Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: John Schlesinger
Stars: Alan Bates, June Ritchie, Thora Hird
Released 1st August 2016
We’re getting something of a refresher course in the great British tradition of kitchen sink dramas. Last week saw the newly-restored version of Ken Loach’s ‘Poor Cow’ on DVD, at the weekend his ‘Cathy Come Home’ returned to TV screens. And this week ‘A Kind Of Loving’ also arrives on DVD.
It was a very British genre, one that spread across theatre, art and novels as well as cinema during the late 50s and most of the 60s, socially realistic and depicting the domestic lives of working people. Controversial social and political issues, such as homelessness, abortion and domestic violence, were all ripe for exploration. Which makes ‘A Kind Of Loving’ a classic of its type.
Vic Brown (Alan Bates) is a draughtsman at a Manchester company, dreaming of a bigger and better life but distracted by one of his female colleagues, Ingrid (June Ritchie). She completely falls for him and soon finds herself pregnant, so Vic agrees to do the right thing, albeit reluctantly, and marries her. Unable to afford a place of their own, the couple move in with her mother (Thora Hird) and Vic finds he’s been forced into a life he never wanted. So when Ingrid loses the baby, he wants out ….
It’s a film that introduced us to some significant British talents. This was the first feature film from John Schlesinger, who went on to make ‘Darling’ (1965), ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1969) which won him an Oscar and ‘Marathon Man’ (1976). And he put two comparatively unknown faces in the leads. The rapidly rising Alan Bates had been in ‘The Entertainer’ (1960) and ‘Whistle Down The Wind’ (1961) in supporting roles, but this was this first time centre stage. And June Ritchie was making her big screen debut at the start of a career that saw her move into TV just a few years later.
Schlesinger loves to draw contrasts throughout the film. There’s the difference in background between Vic and Ingrid: he comes from a street of terraced houses in the shadow of the factory – it’s Lowry country – while she lives on a small estate of manicured 1930s semis well away from the grime of the city. But most significantly their wedding and the one for Vic’s sister, Christine, and her husband David are at opposite ends of the scale. Theirs is the opening sequence of the film, and it’s the proverbial dream ceremony. In a church, with the white dress, lots of confetti and all the neighbours turning out to watch: these were the days when a wedding was a social occasion for everybody, invited or not. The happy couple are swept away on their honeymoon in a limo and move into their own flat straight afterwards. For Vic and Ingrid, it’s a registry office, no white dress or confetti – his dad bins his little box when it goes unused – and off in a coach to Southport for a few days by the sea. No home of their own either: they have to live with Ingrid’s mother who has no time for Vic, or men in general.
On its release in 1962, ‘A Kind Of Loving’ had an X certificate, marking it out as daring and tackling controversial subjects. Little of that frissant is left as, compared to today’s films, it looks tame: there’s nothing more titillating than a view of June Richie’s bare back and the clear indication and that she’s naked. But this, of course, is a film set in the days when pregnancy outside marriage meant getting married as soon as possible and tying the knot in a registry office was usually taken as meaning that the couple “had to get married”. Which is exactly what happens here.
Its realistic depiction of British working society at the time – it was set and filmed in Manchester – as well as a juicy script from Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall and some cracking performances make the film one of the best from the British output of the early 60s. That script is full of local flavour, with the occasional flash of deadpan wit, and observed with pin-point accuracy. When Thora Hird (superb as Ingrid’s domineering and resentful mother) gives full vent to her loathing for Vic, she’s so angry she can only keep repeating one word. “Filthy.” And, as a former actor, Schlesinger gets equally powerful performances from Bates as the selfish, unlikeable Vic who isn’t mature enough to know what he wants from life, and Ritchie as the sheltered little princess who is so infatuated with him that she doesn’t realise that their relationship is based purely on sex.
Despite being over 50 years old, all its gloom, intensity, wit and warmth are all still there, all reinforced by the grimy black and white camerawork. Schlesinger treats the unhappy, mis-matched couple with compassion, even if we don’t exactly empathise with either of them. Do they get the happy ending they both want? We’re left to decide that for ourselves.
God’s Own Country (DVD/Blu-Ray Review)
Released: 29th January 2018
Directed By: Francis Lee
Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu
Reviewed By: Barry Levitt
Last year may have been unbearable in many facets, but for queer cinema, 2017 was a landmark year. Starting the year with Moonlight winning Best Picture, a number of LGBT films were released around the world including the critically acclaimed Call Me By Your Name, A Fantastic Woman and Princess Cyd. But perhaps the finest of them all was Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country, a story of a young farmer in Yorkshire whose way of living is permanently altered when a Romanian worker comes to work at the farm for lambing season. The film is out via Picturehouse Entertainment on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on the 29th January.
Johnny (Josh O’Connor) spends his evenings drinking and searching for casual sex with other men in an effort to escape his own mundane existence. He lives and works with his father and grandmother on a quiet Yorkshire farm, though due to his father’s ailing health, Johnny is forced to take care of the day to day operations. As lambing season approaches, the farm is in need of extra help as Johnny’s drinking has prevented him from doing the work necessary to keep the farm afloat. Johnny’s father Martin (Ian Hart) hires a Romanian worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) during the busy lambing season to help keep the farm going.
God’s Own Country has been often described as a British Brokeback Mountain, and while the film’s similarities are worth noting, they are remarkably different in approach. The main romance in question in Francis Lee’s film is warmly embraced. The sex scenes in particular are dealt with beautifully: free of mystery and shame, the scenes are explicit without being pornographic, and bursting with passion. Sure, the resistance is there – Johnny is deeply frustrated sexually, and his sexuality is kept secret from almost everyone, and he does not exactly instantly warm to Gheorghe’s presence. The film’s power comes from Lee’s excellent script and calm, patient direction. As a viewer, Johnny’s loneliness is almost palpable, making his motivations clear and as a result it is easy to empathise with him.
Lee also does a tremendous job bringing the Yorkshire farmlands to life. His camera evokes an almost tactile response, and it is as if you could feel the grass and the mud; this film is simply full of raw and unflinching moments. There is a particularly touching sequence which Gheorghe tends to a newborn lamb that wonderfully evokes everything that God’s Own Country represents, things that seem broken can be reborn and renewed with tender love and care.
The film’s beauty also comes down to tremendous performances from the principal cast. O’Connor and Secareanu bring a wonderful vulnerability that is vital to the film’s beating heart. Ian Hart and Gemma Jones, who plays Johnny’s grandmother, are both utterly exceptional. God’s Own Country is a tender, quiet and moving meditation on love and loneliness, and wouldn’t be half as powerful without these great performances.
The home entertainment release of God’s Own Country comes with a series of deleted and extended scenes. Though it is easy to see why they were cut down or removed entirely, there is some interesting stuff here that fleshes out some of their characters. The film looks and sounds great, but it is a shame that such an excellent film wasn’t given more bonus material. Still, for fans of the film and for those who have yet to see it, one of the best films of 2017 absolutely deserves a home in your collection.
The Small World Of Sammy Lee – DVD Review
Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Ken Hughes
Stars: Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Robert Stephens, Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell, Roy Kinnear
Released 14th November 2016
In 1958, Ken Hughes’ half hour play, ‘Sammy’ appeared on British television. It attracted huge acclaim and turned its solidary actor, Anthony Newley, into a star. Several years later, he returned to the same part, this time in the much-expanded ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’, written and directed by Hughes and released in cinemas in 1963. The response wasn’t so warm.
Now described by some as a lost gem of British cinema, it returned to the big screen in a newly restored version at the London Film Festival and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week. Time for a re-assessment.
The Sammy Lee of the title (Newley) is the compere at a Soho strip joint and a fast talking chancer. He’s also up to his neck in debt with the local bookie and has just five hours to raise the cash that will prevent paying up in a more painful way. It’s a race against the clock for him to find the money, through all manner of dodgy deals. At the same time, he has to cope with a major complication in his life, the young Patsy (Julia Foster) who fell for his showy offer of a job and has left home to pursue him.
Right from the opening shot, this is a period piece and a large chunk of nostalgia for anybody familiar with the London of the 60s, Soho especially. The early moments show streets that are empty, except for the bin men collecting the remains of the night before. Them aside, there’s hardly anybody around, but all that changes as the day progresses. You find yourself picking out street names and locations – Berwick Street market for one – while the black and white photography introduces the inherent seediness of the area, such as the strip club interior both back stage and front of house, the snooker halls, the pokey bed-sits. It extends to the characters as well, from Sammy with his stock of hackneyed, vaguely smutty gags straight out of the Archie Rice joke book to the pathetic Harry (Wilfrid Brambell) who runs his errands and, inevitably, falls down on the job.
All of which makes the more law-abiding characters stand out. There’s a one-scene portrait of Sammy’s family, his hard working brother Lou (Warren Mitchell) who runs a Whitechapel delicatessen and wife Milly (Miriam Karlin), dripping in costume jewellery and lacking any sympathy for Sammy when he arrives on the scrounge. So much so, that you suspect there may have been something between the two before she settled for his brother. And there’s the naïve Patsy who sees him for what he is but still adores him and finds promotion from waitress to “dancer” in the club upsetting and humiliating.
The scenes in the club give away the film’s 30 minute original, there’s one too many scene of Sammy running through the Soho streets and the Patsy love interest feels like padding, but why should a film with so much in the way of character and location fall so flat when it was released? One reason could be timing. It didn’t fit with the move towards “kitchen sink dramas” – it came out in the same year as ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ and ‘This Sporting Life’, while ‘A Kind Of Loving’ had been released in 1962. Sammy’s story isn’t a thriller either and doesn’t make the most of the dramatic potential of his limited time for raising that money. Nor is it a comment on society.
But, despite its shortcomings, there is much to enjoy, particularly among the performances. Newley is suitably nervy to the point of hyper as Sammy, while the oil positively drips off Robert Stephens’ club owner. And it’s littered with cameos from other familiar faces, like Derek Nimmo, Roy Kinnear and even Linda Baron (Nurse Gladys Emmanuel from ‘Open All Hours’). The street scenes in Soho are so evocative you can almost smell the garbage and the club interior is always viewed through a fug of cigarette smoke.
It adds up to a film rich in curiosity value for today’s audience, something of a love letter to the Soho of the 60s, but one that misses the dramatic target by a whisker. Second time round, it seems destined to appeal to a limited audience all over again, one that treasures older, unsung British films.
One Million Years BC – DVD Review
Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Don Chaffey
Stars: Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Martine Beswick
Released: 24th October 2016
Cinema history may be littered with bikini moments, but only a few have achieved true iconic status. Ursula Andress in ‘Dr No’ (1962) for one, followed by numerous other Bond girls who tried to re-create the moment, most notably Halle Berry in ‘Die Another Day’ (2002). And there was Bo Derek in ‘10’ (1979). But only one actress had the dubious honour of sporting a fur bikini. She was the almost-unknown Raquel Welch in ‘One Million Years BC’ (1966) and the garment, with its remarkable adhesive properties, made her an international star.
The film makes its return in a newly restored version on DVD to mark its 50th anniversary. And, while Welch in her bikini is easily its best known image, it also overshadows the film’s other achievement. Not only was it the most successful film ever to come out of Hammer Studios, it was also the big screen’s most famous dinosaur epic until the arrival of ‘Jurassic Park’ some 26 years later. And much of that was down to the creations of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. While some of them aren’t up to his usual standard – little more than enlarged versions of a lizard and a turtle – there’s a great dinosaur battle which shows the maestro at his best.
The audiences queuing to see the film in ’66 certainly didn’t go along for the plot. It’s pretty basic stuff, all about two tribes. The Stone People are a vicious lot, living in the mountains and regularly knocking seven bells out of each other. They kick out Tumak (John Richardson), one of their leader’s sons, and he finds his way to the coast where he discovers the Shell People, who show him a different, more peaceful way of life. It’s not long before the two tribes come into conflict, but then they eventually have to come together in a battle for survival.
Unsurprisingly, the dialogue isn’t up to much – the occasional word and a few grunts – so the demands on the cast are more physical than anything. And, once director Don Chaffey has exhausted the appeal of Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, he throws the kitchen sink at the film in the shape of the final sequence, a volcanic eruption and earthquake, all of which is pretty spectacular for its day.
The restoration has certainly sharpened up the look of the film and the DVD comes complete with a variety of extras, including interviews with Welch and her co-star, Martine Beswick. But comparisons with today’s special effects are inevitable and, while Harryhausen’s monsters are seriously impressive for their day, both they and the film are more of a period piece, laden with nostalgia for fans of the 60s.
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