Film fans love a good tunnel. Whether it be the ingenious method for a daring bank robbery or the claustrophobic road to freedom from a tightly fenced POW camp, they are a vital ingredient of many a cinematic classic. Tunnels are a striking but simple storytelling device, that place the focus of the narrative firmly on the characters of people getting from one place to another, usually against the odds and at a snail’s pace. And what are all stories but snappier versions of the long and slow journey of life?
Sitting just a hay-fever induced sneeze away from surprisingly sizzling Easter sunshine with the windows flung open to the fresh spring air, I doubted my ability to fully inhabit the journey of the characters in Der Tunnel, a German film finally released on DVD on the 25th of April. In the comfort and luxuries of a 21st century room, blessed with the freedom to liberally gulp countryside air, I felt a million miles away from the damp, stuffy, volatile tubes carved torturously through the soil by countless characters in tunnel based films of the past. Not to mention feeling a world away from the 1960s Berlin setting of Der Tunnel.
Berlin is a constant inspiration for superb historical drama. It’s a fascinating city and just a glance at the ingredients that comprise its vibrant whole tells you why it’s so popular for storytellers. It’s steeped in history of all kinds, even before the rollercoaster the 20th century put the place through. It became a radical melting pot for cultural and political change, ravaged by wars and economic turbulence and enriched by the presence of artists, writers, intellectuals and dancers.
Then with the division of the city via its infamous wall, the eyes of the world came to rest on a stark clash of cultures. When JFK declared himself a spiritual resident of the city he confirmed its status as a symbol of the Cold War, the tense conflict in microcosm. The West stood for freedom and the East for brainwashed or enforced conformity. Whilst Der Tunnel is ultimately pro the West and anti the Eastern regime, it does make you consider such simplifications more carefully. Standards of living do not change magically because of a move, and state intrusion can be replaced by the media. The West is no sure-fire ticket to happiness.
Of all the tales inspired by the city though it’s perhaps those of suspicious spies and elusive espionage that endure with the widest and most thrilling legacy. Set a film in Berlin and it’s almost guaranteed shorthand for the audience that secrets will lurk and loom at the centre of the plot. Der Tunnel is no exception to this rule. There are a number of features that could be ripped straight from a Cold War thriller, with a manipulative East German Colonel using relationships and blackmail to protect the regime a superb example.
And yet this isn’t a tale of meddling foreigners but a story based on the truth of real Berliners, trying to escape meddling and ideological interference in their private lives. It’s principally the tale of champion swimmer Harry Melchior, who gives up a comfortable and celebrated lifestyle in the East to flee to the West before the wall is completed. He’s unable to get his beloved sister out in time though and he sets about finding a way to “bring her across”, and is joined by others cruelly parted from family, friends and lovers.
It’s a dramatic scene between two separated lovers, one of them also Melchior’s love interest, that really stood out for me from Der Tunnel. One of many emotional moments in the film, this rises above the rest because of superb acting and high drama but also due to the visual presence of the wall: painfully, physically and unavoidably denying the lovers a precious moment together. The tender scenes after this event are also moving, and the standout scene itself certainly has the potential to pluck tears from the coldest of eyes.
At just twenty minutes short of three hours long, I was worried about the wearisome effects of Der Tunnel. Would I need to scramble to the surface for air? In many ways this isn’t very creative or original storytelling, but it’s undeniably well executed, from the acting to the direction. I was engrossed by the lives and loves of the characters throughout. Crucially the tense and exciting climax delivers a classic, satisfying conclusion that’s fitting for such a classic premise.
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Consensus = broad unanimity; general or widespread agreement among all the members of a group
It probably should have occurred to me prior to seeing the new Stephen Frears film Tamara Drewe, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds that used to appear regularly in the Guardian, that a critical consensus had been reached around it for good reason. However being the ambitious, aspiring writer that I am I was determined to try and look at the film from an original angle and make a startling first impression upon all of you learned readers, dazzling you with my astute, perfectly phrased observations.
The fact is though that Tamara Drewe is an entertaining, funny film set amongst an odd-ball, insular, middle class group in colourfully shot rural Dorset. It is as well acted, skilfully adapted and playfully directed as other commentators have said. It successfully fuses together a mixture of witty dialogue and slapstick comedy moments, of rounded characters and flat cartoon caricatures, to produce a cocktail of laughs, gasps, snorts and intrigue. In my experience it is rare for a cinema to be filled with the sounds of infectious, genuine laughter for more than a handful of moments in a film, and Tamara Drewe certainly achieved this. Add in the elements of sex, youthful dreams and a tragically amusing, climatic finale and Tamara Drewe is certainly the light-hearted country romp the reviews proclaim it to be.
Perhaps though I am too quick to conform to the praise. Granted it took just seconds for the audience to erupt into laughter, prompted by the frenzied internal monologue of the northern lesbian crime writer contrasted with the preceding lustful chick-lit, but I must bear in mind the bias of my fellow cinema goers and indeed myself. You see I watched Tamara Drewe from within the confines of its rural setting. My friends and I flapped as we recognised locations; a local train station dressed up as “Hadditon” Junction, Larmer Tree gardens where a music festival took place that I myself attended earlier this summer. I and the other yokels around me may have been more susceptible to the heightened version of rural reality presented here, as it mischievously sketched familiar aspects of our everyday lives. We all knew a version of the village big shot, so arrogantly portrayed by the excellent Roger Allam, the devoted door mat wife played by the always brilliant Tamsin Grieg and knew the tedium felt by the young tearaways who end up meddling catastrophically in that closed middle class world of privilege and pleasure.
Indeed the funniest moments of the film are provided by the characters that are outsiders from the interlocking middle class, English world, namely the American Glen (or was it Greg? Roger Allam’s character never knew or cared) and the pair of adolescent girls pining over a rock star and longing for events or anything at all to simply “happen” in their village nestled in the “arsehole of nowhere”. I am not familiar with the original graphic novel but my friend assured me the script captured its essence and I was impressed with Moira Buffini’s mastery of each individual character’s idiolect. From the American academic Glen to the teenage pair gossiping in the dreary bus shelter, Buffini captures an individual voice that allows the actors to deliver believable, funny performances. Only Tamara’s long term love interest Andy Cobb, played by Luke Evans, fails to come to life as a character, fulfilling the typical role of muscular, loyal, hard done by simple soul only, with a questionable accent. Dominic Cooper’s rock n roll drummer may be crudely drawn at times, but he brings an addictive charisma to the role.
Buffini’s script not only successfully creates this vivid little world of bright characters but for the most part builds well to an at once dramatic, tragic and hilarious finale. At times the plot sags so that the laughs gave way to yawns, but these moments in which the pace slackens reflect the drudgery of life the film is depicting as well as cleverly lulling you, priming you for the next wave of gags and allowing the giggles to flow all the more easily. As someone who longs to write for a living I also appreciated the themes of truth and deception in both writing and life, and the perils of compromising for your dreams, for celebrity status. The American academic is quick to correct Hallam’s character; a writer of trashy airport fiction by his own admission, that writing is about truth and not lies. But Tamara Drewe shows us that the reality of life is deception and differing perceptions and that the best stories are bundles of these lies, frankly depicted as Tamara describes her own antics in an irresistible “brutally candid” style.
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Tagged academic, adolescent, Allam, ambition, amusing, Andy Cobb, Arterton, boredom, British, Buffini, candid, celeb, cinema, climatic, climax, Comedy, comic, Cooper, cows, Dominic, Dorset, dreary, Drewe, drudgery, eggs, eye candy, fame, farce, field, film, Flickering Myth, Frears, funny, Gemma, Glen, graphic novel, Greg, Grieg, Guardian, Hardy, lies, meddling, middle class, Moira, new, original, Posy Simmond, Roger, romp, rural, script, sex, stampede, Stephen, Tamara, Tamsin, theme, Thomas, tragedy, truth, witty, writer, youth