In previous Page and Screens I’ve referred to the book How Fiction Works by James Wood. Last night, after returning home from seeing Beginners, I immediately plucked it off the shelf. Despite all the quirkiness of Mike Mills’s indie rom com, trying so hard to make it stand apart as a unique creation, it was a rather familiar filmmaking convention of montage and voiceover that lodged itself firmly in my mind, because it reminded me of a passage in Wood’s bible for book lovers.
The story, though distinctive, was overshadowed in my mind’s eye by thoughts of the way this film was structured, the way it unravelled. It frequently featured rapid slideshows of sometimes random, sometimes nostalgic images, accompanied by Ewan McGregor’s sometimes melancholic, sometimes profound voiceover. These sections usually provide background information on characters which could be expositional but rarely feels as though it is. They also weave a symmetry and structure through a narrative that jumps around in time.
Beginners begins with McGregor’s character Oliver clearing out his father’s things. We then follow Oliver as he reflects on the last years of his father’s life, his childhood and other regrets. After his mother died of cancer his father, played with relish by Christopher Plummer, reveals that he is and always has been, gay. For the first time in his life he can finally freely embrace his true identity in retirement. Oliver watches on with a mixture of confusion and happiness, feeling his own sense of self compromised by years of deceit and his own deeply rooted trust issues.
Then of course a woman arrives on the scene. They tend to be pretty and this one, a French actress, is no exception. Just as his father had to wait for his moment to truly begin living, Oliver now let’s himself feel that he might not be alone, that someone is there who just gets him. The pair meet at a party, Oliver dressed as Freud jokily analysing people to cover his sadness and she totally mute due to laryngitis. She sees right through his act and a believable, amusing relationship organically forms before our eyes.
So this is a film with colourful characters and plenty of quirky humour that might be too much for some. But what makes these characters come to life? This movie could easily become overshadowed by the issue of repressed homosexuality and older people in love but it does not. Instead all its characters are intriguing, with Oliver himself a particularly strong window onto events.
We come back to James Wood and his chapter on character. He says that there is “nothing harder than the creation of fictional character”, citing the telltale sign of debut novelists describing photographs of the protagonist’s family members; “the unpractised novelist cleaves to the static”. Good and great novelists know how to “get a character in”, to get them moving in a story, keeping obvious and ugly information dumps to a minimum.
In Beginners however montages of still images successfully get characters “in”. This got me thinking about the use of the static by filmmakers. In the cinema we are used to immediately seeing characters on the move but that does not necessarily establish them. In books we often see them just thinking and not moving. Perhaps by going against expectations in either medium we gain a refreshing perspective on character?
Certainly Beginners takes a minimalist approach, stripping away much of what we’re used to from a film at times. Much is made of Oliver’s relationship with his father’s dog, which is given some hilarious subtitles. Oliver’s meeting with his French actress is mostly gutted of dialogue. He also never truly reacts passionately to his father’s homosexuality, never choosing to fully support or fully disagree with it at any point, never really showing outrage or annoyance. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian hits the nail on the head when he singles out Oliver’s passivity as a factor holding the film back, not allowing audiences to truly love the film.
However Bradshaw also points out Beginners’ most interesting element, describing it as “literary” and likening Oliver to a “novelistic narrator”. This film really does blur the boundaries between the page and the screen. It might be a sign of unimaginative weakness to rely on weighty sketches of the static on the page but in the cinematic universe Beginners proves that still pictures really can speak a thousand words. Coupled with well written voiceover (hard enough in itself) and placed at the right points, a series of pictures can flick the narrative pace up a notch or scale it down for a profound pause.
Do you think you could hack it behind bars? If you’re a Daily Mail columnist you probably dispute the fact that prisons even have bars anymore. They’ve all been replaced you see, with tasty sticks of rock more in keeping with the dangerously liberal, comfortable satellite TV approach to treating filthy criminals. Being locked up is preferable to a five star hotel. Prisons are merely lavishly furnished warehouses for feral beasts that will be released back into the wilds of society unchanged. The fear factor has gone.
Bring back that shit yourself punishment and all of Britain’s ills will be cured. All this claptrap about human rights and civil liberties has been diluting the taste of our justice system since the 60s, so that it’s nothing more than a bitter sip of lemonade. Prisons should punish first and foremost, to act as a deterrent to the bad apples on the nation’s tree. When they fall they need to be crushed into a pulp and left to rot as an example to others; so the argument roughly goes.
Of course films are not the place to look for a frank and faithful look at the realities of prison life. Just because I’m put off a casual mugging by the possibility of gang rapes such as those in The Shawshank Redemption, doesn’t mean that actual perpetrators within the system encounter such things or that they are deterred by them. Cinema is a place for drama, tension and excitement. But a certain mould of gritty British drama always seems to capture something true about the cooped up existence of convicts, whatever the exaggerations.
In the case of Ghosted, the debut film of writer/director Craig Viveiros, the principal truth is that for many men, the haunting consequences of their crimes are punishment enough. There is also a heightened but believable look at the community of prison life, with its rival factions and dominating personalities pulling the strings. And much of the dialogue is insightful but understated, with main character Jack musing that, if nothing else, empty hours in a cell day after day give you plenty of time to think.
Jack (John Lynch) is a sensible prisoner, keeping his head down and away from trouble, serving his time. He is approaching the end of his sentence and desperate to get out to see his wife. But at the start of the film she fails to visit him and blanks him when he calls. Just as freedom is within sight his marriage collapses, destroying his hopes for a life on the outside. Gradually we find out more about Jack, eventually getting confirmation that his young son is dead. He burns most of his pictures of him because “sometimes the reminders are too hard in here”.
With just months until Jack is free, a new inmate arrives in the shape of young Paul, played by Martin Compston of The Disappearance of Alice Creed fame. Paul is immediately welcomed by the manipulative Clay, who is described on the marketing material as a “wing overlord”, which sounds like an all powerful evil super villain, but in reality just means a nicer cell, a mildly lucrative drugs racket and the odd fellow prisoner to bang. After the initial niceties Clay starts to use Paul, so Jack steps in and gets him moved to his cell.
This puts Jack in the firing line, resulting in some tense standoffs. The balance of the prison politics is disrupted and Clay is humiliated more than once, prompting him to get revenge. But despite the palpable sense of threat, the really interesting part of Ghosted is the relationship between Jack and Paul.
Jack is the heart of Ghosted and Lynch relished playing him, praising the creative talents of newcomer Viveiros: “It’s been a long, long time since I read a script that’s centred absolutely one hundred per cent on the characters”. In return the director praises his cast who “pumped blood into the story”. Both men are right.
Ghosted is well acted, with even the thugs coming across as something more than just two dimensional bad guys; they have their vulnerabilities too. But Ghosted is also well written and confidently directed so that it does not feel like a debut. Some of the scenes in which Jack and Paul open up to each other, often simply discussing old memories such as when Jack was in Brazil or when Paul was in care, are exemplary examples of characterisation rarely seen in today’s commercial world of cinema.
Ghosted is released in cinemas on the 24th of June and will be available on DVD from the 27th. See it to support a quality British drama with an all star cast, which simultaneously pays tribute to classic prison stories and approaches the issue from a new angle. Try to spot the emotional hammer blow of a twist at the end.
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Before you read on: Spoilers sweetie.
The Guardian series blog, written by Dan Martin, has been my first port of call as soon as the credits roll after every episode of this series. The story arc is so layered and baffling, with the hints and in jokes so carefully hidden, that even after a second viewing it’s difficult to pick up on everything. Thankfully the Guardian blog has been there whenever I’ve really struggled to get my head together and form some thoughts of my own. And the comments section is the perfect breeding ground for theories about where things are going.
This week’s mid-series finale gets a rather bruising verdict on the Guardian website. Very rarely do I disagree with it but this week I definitely do. I see where they’re coming from. It’s certainly true that not a lot happened despite the build up and the scale. And the cleric characters on Demon’s Run, particularly the token gay couple, the thin/fat marines, are chucked into the mix briefly and rather pointlessly. It was undoubtedly disappointing that the Cybermen were waggled before us in the pre titles sequence and that the Doctor’s dark side, whilst brilliant, did not plumb any seriously shocking new depths. But I think Dan Martin is missing the point of A Good Man Goes to War.
In many ways it matters little that the standalone story element was lacking this week because this was an epic conclusion to the first seven episodes. Rather than a war, this was the climactic battle. After the weaknesses of the flesh based double bill, I actually thought the story was improved to a much greater level and it was a joy to get Moffat’s writing back. The Doctor’s dialogue was so much wittier, cleverer and funnier.
Indeed the most surprising thing about A Good Man Goes to War was just how funny it was. The variety of the humour on show really added to the cinematic and epic feel. Besides the usual comedy deriving from Smith’s performance, for example in the scene where he’s trying to work out how Melody came to have Time Lord DNA, there are laughs from the other characters Moffat brings in as the Doctor’s allies.
The Sontaran nurse was absolute genius and perfectly in keeping with what the Doctor would do. When he tells Colonel Runaway to keep his back straight so as not to damage his posture, I laughed, during my first and second viewing. However it was only on my second viewing that I noticed a filthy lesbian tongue joke between the mysterious Silurian detective and her female sidekick, after the Silurian asks “why do you ever put up with me?”. I can see an adult spin-off show, with the potential to be far better than Torchwood, for those two. There was also a jolly fat blue thing that we’ve seen before, who was a delightfully wise presence.
With all the grim seriousness and concentration required to keep up with the secrets and twists of the story arc, the laughs were absolutely essential to making A Good Man Goes to War enjoyable. After the endless tension that has been coiling and tightening over the preceding weeks, I thought that this seventh episode actually had merits of its own, by leaving the ongoing secrets for the dramatic and emotional final ten minutes. Even if it didn’t go as far as it could’ve done, this episode was a fascinating exploration of the Doctor’s character.
We get to see the theatrical, arrogant side of the Doctor as he pulls off his genius takeover of the base. Matt Smith is in his element here and the impact of his performance is all the greater because Moffat kept him off the screen during the beginning as the team assembled, using the TARDIS alone. Moffat has previously said he wanted to put the “who” back into Doctor Who, and he’s done that with his confused, overlapping timelines and references to off screen adventures. But in A Good Man Goes to War he asks the question more directly and the Doctor ponders his own legacy, just as he did at the end of the last series when the monster sealed within the Pandorica turned out to be him. River Song then delivers some home truths. This episode may have been light on story but all of the key characters are explored in greater depth than before.
To River then. Finally we know who she is! And at last we have substantial answers to big questions looming since the beginning of the series. I was genuinely more satisfied by the big reveal than I thought I would be. But at the same time I am left craving more. I want to see the next episode. Moffat has, predictably, left an awful lot of questions unanswered. With a title like “Let’s Kill Hitler” my mind is already in a whirlwind of excited anticipation about the next episode itself too, let alone the answering of more secrets.
People tend to focus on the big question of this series: the Doctor’s death. But I am still waiting for the unresolved events of The Big Bang at the end of Series 5 to be explained. Who manipulated the TARDIS? Who organised the coalition of baddies to imprison the Doctor? Surely they must have some sort of connection to this year’s big enemies? Why are the clerics anti-Doctor now after working with him against the Weeping Angels in the last series? Who is Madame Kovarian?
So many questions and so many throwaway lines I can’t dwell on, partly because it would be useless and dull for you if I asked questions forever and also because I am falling asleep. Stevie Wonder performed in 1814 London. Just remembered that. But we mustn’t tell him!
See you in the Autumn.
EDIT: Blimey forgot the Headless Monks completely. And not because they were bad. A good idea but underdeveloped. Worth it just for having new monsters and that wonderful moment when the Doctor disarms all the clerics.
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