Monthly Archives: March 2017

  • Another Mother’s Son

    Christopher Menaul (2017)

    I went along knowing only the basic scenario and that Another Mother’s Son was based on a true story from World War II – of a Jersey widow and mother, who hides an escaped Russian prisoner-of-war from the occupying German forces.  I didn’t know the ending of the story but assumed it would be a happy one.   Christopher Menaul’s film turns out to be so thoroughly a type of British home-front war drama – a tribute to family ties and up-against-it community spirit, going to church and making tea – that watching it increases this preconceived sense of security.  The picture’s supposedly wrenching moments, of which there are plenty, are circumscribed and softened by confidence that all will finally be well.  The Nazi authorities sentence Louisa Gould to two years in prison for harbouring the Russian, and she’s required to serve her time in Germany.   It’s startling to see Louisa scrabbling for bread in a truckload of other prisoners but, when the truck doors close, the scene fades out and a ‘May 1945’ legend takes its place on the screen, I was primed for her heartwarming, tear-jerking return to Jersey, gaunt but heroically vindicated.  Instead, Christopher Menaul cuts to Ravensbrück concentration camp and a pile of discarded spectacles onto which is tossed a pair that we recognise as Louisa’s.  Another legend then informs us that she died in Ravensbrück in early 1945, a few weeks before the camp was liberated.  The effect of this final revelation is not only shocking but utterly disorienting.  The film I’d been watching wasn’t one that could end this way.

    The effect isn’t, however, chastening – not for long anyway – because Christopher Menaul and the screenwriter Jenny Lecoat (who is Louisa Gould’s great-niece) encourage viewers ignorant of the biographical facts to make complacent assumptions.  The film-makers do so not as a long-term disarming strategy but, it seems, from lack of imagination.  Louisa, who ran a grocery store in St Ouen on Jersey, sheltered Feodor Polycarpovitch Burriy, whom she names Bill, from 1942 until her arrest in 1944.  It’s only too easy to believe that both must have spent these two years continuously on tenterhooks; that Louisa’s kindness and bravery, and the friendship that developed between her and Bill, must always have been overshadowed by fear; that the happy, sociable moments – Louisa’s close family also know about her house guest – were more than counterbalanced by alarming ones.   The film’s pattern of rapidly alternating up-and-down incidents doesn’t capture this underlying precarious quality, though:  it’s drama by numbers.  You keep wanting to tell Mario Grigorov’s stating-the-obvious score it has no need to keep making points that you’ve already got.

    In spite of the familiarity of its tone and structure, Another Mother’s Son doesn’t seem, in some respects, like the work of a director as experienced as Christopher Menaul.   I guess this is a matter of editing but there are scenes where it’s unusually obvious that the actors have started performing on a shout of ‘Action!’  Bill, on the run before he’s taken in by Louisa, rushes panting up a hillside – Julian Kostov, the actor playing him, is evidently acting being out of breath.  The same thing happens, and more crucially, in Louisa’s final appearance, in the camp-bound truck, as Jenny Seagrove tears at the piece of bread that comes her way.  This moment expresses Seagrove’s overall approach to a role bigger and more emotionally extenuating than you expect to see this actress playing – she all too obviously grabs hold of it with both hands.  Although I’m not sure how how Jersey natives sound, the collection of accents in evidence is a bit weird.    While Jenny Seagrove is sometimes straining to be verging-on-Cockney ordinary, Ronan Keating, who plays Louisa’s brother Harold, disguises his Irish accent under a severely clipped RP English one (the pretext is presumably that Harold is more highly educated than his sister).  Perhaps Louisa’s brother-in-law Arthur was a Scot but that doesn’t quite explain why John Hannah’s own Scottish accent comes and goes throughout.

    Yet the story and these actors’ palpable respect for the people they’re playing make Another Mother’s Son engaging and touching.  Both Louisa Gould’s sons fought in World War II; as soon as Louisa learns that one of them has been killed in action, the viewer who knows what’s coming starts to wonder how the bereavement will affect the subsequent relationship between Louisa and another mother’s son.  In the event, Christopher Menaul and Jenny Seagrove do well to keep you aware of this element without pushing it too hard (except when Louisa says to Bill one evening that ‘in this light’ he looks like her dead son …)  Louisa’s other son survived the war and his mother; so too did Feodor Burri.  It’s clear from the closing photographs of the real-life people concerned that the actual Burri didn’t have Julian Kostov’s cover-boy looks but Kostov, who’s Bulgarian, also has warmth and humour, and is very likeable.  Amanda Abbington does some good work as Louisa’s sister, Ivy.   The cast also includes Nicholas Farrell, Susan Hampshire, Peter Wight and, as two old biddies who seem the most likely authors of the anonymous letters to the authorities that cause them to search Louisa’s home, Joanna David and Gwen Taylor.

    The German occupation of the Channel Islands has inspired stage and screen dramas before.  Examples include William Douglas-Home’s theatre play The Dame of Sark, adapted for television in 1976; the Guernsey-set series Enemy at the Door, which ran on ITV between 1978 and 1980; and, on the big screen, a 1951 movie called Appointment with Venus, whose fictional setting is based on Sark, and The Eagle Has Landed (1977), which includes an episode in Alderney.    If Wikipedia is to be believed, however, it seems that Another Mother’s Son is a cinema first in commemorating the heroism of  particular, extraordinary Jersey residents of the time.  In 2010, Louisa Gould was named a ‘British Hero of the Holocaust’; the film’s closing legends record that her brother Harold Le Druillenec, also imprisoned in Germany for his part in harbouring Feodor Burriy, was the sole British survivor to return from Bergen-Belsen.

    Although Another Mother’s Son is no great shakes, the condescending view expressed by some British critics that it’s no better than ‘television’ comes across as lazily out of date.  It may be especially vexing to Christopher Menaul, who’s directed three previous cinema features but whose CV includes much more television.  (His work includes the 2002 mini-series of The Forsyte Saga and, in 2006, Granada’s See No Evil: The Moors Murders, written by Neil McKay and whose strong cast included George Costigan, Joanne Froggatt, Matthew McNulty, Maxine Peake and Sean Harris, in a remarkable  and memorable interpretation of Ian Brady.)  At a time when we repeatedly hear that television is displacing cinema as the home of original, quality drama, what does it mean for Angie Errigo in The List to condemn Another Mother’s Son as ‘having the unmistakable air of a middling ITV3 drama’, and for the Independent‘s Geoffrey Macnab to disparage Menaul’s film as ‘more like a TV movie than anything cinematic’?    In 2017, what, on this side of the Atlantic at least, is a ‘TV movie’?  These critics need to get out less.

    25 March 2017

  • Personal Shopper

    Olivier Assayas (2016)

    Maureen is an old-fashioned-sounding name for a twenty-something American of today.  The protagonist of Olivier Assayas’s new film is out of fashion too in searching for a sign from her recently deceased twin brother Lewis that he’s still around.  Maureen’s line of work, on the other hand, is very much de nos jours:  she’s a personal shopper for a Paris-based celebrity.  That she spends her days on earth shopping – shopping for someone else at that – was, for me, a sufficient explanation of Maureen’s powerful need to believe in life after death, even if her job is the definition of soul-destroying.  To be fair to her, she’s working for rich bitch Kyra only in order to pay the rent, and in Paris only because Lewis resided there at the time of his death.  The grieving Maureen thinks that hanging out in the house where her brother died provides the best chance of a post-mortem visitation from him.

    When she talks about the hereafter, Assayas’s heroine tends to be mumblingly equivocal.  Asked if she believes in an afterlife, she replies, ‘You could call it that, or a million other things …’  But words also fail her in the sense that supernatural vocabulary is limited and, for obvious reasons, hasn’t moved with the times – so that Maureen still resorts to wittering about ‘presences’ and so forth.  Still, her lukewarm tone functions as a kind of sop to the overwhelmingly sceptical art-house audiences that will buy tickets  to see this film – so too does the fact that Maureen the medium is played by the bang-up-to-date Kristen Stewart:  anyone less Madame Arcati-like would be hard to imagine.  These concessions to modern tastes are one of the factors that make Personal Shopper such a listless movie.  The cinematic vocabulary of supernaturalism, as rendered by Olivier Assayas, doesn’t seem to have evolved in recent years any more than the verbal one:  the film features ectoplasmic apparitions, inexplicably shattering glass, swinging doors (you start wondering how many ‘signs’ Maureen requires in order to be convinced that Lewis is making contact).  These paraphernalia are distinctive here only because they feel drained of the spooky gusto they would once have had in a screen ghost story.

    At one point, Lewis’s widow Lara (Sigrid Bouaziz), who also believes in a spirit realm, tells Maureen about ‘Victor Hugo à Jersey’, a ‘tacky’ TV movie from the 1960s about the séances the writer conducted during his time on the Channel Islands.  Assayas creates a scene from ‘Victor Hugo à Jersey’ for Maureen to watch on YouTube:  it says a lot that this invented film-within-the-film is much more dynamic than most of the other scenes in Personal Shopper.  Assayas’s smooth dispassion, perhaps inadvertently, reinforces the viewer’s assumption that what Maureen is experiencing isn’t actually happening but is all-in-her-mind:  though since she’s neither fascinating nor sympathetic it’s hard to care one way or the other.  Although her style of acting gives the character a bit of surface realness, I found Kristen Stewart less interesting to watch in this lead role than in her recent supporting parts in Still Alice, Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria and Certain Women.  Just a few days after seeing Personal Shopper, I can barely remember anyone else in the sizeable cast, except for Sigrid Bouaziz.

    The set-up – a person paid to be a material girl trying to communicate with the immaterial world – sounds amusing but the collision of the two eventually amounts to very little.   The same goes for Maureen’s and Lewis’s twinship, and for her having the same congenital heart condition that killed him.  The rebarbative Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten) vetoes Maureen’s trying on the swanky purchases she makes, a rule that proves, not unexpectedly, hard to enforce.  As her retail dogsbody succumbs to the forbidden fruit lure of Kyra’s wardrobe, the film drifts towards a different cliché-ridden territory – the servant-mistress identity swap – but this is only for the temporary want of anything else to do.  There’s a relatively striking sequence in which automatic sliding doors open and close without any visible presence causing them to do so, though it’s a poor incorporeal entity that can’t pass through closed doors anyway.  Not unusually for a film-maker looking to give a ‘contemporary twist’ to a time-honoured movie genre, Assayas makes big use of mobile phones.  Maureen receives endless anonymous text messages – their appearance on screen is as dramatically compelling as … well, looking at phone texts.  The ‘mystery’ of who’s sending these messages – Lewis, A N Other, Maureen to herself – isn’t solved:  the effect isn’t tantalising because lack of resolution is so obviously essential to the whole enterprise of Personal Shopper.  It’s just part of the design.

    23 March 2017

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