scenes that were not shot.
Whatever else can be said about this film, it certainly is not boring. Whether you greet its return with joy, a sinking feeling, or bemusement depends, ultimately, on your personal taste.--Isabel Taylor