The opening minutes of Sensation are not a stimulating thrill ride or a feast for the senses. In fact, they could be described as bleak. I’m going to be careful not to mislead you here; I don’t want the word bleak to imply that the early scenes are moving, or interestingly dark. Instead, I mean bleak as in “without hope or expectation of success or improvement”. The world of central character Donal is defined by its dullness and the fact that it is never likely to change. His uneventful life has left him numb, and so emotionless that when he discovers his father dead on the stair lift, he uses the remote to bring the cold corpse slowly down, rather than rushing up.
You may find that, as I did, the start of Sensation will induce that “where have I seen him before?” feeling. This was the most pressing thing about the film for its first quarter of an hour, that nagging frustration that is impossible to shake. So I paused the film, utilised a well known internet search engine and discovered that lead actor Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Donal, also played Bill Weasley in the last few Harry Potter films. Cue the knowing nod that accompanies the phrase “I knew I recognised him!”. Curiosity quenched, I could now begin to concentrate on the film itself.
Following the funeral of Donal’s father we watch a young man shuffle through a very lonely existence. The really disheartening thing about Donal’s grief is that it is so minimal. He had clearly been expecting his father’s death and we do not really witness any sadness relating to it. It’s also clear that Donal’s loneliness goes back far, far further than the eventual demise of his sick dad. His best friend Karl, who lives in a caravan on Donal’s farm land, suggests that the funds freed up by his father’s death might be the making of Donal. But Donal has no idea how to use the cash wisely in the nothingness of the Irish countryside. His only half plan is to move to Dublin.
This complicated, but essentially sympathetic portrayal of Donal, is offset by hints towards a darker side of his character. That initial moment where he waits for the stair lift’s grim and personal cargo to descend is both shocking and repulsive. It’s symbolic of Donal’s laziness, lack of drive and dangerous naivety. Whilst Donal’s problems are real and capable of inspiring sympathy, his only solace is sordid and shameful. Ignorant of girls and relationships, Donal is fascinated by sex. However, his perception of sex is skewed by the internet. His only experience of it comes from the online world, where he sports the nickname of “Sweetdick” in a chat room. He masturbates furiously, in a way that seems to be a brutal release. He seems to have little awareness of intimacy, although a dim desire for it grows once he has satisfied his raw lust.
Suddenly not lacking in cash after receiving a sizeable inheritance, Donal’s first port of call is a website advertising escorts. One of them, called Courtney, has been recommended to him by an online chat room buddy. At first, he tentatively asks for an hour with her, only to be persuaded over the phone that the “full girlfriend experience” will be worth his while (and hers, financially). They meet in a restaurant, where she is surprised that he actually wants to eat. She reassures him that seduction is not necessary, but Donal orders a chicken kiev anyway. That’s where the civilized behaviour stops though. Back at his farm, Donal rapidly enjoys what he’s paid for. As Courtney says later, this is not Pretty Woman.
But the parallels are certainly there. Donal has money, albeit not on the scale of Richard Gere’s millionaire, but enough to make him of use to Courtney, whose real name is Kim. When events ensure that Kim and Donal get to know each other personally, they begin to form an ambiguous bond. Their feelings are tested and disguised because of the shadowy, theatrical business of the sex trade. Donal starts out wanting to help Kim rescue herself. He then falls for her, before ending up seeing her as a commodity.
Boiled down to its basics, Sensation is a simple story about two very different, lonely people crossing paths. It stands above this classic blueprint because of the strength of its characterisation and acting. Donal is volatile and unpredictable because of his troubled youth, and Kim is determined and twisted because of her profession. You’re never quite sure where their true loyalties lie. In this way Sensation is realistic, with its incorporation of modern themes and the lack of trust between a group of people who have recently joined forces in a backstabbing industry. However, Sensation also has many weak points. Its fringe characters are less well acted and unconvincingly drawn. The ending is rushed and more than a little predictable, and sections of the film drag. In my view, this is an excellent effort from writer/director Tom Hall. It is occasionally funny, although not to the point of laughter, and ultimately touching, despite a difficult subject matter.
“FAR UP! FAR OUT! FAR MORE!” reads the poster. As a youngster I would have scoffed at this. I would act superior to my friends whenever a Bond film happened to be on TV. I would dazzle them with my knowledge of the films. And if I was ever asked what the worst film in the entire series was I would always reply – “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, obviously”.
Why was this? There was only really one reason; George Lazenby. It was his only Bond film, he did less than everyone else and therefore it was the worst. OHMSS (as I shall refer to it from now on) was an unwelcome aberration before the jolly rebirth provided by Roger Moore. As I grew up I was taught to love and treasure Roger’s cheeky eyebrows. But now, just as You Only Live Twice has slipped since childhood from one of my favourites towards the bottom of the pile, OHMSS is one of the very best in my personal Bond canon.
This is because the dated but charming slogan on the poster was spot on for a change; you really do get far more from OHMSS than any other Bond film. Not in every department of course; the range of locations is European and perhaps ordinary by modern standards, the gadgetry is minimum and the action less frequent than some would like. But for Bond fanatics, particularly those familiar with the Bond of Fleming’s books, this is the most faithful adaptation. A film with a storyline that really lets us get to know a little of the man behind the agent, the icon and the image.
As the excellent review from Kinnemaniac (which says everything I’m going to say more amusingly and precisely) points out, it is perhaps inevitable that diehard fans pounced on the instalment least popular with the general public. OHMSS is rarely picked for Bank Holiday TV schedules like other outings from Connery and Moore. Again as Kinnemaniac points out though, OHMSS attempts a tone not seen in the franchise again until the Dalton films and then properly in Casino Royale with Daniel Craig’s Eva Green love interest. Indeed perhaps Lazenby has Craig to thank for a new generation falling with renewed vigour for his solitary outing as 007.
Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman no doubt fretted over replacing Sean Connery. For cinemagoers of the sixties he was THE embodiment of James Bond. Unlike audiences of today they were unaccustomed to the regular replacement of the actor playing Britain’s top secret agent now and again. The way in which they chose to tackle the casting and the whole creative process of the sixth Bond outing was bold and experimental.
Lazenby was nothing more than an Australian model, director Peter Hunt had been an editor for the early films. Or perhaps OHMSS was a safer bet than it appears. Saltzman and Broccoli might have gone back to the books through caution rather than ambition, and the whole project delayed the business of thinking about Bond’s future properly until Connery could be lured back for Diamonds are Forever. In any case the special features of my Ultimate Edition DVD reveal the bitchy arguments and distrust on set that never looked likely to form harmonious or long lasting foundations, despite frequent praise for Lazenby’s surprising ability.
Lazenby of course unavoidably remains the film’s defining feature. Nowadays I am more than happy to overlook his occasionally dodgy acting. The reason many fans of the books take to him is that he simply looks like James Bond. Rather than acting out aspects of his character, he is simply being Bond and our selective imaginations can iron out the creases in his portrayal. Re-watching OHMSS this time I noticed just how good Lazenby’s acting is on occasion though. He pulls off subtle little looks as well as the more obvious love scenes.
You hope to discover something new each time you watch a film and I found out that I like OHMSS best when Diana Rigg is on screen as Tracy with this viewing. I knew I loved the opening scene with Peter Hunt’s teasing direction of a mysterious driver, John Barry’s sublime soundtrack to the seaside action and Lazenby’s fourth wall breaching line; “this never happened to the other fellow”. And indeed I rank the scenes until Bond heads off to Piz Gloria in the Swiss Alps (surely the only base of villainy to match YOLT’s volcano?) as some of my favourites in the whole franchise. But then things simmer down with Bond undercover as Sir Hilary Bray. There’s occasional hilarity, an interestingly un-mysterious Blofeld and lots of girls, but not that same look at Bond as a man in love. When Rigg turned up again my interest was ignited again and turned up a couple notches.
Lazenby and Rigg’s chemistry is important, indeed vital for Bond’s first true love story, but the main reason I enjoy her presence on screen is because of what it does to the story. And the creative execution of the storytellers must be praised when talking about OHMSS. It’s evident for Bondians familiar with the whole series that the reins are looser here. They are telling a story rather than following a formula.
The two key architects are John Barry and Peter Hunt. I’ve already mentioned my admiration for the scene that introduces us to Tracy and reveals Lazenby as Bond. It just might be my personal favourite out of all the films. But aside from my preferences it’s the perfect illustration of Barry’s musical talent and Hunt’s ahead of his time direction.
The OHMSS soundtrack was one of the first that I bought. Its got a brilliant title theme, along with a gorgeous mix of thrilling synthesised ski chase accompaniments and romantic themes inspired by the sublime We Have All the Time in the World by Louis Armstrong. And then there’s Hunt’s evident ambition as both an editor and director.
Supposedly Lazenby got the role as Bond after he demonstrated his aptitude for fight scenes. The punch ups in OHMSS swing between the comical and the innovatively magnificent. Long before the creators of the Bourne films would claim that Craig’s Bond copies their style, Hunt and Lazenby filmed frantically paced and edited brawls in hotel rooms and the froth and spray of Portuguese waves. There may be the odd inadvertently funny grunt or strange bit of camerawork but Lazenby’s exciting physical Bond foreshadows Craig’s by almost forty years. If Hunt were working today his action scenes would be hailed as visceral and hard hitting. But back then change wasn’t embraced.
Even this fresh, frenzied approach to fisticuffs came back to underlining OHMSS’s USP; Bond is a man! He may still be a dapper chap with a trio of ladies actually making appointments to pull his trigger but now and then he’ll need to smother a man into submission rather than K.O. him with a single swipe. And his heart is as prone to silly somersaults as the rest of us male apes. Haters of Lazenby’s emotional depths though will not have long to wait for Bond to haul his armour back on. Within two years he’ll be protected by a 70s haircut, pink tie and drawling Scottish accent.
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If you are yet to enter the competition at Flickering Myth to win a copy of Ealing Studios production The Halfway House on Digital Versatile Disc, I do suggest that you hurry up and get a move on. This is a film worth seeing for three very good reasons. Pay attention ladies and gentlemen and I shall outline them for you.
Firstly The Halfway House is a fragment of history, a slice of our country’s past, and an especially engaging and vivid one too. For those of you enjoying the developments in three dimensional cinematic viewing or perhaps partial to the high definition of your colour television sets, it might be rather off putting that this is a film presented in mere black and white. I readily admit that I am not an avid viewer of black and white pictures myself.
I can assure you though that the lack of variation in colour is more than made up for by numerous other qualities. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it added to the charm of the film. In any case, this is top notch black and white, because The Halfway House has been digitally restored to a wonderful standard, so that it is, to all intents and purposes, as good as a modern day release.
This film was originally released in 1944 and judging by references to the date during the plot, filmed in 1943. It is therefore significantly influenced by the context of the ongoing Second World War in Europe. A number of the characters have lost friends, colleagues and relatives during the conflict. Others are affected in other ways.
The Halfway House is somewhat inaccurately and crudely labelled as a horror but in reality it is an interesting infusion of ghost story, fable and propaganda. The propaganda element is particularly fascinating and marks the film out as a genuine historical artefact. It is not overdone to affect the level of satisfaction for a modern audience, but certainly during the conclusion an Irishman’s change of allegiance from neutrality to supporting the Allies is noticeably underlined.
The second principal reason you should see The Halfway House is the impressive and rounded characterisation, forming part of a touching and timeless narrative. Whilst the historical background to the plot is crucial to setting it apart from modern releases, the quality and nature of the storytelling is also no longer replicated by studios today.
The first half of the film introduces a wide range of characters across Britain (showcasing unusual scope and variety of outdoor locations for Ealing Studios), each with their own problems, from terminal illness to divorce and criminality. The second half then brings all of these characters together at The Halfway House, a Welsh inn that may or may not have been destroyed by fire. The kindly and wise owners of the inn, who speak almost poetically at points, help the guests to help each other. Gradually they all gain perspective on their issues and worries by taking time out from the everyday grind. Such an intricately woven moral is still just as relevant today.
The Halfway House is superbly acted, even by modern day standards. It has a marvellous script that seems to transfer something from the original play by Denis Ogden. Primarily that something is dialogue which allows characters to breathe and grow convincingly, as they would on stage. Somehow The Halfway House is full of excellently fleshed out characters, despite the ensemble cast.
The third key reason for seeing The Halfway House is that it is tremendously amusing. Part of that humour arises inadvertently from the old fashioned and outdated formal register of the dialogue, which I have tried unsuccessfully to mirror regularly throughout this review. In certain situations the tone and accent of 1940s British speech, along with that persistent formality, is unavoidably hilarious.
However most of the comedic moments are intentional, with a mixture of fabulous and average one liners on show, alongside character humour enabled by their believability. One moment in the opening segment, in which we meet a dodgy dealing crook, is amusing due to role reversal; our criminal dismisses an employee for NOT having a criminal record and lying about it. This is also an example of one of many moments where the war has turned things upside down.
As if those three major reasons alone weren’t enough to at least have a go at the competition, there are also too many minor points of interest to mention. Director Basil Dearden has been underrated for years, only to be steadily recognised more and more recently as a groundbreaking filmmaker, with films like Victim starring Dirk Bogarde challenging taboos long before that was easy to get away with and just an arty saying. His direction here is simple for the most part, with the exception of one smartly edited action sequence which could fit into a modern film, but effective and professional. It’s remarkable enough they were making films as entertaining as this with the war raging on.
Good luck in the competition! But basically make sure you see The Halfway House when it’s released on the 20th of June. It’s an unseen and unappreciated classic of British cinema.
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