BBC Films makes its mark
The Damned United
You don’t have to be an avid football fan to watch the 2009 screen adaptation of David Peace’s novel, The Damned United. This distinctly English film set in the 1960s and 1970s explores the working-class spirit of the game and the friction it causes between personal and professional life. The narrative is set alight by Michael Sheen’s performance as Brian Clough. The dry wit of the character draws him instantly into our favor, at once a family man and a fierce competitor. The energy between the two central characters, Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), is the most memorable aspect, as it demonstrates a classic battle between the man who is led by his heart and the man who is led by his head.
The Damned United captures Brian Clough’s 44 days managing Leeds United Football Club, following Don Revie’s (Colm Meaney) departure to take on the England squad. We join Clough at his first training session, where he is met with a frosty welcome. He has previously bad-mouthed the team for their dirty tactics and poor management. We are then taken back to six years previous when Clough was managing Derby County. Preparations are taking place for the arrival of Leeds United on the Derby home turf. The two managers, Clough and Revie, knew each other as kids and Clough eagerly anticipates meeting him again. But the excitement is shattered as the team arrive and thrash Derby through foul play, with Revie not even acknowledging Clough at the end of the match. And so the mood is set for the rest of the action. We jump between past and present, through numerous matches between the two teams and the desperate attempts of Clough to avenge his long-term rival. Eventually, the two storylines catch up with each other and Clough is left to face the consequences of his relentless passion for the game, a quality which both made him and can destroy him.
The themes of the film struck me as particularly timely, as our footballers today are known more for their scandalous private lives and how much money they can command than their performance on the pitch. Thrust into the world of television interviews and press conferences, the strain of maintaining a public front can be a very lonely battle. It is a story of male pride, betrayal and greed. I am struck by a comment that my mum has often made to my dad as he jumps up from the sofa and roars at the TV screen – ‘It’s only a game’. Clough eventually realizes what Taylor has been telling him all along, that the joy of the game becomes lost under the aggression and misery of competition. Is this really what it’s all about?
A fabulous film full of the understated comedy that we British do best.
By Rose Allerston
The British gangster film is so depressingly common that I’d imagine most tourists expect all us Brits to be cockney accented, gold tooth-sporting thugs. Britain has mythologized its own gang culture in the same way that America has mythologized the West, depicting its criminal underground through clear cut goodies and baddies. And so, into a genre bereft of the depth and menace it pretends to embody, enter David Cronenberg, whose Eastern Promises is what other gangster films wish they could be.
When a 14 year-old Russian girl dies giving birth to a daughter, midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) tries to trace the family of the young girl and her baby. Using the dead girl’s diary, Anna traces her back to the Trans-Siberia restaurant, a front for the criminal activity of a notorious Russian gang who don’t want Anna’s investigations to go further. While the plot could easily have turned melodramatic in less skilled hands, Cronenberg does what he does best – bring the gristle.
Like a vintage Cronenberg film, Eastern Promises is preoccupied with bodies. In Anna’s back-story she recently had a miscarriage, which serves as a literal bodily expression for the emptiness that draws her to the baby and to ‘driver’ Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), the Russian gang’s ritual tattoos signify the level of fear and respect that should be attributed to each member. Bodies tell the story in this film, and hence Cronenberg keeps the violence bloody and visceral, directly threatening the body. This threat feels painfully real and ever present- a far cry from the antics of the 2D British gangsters audiences are used to.
Mortensen completely loses himself in Nikolai , a performance which is surely one of his best to date. He keeps his character compellingly morally ambiguous, conveying gentleness whilst simultaneously expressing his capacity for darkness and violence with the mere flicker of a crooked smile. Cronenberg said of the film that, ’I’m not interested in the mechanics of the mob, but criminality and people who live in a state of perpetual transgression.’ Mortensen embodies this ethos – we do not feel we are watching a ‘gangster’ but a person committing dark deeds, a distinction which injects much subtlety and humanity into the film.
Eastern Promises examines the effects of criminality on an individual rather than glamorising gang culture. It focuses on bad actions as opposed to bad people, exploring the implications of living by a moral code that’s shaded so resolutely grey. Cold yet warm, both kind and merciless, Eastern Promises will leave pondering its contradictions long after the credits have rolled. Miles ahead of its peers, Cronenberg has given us a British gangster film that finally delivers on its promise.
By Laura Kerrigan
Is Anybody There?
Somewhere in between wasting South London gangsters in Harry Brown and serving Bruce Wayne’s breakfast in The Dark Knight, Sir Michael Caine made a film which you probably didn’t see. Is Anybody There?, directed by Intermission’s John Crowley, is a quiet and unassuming little picture which nevertheless contains one of the great performances of Caine’s latter years.
Set in a nondescript patch of Yorkshire at the tail-end of Thatcher’s reign, Is Anybody There? follows Edward, a ten year old boy who lives at the old people’s home run by his parents. Edward spends his days with the sick and dying, and after losing one friend after another becomes increasingly fixated on trying to find proof of the afterlife. His supernatural interests are piqued by the arrival of Clemence (Caine), a cantankerous stage magician struggling with the first signs of dementia, and an unlikely friendship grows between the young ghost-hunter and the old man increasingly living in a world of his own.
Laced with darkly humorous moments – the moment when Clemence’s failing memory interferes with a guillotine trick is bloody and brilliant – Is Anybody There? is nevertheless a desperately sad film. Caine commented that his wife Shakira was inconsolable after going to its première, so painful is the experience of watching this fiercely independent old man gradually lose his way as his memories retreat behind a locked door (a performance based on the actor’s experience of losing a friend to Alzheimer’s Disease).
Is Anybody There? makes no attempt to sugar-coat its material – the crushing inevitability of its finale will resonate with anyone who has watched a loved one fade by degrees. However, it skilfully avoids being either sentimental or morbid, with the touching and mutually beneficial friendship between Clarence and Edward providing an innocent joy which pervades all but the darkest scenes. Unencumbered by the big-budget production values of much of his most recent work, this film is an opportunity to marvel at the raw talent which confirms Sir Michael Caine’s status as one of our greatest living actors.