Far From The Madding Crowd (2015)

In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong farm owner Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sheep farmer; Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a prosperous and mature bachelor.

Cast:
Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene
Matthias Schoenaerts as Gabriel Oak
Michael Sheen as William Boldwood
Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Frank Troy
Juno Temple as Fanny Robin
Rowan Hedley as Maryann Money
Chris Gallarus as Billy Smallbury
Connor Webb as Merchant
Penny-Jane Swift as Mrs. Coggan
Rosie Masson as Soberness Miller
Alex Channon as Temperance Miller
Shaun Ward as Farmer
Roderick Swift as Everdene farmer
Don J Whistance as Constable
Jamie Lee-Hill as Laban Tall

The editing is done at a break neck pace, before you have a chance to absorb one scene you are sharply cut to the next as if you were watching a heavily edited version of a longer film or the ‘____:the movie’ edited version of a television series. There are some scenes towards the end, without giving anything away to a story first published in 1874, I felt were given absolutely no time to breathe and were being rushed in order to bring a close to the film. For example where a character is put in a gaol cell which is very artistically done but it is only put in context during the following scene through expository dialogue. This seemed very lazy as the film prior to this was able to follow Chekov’s maxim that you show ‘show, don’t tell’ when developing a narrative even at its hectic pace. At the very least the last act seems all too quick in tying up all the loose ends to the detriment of the pacing otherwise.

The cinematography of the landscape is exceptional but for the most part you will think of this as a film having been made to the standard of the BBC Drama department in its recent productions. There is not one scene that is not beautifully framed and it reminded me of Joe Wright’s 2005 film adaption of Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightley very often as there is a very similar soft focus and predominantly sepia yet vividly coloured palette throughout with the lighting ensuring night time scenes are sufficiently dark without being incomprehensible. However it should be noted as soon as you are aware BBC Films were involved in the production you will inevitably be comparing it to recent television series such as Sherlock, Poldark, etc. It is of the same high production quality level with a slightly more cinematic style in places but you shouldn’t expect anything extraordinarily different from the standard set by the BBC’s various recent television series.

The costumes are colourful and very good though I would question their historical accuracy as Bathsheba has a leather riding jacket – it may very well be historically accurate but just not something you associate with the period. You probably will not note this when watching it though.

The casting is excellent with special note to Matthias Schoenaerts whose performance as Oaks is intense yet unthreatening in contrast to Tom Sturridge’s more light footed and flighty portrayal of Troy. Anyone familiar with Terence Stamp’s portrayal of Troy in the 1967 adaption will probably feel Sturridge’s portrayal doesn’t hold up but I feel the film maker is making him appeal to contemporary audiences and of course what is appealing differs between generations but I feel both versions are in keeping with the character although apparently the 1967 ‘sword dance’ scene is more erotically charged and in keeping with the novel (the scene is a seduction of Troy symbolically deflowering Bathsheba by thrusting his phallic sword towards her and cutting her hair at its climax) while the modern adaption is more akin to a schoolboy showing off which ironically is another way the scene could be interpreted so it is just a matter of style choice between the adaptions. Michael Sheen is also good but I find he is better when he has more eccentric characters to portray and a reserved role like this, while performed to a high standard, doesn’t make the best use of his skills. Not at all a weak performance but I feel the other men had more to work with in their scenes. Cary Mulligan is serviceable in the role but I never really supported her as she came across overly stiff and stale. The transition from her living with the aunt, getting the farm and later on doesn’t suggest a transition of time or development in the character yet in the dialogue we are told it has definitely passed and she has a different outlook on life. Due to the down turning of her mouth the beauty mark / mole really irritated me as I kept thinking that it looked like some left over crumb of food – not a fair criticism but nonetheless it did. Far from a bad performance but it felt like a young actress being made to portray an older role as her voice is notably deeper than in her other roles and her mannerisms were very stiffly acted rather than natural which didn’t feel in keeping with this character who is not of the societal set but very salt of the earth putting on the airs of society when it is necessary.

The central characters in brief are:

Bathsheba – the stoic proto-feminist heroine. We see this character archetype time and time again in any number of similar novels with a similar narrative framework i.e. A woman who is challenging the gender assigned roles of society yet still finding herself needing to conform to them through an appropriate marriage.

This character heavily reminded me of being in the same mould as Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett. Both have suitors who initially approach them for marriage and who they turn away as they feel they have no need for them but later warm to and marry. In this film the suitors seem to ask her to marry them within the first 10 minutes of meeting her!

“Hello Bathesheba… oh my… you are… the most beautiful, intelligent, self-sufficient woman i have ever met… will you marry me?”

If this was not based on a Thomas Hardy novel but written today it would be no more respected than Twilight and its ilk due to the ‘Mary Sue’ nature of the central character. The later stories have inherited wholesale the exact narrative structure unchanged since it developed centuries ago! Back then it was a struggle for women to be viewed as people in their own right, not the property of the men they marry, but the copied narrative rings falsely today in a contemporary Western society where many of the key conflicts have been addressed, if not made redundant, by societal change via the Suffragette movement’s achievements and Feminism.

Just as the classic monomyth universally depicts a hero going on an adventure, in a decisive crisis wins a victory and then comes home changed or transformed so this narrative adapts it to a woman’s version within the traditional social structure as she comes from simple, but respectable, origins to a position of respectability and society wherein she now has the option of marrying her choice of potential suitors amongst whom we usually find the trifecta of the following:

  • The morally, but not socially, prefered choice (Oak/ Mr Darcy),
  • The traditional ‘provded for by an older man’ option, in a respectable but unappealing choice (Boldwood/Mr Collins)
  • The dashing, sexually attractive, worldly soldier who is dangerous (Troy/ George Wickham)

Gabriel Oak: A former small farm owner who suffers tragedy when he loses his flock of sheep and ends up working for Bathsheba as her shephard. During his service he offers his opinion on her life and althoguh there is colnflict between them he always puts the farm and others ahead of his own desires.

He offered marriage when he was a farm owner and she was with her aunt on a small neighbouring farm. Later on, i.e. he majority of the film, he works as her shepherd and proves himself a good, unselfish man, who gives her his opinion but never forces her hand. A man who is physically and morally strong. Seems to ha ve been simplified from the book. I kept thinking how he no doubt influenced the character of Mellors in Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

William Boldwood: When Bathsheba inherits her uncles farm he owns the neighbouring one which is far larger and so he is more a landowner who never dirties his hands compared to Oak.

After Bathsheba’s lady persuades her to send him a valentines which has no true intent behind it he offers marriage. She tells him wait. He waits. He later asks again (due to the pacing of the film it doesn’t seem a long time but I am assuming some months or years have passed) and she rebukes him again. A tragic figure ultimately though it would ruin the closing of the story if I told you it. The way Bathsheba treats him does make her morally repugnant and it is never really addressed but instead he is made to seem the ‘bad’ one as he follows societal norms and assumes she would want to marry someone of a similar social standing. There is a scene where Bathsheba and Oak look through his rooms and see he purchased items on the assumption she would agree to his proposial finally as if to suggest he was ‘stakerish’ in nature though it would make sense in the societal norm and in another story being showered which such gifts would be a ‘heartwarming’ scene not a tragic note as it is presented as here.

Sergeant Frank Troy: Young sexy, worldy, experienced soldier who ultimately teaches the female protagonist the ways of the world taking her innocence, yes in both moral and physical ways, but his association with her is restrictive and so he betrays her or uses her in order to fund his worldly ways such as gambling or drinking heavily.

As seen in Pride and Prejudice’s George Wickham and Anna Karenina’s Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky (a cavalry officer). She marries him but he still idolises a former lover named Fanny Robin, who through sheer poor luck, did not arrive at the church in time to marry him, so he assumed he had been jilted and thus sought his next lover and was married within 9 months with tragic consequences. The ‘Danish handshake’ was a bit more than earlier adaptions would have had but it seemed fitting due to the scene and character involved.

Review Summary: It is a very cinematic film so definitely go see it there if you can. Although it has a long run time it will pass quickly. I found the shifts from scene to scene far to blunt and so it felt like a collection of scenes rather than a flowing narrative. Go watch the 1967 version for a good film, watch this for a modern adaption but ultimately the book is the best place for the story. Good adaption but far to sharply edited to the point you don’t have time to appreciate scenes or absorb what is gone on before the next event is underway. The music is also very fitting and enjoyable.

TL;DR: Beautiful scenes decorated with something for the ladies in the forms of Matthias Schoenaerts PHWOAR, Tom Sturridge PHWOAR and Michael Sheen PHW- um, well I guess he appeals to ladies of particular tastes…

Child 44 (2015)

During Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union in the early 1950s, disgraced Ministry of State Security (MGB) Agent Leo Demidov (Tom Hardy) uncovers a strange and brutal series of child murders by a serial killer who everyone claims does not exist because it is Soviet doctrine that capitalism creates serial killers, not communism.

I saw this film because Soviet Russia is not a topic often represented sympathetically in Western made films. They are the default ‘enemy’ in many spy films e.g. James Bond’s S.P.E.C.T.R.E. /SMERSH, movies and books respectively (though the latter did exist in real life briefly), where they are just cannon fodder decrying the evils of Capitalism while their leaders inevitably are corrupt hypocrites accruing as much wealth as they can. If the villain isn’t a Nazi during the early to mid twentieth century it can be assured Russian Communists are somewhere nearby listening through planted bugs. I hoped we would see individuals, flawed but rounded, dealing with events with a range of emotional responses befitting the situation but what we got was the usual ‘Russians feel only anger or nothing’ stereotypes but this time set within the frame work of a very weakly implimented murder mystery which seems to be forgotten about most of the time so it can be reitterated, for the hundredth time, how bad Communism was as if it wasn’t obvious already.

Cast: A selection of good actors with a poorly implemented adaption of the novel’s labyrinthine narrative to portray. Tom Hardy, as Leo Demidov, is very good in the leading role and proves he is a versatile actor but the script doesn’t give him much emotional range beyond anger and remorseful resignation to his situation. Gary Oldman, as General Nesterov, is serviceable but his role is limited during the film with his character going for a vindictive superior to being a steadfast ally with no real middle ground to explain his shift in behaviour. Noomi Rapace, as Raisa Demidov, was miscast. She has a face that I couldn’t get used to throughout the film. Maybe it’s that her eyes and nose looked very small for her face yet I have seen her in other films and had no issue with her appearance but there was something off about her here… if I am honest I have watched quite a few actual Russian films and so I must admit that her face is not at all appropriate and, if I am honest, her character felt very much dependant as being a foil to protray Leo either positively or negatively whenever the story required it thus leading her to come across as very opportunistic. However she was not as badly miscast as Fares Fares as Alexi Andreyey who just seems terribly out of placein his acting ability although it may have been due to his character being quite two dimensional as Leo’s friend, who inevitably is going to die at some point to increase the drama stakes of the narrative, so there was little to work with. They both give good performances with what they have to work with but do not fit the setting although you might argue no one here does.

I should note that there don’t seem to be any Russian actors involved. There is one Polish actress, Agnieszka Grochowska as Nina Adreeva, in a minor role but, aside from Josef Altin playing Alexander, who is of Turkish descent, everyone is a mix of Western European ethnicities especially it seems Swedish which is the ‘go to’ nationality for people playing Russians in Western films e.g. Rocky IV as they most often fit the propagandist image of the New Soviet man Stalin endorsed and Western propaganda, up until the fall of the Soviet Union, used often in films i.e. blonde haired, blue eyed and usually tall and physically imposing though that is not as much the case here. All the supporting actors, especially Joel Kinnaman as ‘evil team mate’ and antagonist Vasili Nikitin, do well in their roles but the main cast seem to be pressured into using the Russian accent which I felt hampered their performances as they had to juggle maintaining it and thus were unable to focus on giving the best performance possible.

Technical aspects: The film is really bogged down by certain style choices such as having everyone (apart from one actor with a single line of dialogue towards the end which is very jarring once you are used to the accent and hear his crystal clear elocution) speaking in very pronounced Russian accents. In contrast we have only Ron Perlman, as a comic relief caricature of Hollywood’s usual depiction of Russian soldiers, doing a hockey ‘Rooshian Akksent’ in 2001’s ‘Enemy At The Gate’ so all the dialogue is otherwise perfectly audible without having to over focus on it.

The colour palate of the film is of course very much geared towards earthy tones with some harsh contrasts in key scenes. The red of the uniform epaulletes, rich browns and greens of Leo’s Moscow apartment, the steely blues of the industrial areas and luscious greens and browns of the forest scenery. Ultimately the film could have been better served by being desaturated as the eye acknowledges the colour scale used and it is not aesthetically pleasing. There is an overt focus on showing the grimness of Soviet life but in doing so they forget to make the scenery interesting to maintain the audience’s attention believing the dry, expositional, dialogue alone will do this for them.

The cinematography is very standard which in a film like this, with so much dialogue and half-hearted efforts towards world building, really fails to maintain the audience’s interest. It is one of the only films where I have been uncomfortably shifting in my seat and looking at my watch within 40 minutes of the start. If they had panning shots of the scenery during conversations or mixed up close and long shots during events it would not be such a tired, dragging, experience. Perhaps this was intentional to further indicate to the audience how life was in the Soviet Union however this could easily have been done through showing the run down scenery, having the actors move with no great sense of urgency when moving – ultimately there are any number of techniques which could have been used to express this rather than sopping all movement of screen dead and have talking heads. Imagine if you went to the theatre and the actors just walked to the front of stage and recited their lines then returned to the side when it was the next persons turn to speak or you read a comic where all the artists depicted was talking heads. This is a technique that you are constantly made aware is exceptionally lazy when learning about these narrative styles yet this film relies on this flawed technique far too much when the dialogue itself is plodding and dull. Contrast the imagery of this film with A Driver For Vera, Водитель для Веры, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Driver_for_Vera ) set in 1962 and the contrast in the looks of the scenery are immense. One has an agenda for making every single moment of existence a grim, claustrophobically harrowing experience, while the other has an appreciation of the scenery and landscape.

It is worth watching and there are plenty of channels with the full film on them with English subtitles should you go look.

Life in the Soviet Union was brutal, the authorities were corrupt, people in authority abused their position while average citizens lived in fear of being persecuted based on unfounded allegations!

This is the overriding and heavy-handedly delivered message of the film. It is the same message you get in any films set in the Soviet Era when done by non-Russians (though for them it was a given and no doubt the older generations have reiterated their own first hand experiences of the Soviet era to them at every family gathering so it is a given). I would assume it was a given to anyone nowadays but there you go…

Who is this film for? The murder mystery is not the real focus but Leo’s conflict with the corrupt authority figures he encounters and the social ambivalence and apathy he encounters. The depiction of the Stalinist era is generic and has been seen time and time again in other films giving no new insight into people’s daily concerns. Everyone is a character archetype not a fully rounded individual. It seems like the multi-facetted novel has been unflatteringly adapted when the multiple threads would be better suited to a mini-series perhaps or even if they stripped the narrative bear ad only focused on one or two threads and omitted others?

So now onto a few points I noted during my viewing of the film in the cinema i.e. the ranting bit of the review:

Yevgeny Khaldei’s ‘Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag: After a close quarters gun battle Leo Demidov and his friend, Alexei, were the ones to put the flag over the Reichstag building. Alexei had a large number of watches he had taken off the dead and the photographer (is it meant to be Khaldei?) told him to take them off so the photo can be better used for propaganda purposes thus referring to the historical issues people had with the real photo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_a_flag_over_the_Reichstag ). I don’t know if this is actually meant to suggest it is the real life event or a sort of pseudo-real equivalent of the event. It was like someone making a film set during the Nixon administration of the USA and you got a sequence where the main character was one of the body guards present at JFK’s assassination. It felt a lazy attempt to make the audience feel the character is historically significant though an artificial construct.

The issue of Russia’s views on homosexuality are addressed: At one point, after Leo has left Moscow as he would not denounce his wife; there is a station master who was witness to a murder. It is revealed he is a homosexual and he is then persecuted. He is interrogated by Gary Oldman’s character, General Nesterov, and the names of other homosexuals are taken from him as they are, by default of being homosexuals, considered to be suspects in the murder of the children. These men are then rounded up and the last scene we see of the station master is him walking up to the unbarred train track and throwing himself under the train. Very Anna Karenina… It was a common issue worldwide during this period to assume homosexuals were also by default paedophiles in the tradition of Ancient Greek ‘boy love’. It is one of the more shameful prejudices that doesn’t get mentioned much nowadays, in more enlightened times, so at least the novel, and by extension the film, notes it and shows how arbitrary the assumption is when made and its tragic consequences. Let us not forget that this was well within the living memory of the generation that refused to acknowledge Alan Turing’s achievements due to his homosexuality for which he was convicted of indecency in January 1952. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing ). The film unfortunately seems to imply this was an exclusively Russian perception of homosexuality and not a generational one globally.

Russians are misogynistic: The film begins with a dinner party where Leo recounts how he met his wife and she had given him a false name. Once there are exiled from Moscow into a run down, backwaters, industrial town she reveals that not only did she lie about being pregnant, in order to save her own life thus damning them both, but also married him out of fear as he was part of the authorities and would have done something to her had she refused. After this they suddenly become far closer which to me was jarring and especially at the end when they decide to adopt the orphaned farmer’s daughters. There felt no development in their relationship but sudden leaps from one step to the next in order to progress the narrative. The film criticises how she feared him as a man and yet she ultimately becomes just a tool in his investigations by then end so the film seems to want its cake and eat it too. Whenever women appear in this film they are very maginalised, not due to the film’s subject, but the film makers maintaining the status quo for big budget American thrillers where men deal with serious issues while women are window dressing unless they are a vicitm. If you see how they do the ‘I married you out of fear’ scene you will understand how it could have been done far better and lost what was going to be quite a powerful scene where Leo would have to confront his own position in society as one of the MGB who citizens intrinsically feared. Instead we got a scene that made me feel like she was an ungrateful, self centred, coward who damned both of them which was definitely not the intention when originally written.

Communism was corrupt: There is a heavy reiteration that the bureaucracy of Soviet Russia was corrupt and there were repeated efforts to get people to obey government views unquestionly. Early on, after a list of names is given by a, presumably innocent but nonetheless chased and interrogated, man Leo is expected to get a confession from his wife admitting she is a spy for the British government. He refuses to denounce her as there is no evidence and so is sent away from Moscow and demoted to the local militia. His wife tells him on the train it was nothing but an experiment in blind obedience. I think I could sum it up as the wife was very unlikeable and was meant to be the voice of reason but instead seemed to endorse every negative misogynistic stereotype the film seemed to want to challenge but instead seemed to take pleasure in depicting.

Killers are all the same one dimensional creatures: We really learn nothing about him throughout the film until the final monologue he does and even then it really comes across not as the justifications, understandable or not, for his actions but a massive amount of very sudden exposition poorly used to draw a parallel that Demidov could have become like him. Except the killer is a cannibal who was in a Nazi concentration camp and it is suggested it wasn’t that experience which made him become, out of a necessity for personal survival, a cannibal recently but he was one as far back as his childhood in the orphange though I personally took that line of dialogue metaphorically as a rephrasing of ‘its a dog eat dog world’ not literally as some other viewers apparently have. It felt very cliche to the point I can’t hel but feel if this was a better film this would be one of the major moments that would be parodied it seems so arbitrary and ridiculously melodramatic without any real set up e.g. maybe in the background seeing a boy who is very noticeable in the films introduction of Leo, when he was a child escaping the orphange, who it then remmebered in retrospect and is suspiciously similar to the man we later encounter in the film. When the killer is revealed properly he has a distinct limp though before we see his face he walks relatively normal – you can watch the trailer and see there is no overly pronounced limp present. He doesn’t have a limp early on when we see him luring children away from a distance so we must ask: was he meant to have a limp throughout? Was there perhaps a scene in the book but omitted from the film explaining it? This ‘physical fault equals moral fault’ is a very old narrative device which has been used for centurys, perhaps most famously with the fictionalised version of the titular Richard III in William Shakespeare’s play, and it appears here without much context except to visually indicate to the audience immediately who the killer is and to give an easy to see fault with him. Except this is already done as he is dressed distinctly from the rest of the cast in a clean black suit when everyone else is in uniform or mottled earthy tones. therefore, for me, this film more or less ignores the cardinal rule ‘show don’t tell’ by reiterating his impropriety with a few scenes of him acting psychotically while alone which have no real context except to show how he drowns the boys and seems to consider it a sort of slef flagulation when done to himself. ‘he is fucked up’ the film makers seem to want us to think but it left me wondering if he wasn’t some parody of serial killers in better films. There is one scene where he brings a boy back to his home from the train station to his wife and we are shown a panning shot stopping on the framed photo of a boy. Was the boy at the train station his son or just a ‘replacement goldfish’? We only see his wife in this one sequence and she is never involved in the narrative again. The film has an annoying habit of introducing things then abandoning them as if to offer red herrings and keep you the audience guessing. Yes the overriding story here is a murder mystery but that doesn’t mean that the narrative itself needs to be a mystery to us! It doesn’t present itself as that kind of film and shouldn’t have delusions of grandeur about what it is capable of. If you introduce something which is not directly involved in the case, but as part of the world building, then it shouldn’t be presented to the audience this way then dismissed immediately. It was if there were ‘easter eggs’ as seen in other films but, and it is important to note this, these are franchised which have ht a certain level of social osmosis so someone not intimately familiar will still notice a reference e.g. many thing in the Marvel films calling back to the comics though not everyone will get every reference – it helps world build but is never suggested as something you need to know to enjoy the film you are currently watching.

Repeat the tag line because the audience are stupid: ‘There is no murder in paradise’ is a phrase repeated a few times during the film. It got tedious as we are all too aware of the oppositon Demidov is facing in persuing his investigation.

The unrealistic happy ending: I felt the ending was a bit too ‘Hollywood Happy’. There is a rather brutal fight during which the protagonists are later shown to have survived serious stab wounds and serious concussions from having their heads hit against rocks repeatedly. During an early part of the film Leo and his team mates are involved in chasing an escaped suspect to a farm house. At the farm house are a farmer, his wife and their two daughters. In Leo’s absence ‘Evil team mate’, who they earlier mocked as he was incapable of firing his rifle when fighting inside the German embassy, kills the farmer and his wife execution style as they are bound and kneeling in front of him begging for their lives protesting their innocence. Leo rushes over and hits him telling everyone to stop this before the ‘evil team mate’ is about to execute the girls. My problem with this scene is that Leo’s friend and a number of other soldiers are stood around and allow the executions but they are never considered part of the moral issue of the killings here.

So how does this mean the ending is poor? The girls recognise Leo as having been involved in the killing of their parents and yet at the end of the film they choose to be adopted by him. Even if he was not directly involved it is highly unlikely they would choose to go with someone associated with their parent’s killing. Even though the film at the start and end depicts the orphanages as brutal places I still find it unlikely the girls would go with him.

Orphans: Another aspect of the film is the theme of orphans. Leo is introduced as a child in an orphanage which he runs away from before being adopted, and renamed, by a man. The killer, in a poorly implemented monologue, tells Leo he too was an orphan and so ‘they are not so different’… I will be honest you learn more or less everything about the killer during this monologue as the previous scenes of him are him pretending to be affable to draw the boys away to murder them, practising the killing technique he uses or doing ‘movie psychopath’ things we have seen a hundred times before in better films (e.g. Se7en, Silence of the Lambs, et al). So is Leo adopting the girls an act of redemption? Him making amends for the killing of their parents by his ‘evil team mate’ Vasili? Is it suggesting that the next generation will have a better life and by doing this and establishing the Homicide Department of the Russian Authorities, which involves him being compliant and agreeing murder is a bourgeois issue that doesn’t exist in Russia expect due to the evil effects of outside forces (the killer was in Germany for a time and was corrupted by them). So in the end Demidov has won a ‘battle’ to find a single killer but lost his moral ‘war’ in achieving it but the film seems to not want to end on this low note.

Use of actual Russian and the adopting of Russian Accents by the cast: During the opening credits there is a shifting from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. I think the Cyrillic is actually in Russian but it moved quicker than I could read it. The thing I found a bit odd was how everyone does Russian accents. While it assists emersion for some audience members I found it quickly became tedious as the quality of the accents was very inconsistent. In comparison ‘Enemy at the Gates’, set in Leningrad during World War 2, where there is no attempt to do this, except Ron Perlman who seems to be in a comedy relief role, and to be honest I would prefer that as it comes across a little awkward with the cast doing it throughout. One actor, who appears only during a very brief scene, doesn’t do the accent and it really takes you out of the film and feels intentionally done. Russian is however spoken in the background throughout the film but obviously not of the time you will not be able to hear it clearly and it is usually generic things such as someone t the train station shouting ‘all clear’ to the train driver.

Anton Chekov once said that you should ‘show not tell’ your narrative. This film ignores that advice and delights in exposition heavy dialogue and reiterating its message that life was brutal during the Stalinist regime. Therefore when you want this film it is more a process in checking off the checklist of Soviet Union tropes, occasionally entertaining the concept of Leo dealing with his seemingly unloving wife and the murder investigation when he can get around to it, rather than a taut thriller. I would have preferred a hatch job adaption where they expanded the murder investigation, especially with the things they kept hinting about without context about the killer and cut out all the other tertiary plots than this half-hearted effort to cover everything with none of it feeling to hold any weight.

Apparently this film was banned in Russia. It was banned as they are about to celebrate the 70th anniversary over the Nazis and so having such a film decrying the failings of the Stalinist era would seem in ill taste at the moment. Perhaps if they delayed it a few years, as many other films tend to be between filming and distribution, it would find a more favourable view but at the moment to release it and criticise the Government for taking into consideration civilian’s sense of national pride during this anniversary seems to be distorted in Western reports of the ban. To be honest they haven’t missed anything due to the ban and more than likely anyone who wants to see it will do so despite the ban. That is the history of banned cinema with examples like Nosferatu, A Clockwork Orange, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, The Party and the People , etc so it definitely isn’t going to change now in the age of digital distribution. This ban is hardly similar to that of the Czech film The Party and The People which was made during the Soviet era and openly challenged it. This is a 2014 adaption of a novel written by a Western author criticising Stalinism. It was just poor timing and if there was a film released criticising Churchill or Thatcher on a significant anniversary I am certain it would receive criticism and be poorly received though admittedly not banned by the government though such acts are not beyond them.

Further reading:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/16/russia-child-44-film-ban-victory-nazi-germany

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/child-44-ban-rolls-soviet-789531

On an aside regarding the act of banning in Britain: I do remember the British government outright banning the Playstation 2 game ‘Rule of Rose’ because of it contained ‘lesbian overtones amongst underage school girls and sequences of intense, brutal, torture’. The lesbian overtones were mostly the innocent infatuation of children with an individual having a one sided obsession towards the protagonist and the torture sequences are always implied to be the embellished, warped, memories of the protagonist having suffered trauma at an unknown point. The overriding indication the player discovers during the game is that the protagonist was remembering her traumatic experiences at the orphanage and what was implied and imagined in childhood is made literal as we are playing through the mindscape of the character remembering her past not a physically real, in context, world where the events of the game are happening as we see them. The game begins after her parents die in an air ship fire after which she is sent to the orphanage. While there a girl, leader of a secret club of girls there who makes them do degrading things and offer her things in order to be members of this special club, becomes obsessed with the protagonist. We learn the stories of each of the girls throughout the game and it is slowly revealed or suggested than some bad things were happening at the orphanage like the head of the school was sexually abusing one girl. A key figure encountered during the game is the grounds keeper who is severely traumatised over the loss of his son. During the game the player is accompanied by a dog who helps you deal with the monsters that attack you but it is revealed towards the end of the game you are playing through the protagonists memories which have, if not become warped due to trauma, are being depicted very literally. The dog at the end of the game is revealed to have just been a soft toy she had been very attached to during her childhood at the orphanage. The tragic ‘final boss’ turns out to be the traumatised, mentally ill, grounds keeper who has dressed up as a dog to please his son having been manipulated by the obsessive girl pretending to be this son. Events take a turn for the tragic as he has already killed all the other girls you have grown to know at the orphanage throughout the game. Upon defeating him the player is given two choices: shoot him or let him commit suicide. There is a short sequence after this where we play the protagonist not as the adult we have known throughout the game but as her age during the real events as she wanders the empty orphanage and comes to terms with what happened. The game ends with her cathartically leaving the orphanage grounds at peace with her past. Why this long explanation of its plot? Because the government had a knee jerk reaction and just took others word for it that it was a game with no redeeming features rather than a darkly psychological game where we literally play through the protagonist’s memories which have become warded over the passage of time where the rumours of childhood and the later emotional maturity make her perception of events warp what we the player see literally portrayed on screen. No as far as the government are concerned it was a game about underage lesbian school girls and torture. Governments either enforce their views or try to stop controversy by ‘protecting’ people even if it is means it has to be based on reactionary, ill informed, information they are provided with instead of a full honest account. Regarding Child 44 I think the Russian Cultural Ministry were doing the latter despite what the media would like to think of them trying to force a state agenda.

If Soviet Russia interests you and you want to see Child 44 wait until you can get it cheap on DVD or can watch it on television while doing something else to ease the dragging nature of the slower scenes. Story telling is about light and dark yet this just keeps drilling down hard on the serious side of the scale and ends up alienating the audience through its insistence on trying to make everything seem so unremittingly dark. If you want Stalinist era films recommended go watch the following:

TL;DR: Child 44 had great potential with such a skilled cast but dropped the ball badly andwas a real bore with its narrative and messages.


I’m sure everyone missed these long winded posts… It is done now. For those of you who read it all here is a small reward: Elena Vaenga and company singing the World War 2 era (or ‘The Patriotic War’ as Russians know it) songs ‘Holy War’ and ‘Katyusha’ 🙂

Like, Comment, Follow – All are welcome.

Short Movie Reviews: February 2015

Evil Dead (2013)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evil_Dead_%282013_film%29

An interesting, but ultimately flawed, attempt to recreate something without understanding what made the originals classics of the horror genre. Directed by Fede Alvarez. It is a modern horror remake of a classic of the genre so it was always going to be difficult for it to stand on its own without severe scrutiny. Guess my reaction. As with all these remakes the original caught the zeitgeist of some aspect of society’s fears. Rosemary’s Baby did it when fears about Satanism were prevalent due to media scares (even the nice old couple next door could be part of a cult), Halloween did it when fear of serial killers in middle America’s suburban ‘white picket fence’ communities was commonplace due to more media scares (if someone goes on a killing spree you won’t be able to stop them) and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ raised fear of how powerless adults were to prevent paedophile access to their children after even more media scares (the murders being in the children’s dreams and caused by a hidden shame). Ultimately this makes me thing the next successful horror series will be about Russian radical Islamist (Chechen?) immigrant terrorists if the media scare trend is anything to go by…

The original Evil Dead was grittier, darker and more bleak than many of its contemporaries (except of course Texas Chainsaw Massacre) but the series is of course best known for Evil Dead 2 (basically the same story but with black humour) and Army of Darkness (basically a comedy adventure with horror elements). The message troughout the series overall was to revel in the absurdity of the situation which had a decidedly H P Lovecraft perspective in how there is little, if anything, you can do to fight it – except of course Ash, an everyman action hero, is placed into the scenario and thus disrupts the usual fatalist tone such stories undergo by their end.

The remake removes this figure we vie for and identify with yet retains, if not embellishes, the ‘tree rape’ scene Sam Raimi has always said he regrets. If anything the sequel is perhaps more influenced by Lovecraft’s tone of fatalism but in having over the top gore it also undermines itself. The trailers, especially the red band ones, gave away everything, and I mean everything, interesting about the film and so it was more a ‘tick the boxes’ process than something to enjoy. The only thing I can say is that applying gender studies to the film we find instead of Ash’s phallic chainsaw finale we get the gynocidal fountains of blood as Mia wrenchs her own arm off unrealistically as she was pinned under the upturned vehicle and she cleaves the demon in twain. I am not sure if the demon was meant to look like her or the girl from the introduction sequence. I swear during the introduction sequence burning the old woman is speaking Welsh. The final scene is just red on red and its hard to distinguish anything really. It’s as if the saw Kubrick’s adaption of The Shining and thoguht the elevator scene needed to be used in other scenarios.

Where the original series was in the tone of the grand guignol, leaving the audience entertained and satisfied, the remake is merely plodding scenes, impressive in their imagery but fatally flawed in their setup, where we just wait to see who survives if anyone and feel a loss of nostalgia when the stinger closes at the end of the credits with Ash speaking the phrase ‘Groovy’. Well made but not something you will bother seeing again.

The Woman In Black (2012)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Woman_in_Black_%282012_film%29

A Classic ghost story masterfully told. It is directed by James Watkins, the screenplay is by Jane Goldman and is based on Susan Hill’s novel of the same name. It is made by Hammer and is a fantastic addition to their back catalogue. A classic ghost story which relies more on its atmosphere than on jump scares (though it uses a few and this is one of the few situations where they are vindicated). Daniel Radcliffe gives a fantastic performance proving he is more than capable of emerging from out of the shadow his role as Harry Potter risked overshadowing his skill. The terribly airbrushed cover photo they insist on using for the posters and DVD cover really doesn’t do this film justice. Hopefully one day they will revisit the marketing and create a more fitting image.

The cinematography is fantastic and it really shows the passion everyone involved had for the project. I have the DVD and the commentary is admittedly quite dull though they do note a few things you may miss and give some details about where they acquired the automatons from. The other extras are nice additions including Radcliffe reading the winner of a ghost story writing competition.

The Rambler (2013)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rambler_%28film%29

Jacob’s Ladder occurring during a road movie directed by Calvin Reeder. I have the DVD which is very bare bones to the point it doesn’t even have subtitles. Either you will love it or hate it. It is not a film that will explain itself to you.

Think of Lynch or Croenburg during the 1980s and you have a good measure of what to expect. It is something you probably won’t fully appreciate on one viewing despite the impression you may get. It deserves more love and is a promising start from its director.

Whats Up Doc? (1972)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What%27s_Up,_Doc%3F_%281972_film%29

A screwball comedy directed by Peter Bogdanovich. It is fantastic light hearted fun and did the ‘Manic Pixie Girl’ before that was a thing with the likes of Zooey Deschanel taking on such roles. You can see how Barbara Streisand was the it girl back then.

It is one of the classics of American cinema and easy to follow. It shows how a lot of the ‘screwball comedies’ of recent years don’t quite get that the audience need to like the characters so you can’t just keep having everyone be a sociopathic man child running around causing trouble. Having one in your film works and no doubt they will be a fan favourite but too much exposure is a bad thing in such cases.

The Great Race (1965)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Race

A classic directed by Blake Edwards. I didn’t know of it but caught it on TV. Fantastic fun light hearted fun. The comedic villains inspired Dick Dastardly and Muttley of the Wacky Races. Natalie Wood… speaking Russian for a brief moment 😀 Although it is a bit sad that she is meant to be a suffragette styled Gibson girl and ultimately is left running around in her stockings later on. Also yes Peter Falk (Columbo) is Max the henchman. Oddly it should be noted Max influenced Muttley and Columbo influenced Mumbly (similar to Muttley but a detective) so apparently Hanna-Barbara adored Falk…

A really entertaining film with great set pieces and I actually ended up watching it twice over two days and didn’t mind. There need to be more comedic villains like these even if it seems a bit silly by today’s standard. Good honest clean fun.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Spy_Who_Loved_Me_%28film%29

‘James Bond’d Ocean Adventure’. A James Bond film starring Roger Moore. Features fan favourite henchman Jaws. Barbara Bach is the eye candy this time. This is the one that starts with the ski chase ending in Bond leaping off a cliff and using a Union Jack parachute.

A classic Bond film. What happens? Bond goes around making quips while bedding beautiful women, fighting eccentric villains, going to exotic locales, driving a car that turns into a submarine, drinking expensive drinks. I have no idea it’s a haze… It’s the ‘James Bond and the Ocean Adventure’ entry in the series.

The Wind Rises / Kaze Tachinu (2013)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wind_Rises

Studio Ghibli so obviously the animation is beyond question in terms of quality. Although it is often said to be a biopic of Jiro Hirokoshi, designer of the ‘zero’ aeroplane which the Japanese used during World War II, it is more based on the fictionalised account in the short story ‘The Wind Has Risen’ by Tatsuo Hori, with a few of Hiro’s characteristics like smoking which Hirokoshi did not share.

A beautiful film, but also one that has an ongoing trace of sadness, throughout it. Hirokoshi achieved his dream of designing a world class aeroplane only to see it used as an instrument of war. As people draw parallels between this film and Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement (but he has said that before so no one believes him) maybe Miyazaki also looks wistfully at the Japnese animation industry he has been so influential in and yet perhaps is not proud of playing his part in establishing.

Moonraker (1979)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moonraker_%28film%29

‘James Bond In Space’. Roger Moore as James Bond and Henchman Jaws appears again. Jaws gets a girl and presumably burns up in re-entry after the camera gives him a happy ending while elsewhere Q makes a double entendre about Band attempting re-entry as he has sex, on the monitoring system watched by military staff, with the Bond girl of the film.

I enjoyed it but it is one of the more ridiculous entries in the series but at least it realises this and has a bit of fun with the idea.

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (2010)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_Be_Afraid_of_the_Dark_%282010_film%29

An excellent dark fantasy film. The sort of thing that is rated for older audiences but is the sort of thing which children will enjoy a few sleepless nights over.

Influenced by Arthur Machen and Algenon Blackwood this lends itself more to the traditional style of horror story combined with fables. A classic film which will only gain more of a reputation over time. I just wish thet didnt put Guillemo DelToro’s name all over it as if it was his work alone when he is just producing it…

She’s The Man (2006)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/She%27s_the_Man

An adaption of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night apparently. If you remember how ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ successfully modernised ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ with strong performances from its leads you can just forget that here.

Amanda Byrnes and the insistence on comedy over narrative lead this from bad to worse. Friends of mine, while severely drunk and not knowing what it was, went to see this in cinema when it was released and immediately regretted it. That was a more entertaining and inspiring a story in that one single line than this entire film. It won’t make people seek out Shakespeare’s work nor will anyone remember it as soon as the credits roll.

Balls Of Fury (2007)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balls_of_Fury

‘Hey guys I have this crazy idea for a film. Chinese triad death tournament but instead of fighting like in Fists of Fury they play ping pong’ that was the pitch and the reaction was ‘duuuuude pass me the roach before I lose my high’.

It has a few good low brow jokes at the start but quickly runs out of idea. Also Maggie Q’s character goes from hating the lead to being literally clinging onto him with her legs over one scene. I know it is meant to be a parody film but if the parodies fail and the narrative drive fail you are just left watching a car crash. Its a 5 minute sketch dragged out. They should have kept Christopher Walken’s involvement out of the promotions as it is too obvious who the big bad is and so the biggest joke of the film ie the xenophobic blind mentor trained a ‘gwai-lo’ as his best student is completely ruined even before seeing the film. If you want to see a film about ping-pong watch the 2002 Japanese film.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_%28film%29

Marvel make a feel good team up film with relatively unknown characters and it works. I think James Gunn worked his magic on this and made a fun film even more successful.

I think what works for it, unlike the sequels of the bigger name films, is it doesn’t take itself seriously, we don’t have expectations of the characters and while it’s never going to be on anyone’s top ten of all time films it is a fun ride which often choses to defy conventions without becoming overly involved in its own narrative mythology. It’s a feel good science fiction adventure film and to be honest what with the Star Wars prequels drowning in their inability to be satisfactory let alone good this film is not only welcome but likely to long outlast the films of Marvel’s big name characters.

Kwaidan (1965)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwaidan_%28film%29

Based on 4 stories from Lafcadio Hearn’s collected Japanese ghost stories. No he isn’t a relation of mine sadly. The stories featured are The Black Hair, The Woman of the Snow, Hoichi the Earless and In A Cup of Tea.

A masterpiece of world cinema. Slow pacing to build the tone of the stories and although you could easily read the stories in a few minutes I feel the film really gives such a heightened experience. Thoroughly enjoyable. I for a long time didn’t really find anything to lure me back to Japanese cinema due to the recent pandering to certain audiences and over use of cheap CGI but this reminds me of the calibre they are capable of. The cinematography alone is worth watching this film.

Ai To Mokoto / For Love’s Sake (2012)

Directed by Takashi Miike. He is never scared of mixing it up admittedly. There isn’t a proper Wikipedia page for the film and little English language information online about it. It is based on a 1970s manga.

It parodies various famous Japanese songs and the entire thing plays up on how ridiculous the entire genre of high school love is. Does it faithfully adapt the manga or is it satirising it? I don’t know as the manga has never been translated, officially or by amateurs, so it is anyone’s guess.

It starts out great with a number of impressive scenes and musical numbers but kind of loses itself by the end with the main guy beating up a hoard of Schoolgirl gang members for about 10 minutes. Basically imagine the supercut of the American remake of The Wicker Man where Nicholas Cage goes around punching a community of women in the face endlessly and you can guess what the end of the film began to look like.

The main guy doesn’t love the main girl. She treats him more as a project to improve him from being the working class ruffian he is in comparison to her upper class privileged background. Long story short the film ends with him knifed by a teacher he punched (actually a famous Japanese wrestler in real life) and bleeds out as he goes to the girl. He dies at the end. He hates the upper class and ultimately it’s because of the girls interfering in his life he is on the verge of death and she hugs him thinking he finally loves her back. It reminded me of Memories of Matsuko… a film which to me should be renamed ‘Hey Suicide is Painless Compared to a Tragic Life’. Go watch it. Then tell me you disagree. The trailer for that is a lie…


‘Oh hey just to keep the blog running over with regular updates why don’t I do mini reviews of films I have seen recently?’

No.

Bad idea. It actually took longer than some of the more considered posts. Not that I consider them for more than a day or two and those ones are obvious. *cough*ultralongFrozenpost*cough*

Next time it will be another random topic.

Pociąg / Night Train / Baltic Express (1959 Polish Film): Commentary and Review

Night Train, also known as Baltic Express, is the English title for Pociąg, a 1959 Polish language film directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_Train_%281959_film%29

The jazz leifmotif theme throughout the film is haunting. I want it as my phone’s ringtone!

Directed by Jerzy Kawalerowicz
Written by Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Jerzy Lutowski
Starring: Lucyna Winnicka, Leon Niemczyk
Music by: Andrzej Trzaskowski
Cinematography by Jan Laskowski
Edited by Wieslawa Otocka
Distributed by Telepix
Release dates: September 6, 1959 (Venice)
Running time: 93 minutes
Country of Origin: Poland
Language: Polish

Overview of the plot: Two strangers, Jerzy (played by Leon Niemczyk) and Marta (played by Lucyna Winnicka), accidentally end up holding tickets for the same sleeping chamber on an overnight train to the Baltic Sea coast. People on the train representing various parts of society populate the train during the journey including priests, a writer, youths and people on a pilgrimage. Also on board is Marta’s spurned lover, who will not leave her alone. When the police enter the train in search of a murderer on the lam, rumours fly and everything seems to point toward one of the main characters as the culprit.

night train

The cinematography in the cabin scenes sometimes uses the bunk bed to obscure parts of the screen, giving a point-of-view angle focused on the speaker’s mouth forcing the audience to not see Jerzy’s eyes as if he is in confessional as an untrustworthy figure and informing the audience to question what he is saying as after all ‘the eyes are the windows to the soul’. In mirroring this scene later we have Marta hiding the lower half of her face as she watches the men of the train who have given chase and caught the murderer who had hidden aboard the train earlier. The claustrophobic experience for the characters is reinforced, yet at the same time contrasted in tone, with the overly crowded scenes in the other passenger’s cabins and the corridor of the train where we follow the characters, face on, moving through the crowded corridors of the train as it is in motion and when the passengers are off the train at a stop.

Michael Brooke sums up the underlying sentiment of the film in his essay included with the booklet included with the Second Run DVD:

“Truly, all human life is here, and much turns out to be deeply disconsolate, involuntarily single, unhappily married, desperately lonely.”

Jerzy Kawalerowicz, best known for his film “Mother Joan of the Angels” (1961), is one of Polish cinema’s supreme craftsmen and secular moralists. Often he discusses the existence of a Post-World War 2 Poland where religion is no longer capable of guiding people towards individual happiness, and “Night Train” is no different. It presents us with a large set of characters, all traveling to the Polish seaside for a pilgrimage, and all lacking a sense of purpose. The main narrative focus is on Jerzy (Leon Niemczyk), who boards the train without a booked ticket, expecting to be able to buy from the conductor although this means he has to book an entire cabin to himself. By behaving aloofly, while wearing sunglasses to obscure his eyes/identity, it is almost as if the audience is being challenged not to immediately assume that the gossip we overhear from the other passenger’s at the beginning doesn’t in some way refer to him. The other central character is Marta (Lucyna Winnicka), who unintentionally invades Jerzy’s sleeping compartment and goes from being an unwanted presence to an indispensable, and ultimately almost healing, one though in the end this is cruelly subverted when Jerzy reveals his reasons for boarding the train and his destination which cannot include Marta who is searching for a place in the world for herself after jilting her lover.

pociag kawalerowicz1_6328318

Jerzy and Marta’s strange tryst aboard the train, both occasionally bold and yet furtive, is contrasted and compared with those of the other passengers around them. : With Staszek (Zbigniew Cybulski) who has chased Marta aboard the train in turns begging and demanding her affection; the overt flirtations of a wife (Teresa Szmigielówna) dissatisfied with her marriage who has a lover aboard the train while she flirts with Jerzy and another already existing younger lover; the non-verbal obsession of a young sailor and the girl he sits with and also to an almost folksy budding romantic sense the interactions between the pair of ticket controllers past their prime who patrol the train’s corridors (he’s balding and jovial, she’s plump and officious offering light relief to the more intense interactions between the leads).

Kawalerowicz’s way of presenting the emotional intensity is far from explicit but portrayed via moments as such as Marta’s hair being unexpectedly mussed by a breeze from another train passing, to repeatedly framing Jerzy’s mouth when he speaks to Marta in the cabin so we are forced to focus, as Marta no doubt is doing, on his lips when he speaks to her. The director may be interested in morality and its failings, but he’s by no means blind to his actors’ bodies and the power of body language portraying succinctly what dialogue cannot.

In the beginning, as part of the passenger’s gossip we learn of a recent event: a man who has murdered his wife the previous day and has not been apprehended. This slowly builds into being the core driving motive behind this film’s central theme, echoing Hitchcock’s motif of an unjustly accused man who is forced to prove his innocence. Here we have Jerzy fulfilling this protagonist role. In the isolated yet heavily populated community of the commuters he endures the complete violation of his desire for peace and quiet – first by Marta’s unintentional intrusion and then later when he is exposed to everyone’s judgment, ranging from being called a killer, assumed because he wore sunglasses to hide his identity, to being hailed as the hero of the hour during the film’s denouement.

No sooner is the actual murderer identified than a makeshift posse forms and a chase begins, thus opening what I find the movie’s most stunning sequence. Starting in the train itself and guiding us through all its length (with an eye keen on class and social detail of varying compartments), Kawalerowicz suddenly yanks us outside the vehicle, and the shock is comparable to this experienced by the passengers after one of them pulls the emergency break. The murderer runs through an open field – still covered in early-morning fog – in a hopeless attempt to escape justice. It’s impossible not to perceive him as a victim: when the posse finally gets to him, the confrontation is fierce and Kawalerowicz once again uses the microscopic-overhead camera set-up from the beginning of the film. We see the human dots unified in a centripetal race towards the lying man, and as they cover him with a multitude of blows, the message of the film emerges. Administering someone else’s comeuppance has provided these people with a momentary moral focus, so acutely lacking from their everyday life. For a couple of breathless minutes, good was clearly discernible and evil easy to point out and destroy. But as soon as the moment is over the assembly listlessly return to the confines and structured progress of the train journey.

the seemingly mysterious and evasive passengers, each hoping to find privacy for the duration of their trip, cannot escape the claustrophobia of the environment around them, as Marta’s obsessed, rejected lover, Straszek (Zbigniew Cybulski) follows her aboard the train, and Jerzy’s enigmatic behavior draws the flirtatious attention of a lawyer’s neglected wife (Teresa Szmigielówna) along with the scrutiny of other passengers who begin to who begin to speculate on the identity of the elusive murderer profiled in the late edition newspaper.

Throughout the film, Marta finds herself torn between varying loyalties both to herself and others. The most prominent and undesired one is by her abandoned lover the train-hopping Staszek. Her confusion of her feelings towards him goes hand in hand with her readiness, if not subconscious willingness, to hurt him. She also finds herself drawn towards Jerzy and yet it is only a tentative and ultimately ephemeral infatuation wherein she is discarded as she had once discarded leading her to have an epiphany. She is now in the position she had placed Staszek previously. At the end, she nails it by saying: “Everyone wants to be loved, yet no one’s ready to love.” In realising this she has two choices: either she does as Staszek did and pursue something that doesn’t exist or she lets go and continues her search for something which she has been unable to identify previously and indeed may never realise afterwards.

Ultimately things have happened and people have acted on their beliefs but nothing has changed in the reality of the people’s lives after they leave the train. They return to the rails of their own lives, those of routine, of following order and not finding their own personal morality but conforming to that they find endorsed by the society around them whether it be police boarding the train or a mob chasing a lone man across fields.

The closing pan across the now vacated train as Martha walks towards the beach and many of the passengers either begin their pilgrimage or walk away to their destinations shows us that, even if now messy from its occupants, the train remains to be entered again and these people will eventually find themselves taking this same journey again stuck on the rails of a destiny they feel it is part of their part in society as the pilgrimage is to the religious travellers and the priests. A sense of fatalistic futility, even after capturing the murderer, is all pervasive and nothing has changed outside the enclosed intensified moment in their lives.

9

The director uses acute angle shots, high contrast lighting (to the point I recalled the introduction of Morticia in ‘The Addams Family’ due to the lighting across Marta’s eyes to accentuate them in contrast to the dark framing Jerzy’s mouth gets in contrasting scenes), and narrow, claustrophobic framing within the train carriages. Jerzy Kawalerowicz produces an unnaturally heightened sense of environment and perceptional acuity that reflect the passengers’ subconscious duress and sublimated emotions: the visually occluded, odd angle shot as Jerzy enters the compartment; the birds-eye view of the opening sequence is mirrored by that of the passengers encircling a suspect by an open field graveyard. Here rather than the faceless dots being people choosing to ignore each other as individuals in the transitions they take during their daily lives now find themselves all to willing to wordlessly enter into collusion and act as both judge and executioner of the murderer who tired to escape the consequences of his actions. the successive repeating imagery of mirrored reflections cast against the train carriage’s window, first of the lawyer’s flirtatious wife, then of Marta, which reveal their innate loneliness, confusion, and feelings of abandonment; Straszek’s anxious and rash attempts to gain Marta’s attention and sympathy as though confusion compassion for love. By modulating the innocuous and lighthearted tone of the holiday-bound train trip to show a dark portrayal of base human instincts and the undesirable, selfish, dark aspects of humanity which many choose to ignore. Kawalerowicz further illustrates the often disparaging moral myopia of people, their discrimination, and skewed viewpoints all occurring due to adhering to a collective mentality without question. In the film’s haunting and visually metaphorical denouement, a priest replaces a fallen graveyard cross that had been used as a weapon of violence: a solemn reminder of the human need for compassion and atonement in an environment of fear and vengeance.


So now I will recount the events of the film as i have done before because… who knows what i have noticed but wouldnt have included in a more structured review. As I have to watch it with subtitles on the Second Run DVD it is inevitable the audience is at the whim of the translator’s decisions and if they feel it’s obvious what the character’s names are you don’t get told them when first mentioned but only much later in dramatic moments. That is how it feels watching some foreign films sometimes. In fact I have seen films where the translator gives a nickname to characters instead of their actual name which is just weird and I wish I was joking. I assumed the characters don’t say their names until later in keeping with how secretive they are about their personal lives and reasons for being on the train. It is meant to be a major moment in the film when they share their names with strangers… or I fear the translator think you will have looked through the supplemental material and already be familiar with who is who. I hope not as that has annoyed me with other films as it leads the subtitle viewing audience to assume certain things that don’t exist. Hence during this account everyone is addressed as ‘main guy’, ‘young priest’ and so on.

Of course this is just going to read like rambling but whatever… it gives you my first impression of the film before I watched it again to clarify things.

Conclusions about the film at the bottom.


Opening scene: A crowded train station shot from bird’s eye view. The haunting jazz theme song. The first part is repeated during the film. I want it as a ringtone. This or the whistling tune from the film ‘Twisted Nerve’ (as also heard in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill). The imagery is cold and impersonal but with the jazz theme it becomes sad, the passing of so many lives and yet none of them mean anything more than ants in a colony struggling to survive.

Train sequence 1
Intro of characters
Separate cars for men and women but the main girl is allowed to stay due to a jobs-worth conductor. He lets the main girl stay due to main guys very abrupt asking to drop it.
Train one a young priest and an older one who uses the phrase ‘pro salute animae’ – discuss immorality and punishment. A bit heavy handed a way to introduce the themes of the film so early on…

Young man has history with girl and is chasing her.

Train sequence two – mixed company sailor and a young girl.

Main girl cut her wrists in the past the main guy sees due to her scars. This doesn’t become a point ever again…

The flirting woman. Bullet bra. Very 1950s. Poke someone’s eyes out with those…

Main girl has the haunting theme play when she is alone. Seems to be a one woman wail with no lyrics.

Young guy is hanging off the outside of the train! Keeps threating to derail train/bangs her wrist/threatened to throw himself off the train… (Ironic tragically as the actor would one day die going between moving trains I later found out)

Multiple slaps to the main guy’s face. That is such an old staple of movies. Women slapping men and men standing there stoically allow them to because they are the fairer sex.
Light in main girls face… older films do this but not nowadays. I remember them doing it with Morticia Addams in The Addams Family to emphasise ‘this woman is sexy and had an alluring look’…

Flirt reflects face on night time window. Flirt has a guy so main isn’t her only objective!

Main also reflects face on window.

Young guy has no ticket. Young guy gets to stay on and consider getting a ticket.

A male conductor appears. Again gives a character time to ‘think’ when they are clearly not meant to be on the train. The female conductor returns. They flirt and comment on main and flirt girl being the sort who always holiday in the right season while he has to wait until august (when is the film set during the year? The last scene suggests Summer but this is more of a Spring or an Autumnal scene to me…)

Mirroring seems to be a theme in the film. Main girl/flirt girl. Main/young guy chasing main girl.

The young and the old priest. 83 year old on his last pilgrimage in his own opinion. End of the old ways.

Flirt girl has wordy nerdy guy reciting his speech for the legal court. Is he her husband? Seems so.

Meteorologist/clairvoyant she claims. Men are logical while women enjoy frivolous things. Common theme during this period of history. In fact you could see such a clear gender based contrast present in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Men of logic versus the Queen of the Night and her magics.

Train Stop: An inspection by authorities. They go straight to the main characters’ one. Why? What made it so obviously them? He is taken into custody. Conductor comes along saying he is a murderer. Young guy calls on a sleeping guy called Marek… has no one said names yet? Lead main guy away. Is he murderer or was it just malicious gossip (deadly in this period with paranoid state interests). Passengers chat. Flirt girl says he was odd for not making eye contact. Flighty sort of person the society frowns on. Main guy has no papers. Who is the woman?
Solider, also named, corporal Rosolowski, didn’t check her papers as he wasn’t ordered to. Sailor staring, point blank, at the traveling girl who looks away from him. Is this flirtation or is her intimidating her? They never exchange any words as far as I know.

Main girl goes to young man didn’t want cigarette earlier when offered. Asks for one now and is denied. She goes to holding ca and speaks in his defence. Traveling girl looks at sailor and he smiles. But always main girl passes by distracting him. They go to find the man who sold her the ticket. Everyone crowds the corridors oddly as if aware an even is about to occur. In reality they would have been told to stay in their cabins. Then cars off various people, normal, mixed, young music players and old women on a pilgrimage with a sculpture. Young men all seem to be drifting forward.

The man running away covers a woman’s mouth and smothers her as he climbs to the outside of the train. Her name was Hania we are told. Train is stopped. He runs off the train. The young men give chase. All the men give chase. Flirt comes out of the train in negligee. Suddenly dogs are barking in the distance as if they knew he was going to elope at this point. Swings a branch around and hits a cross when cornered. Young guy tackles his to the ground, then overhead shot of all piling on, then finally drawing back from him remembering he has killed before and even with numbers they’re still individuals who happen to be on the same journey but are not united together. Bald guy kicks him but young guy stops him. Then bald man tears up and walks away. The running away man is dead? Main guy breaks ranks and walks to the corpse. He’s fainted not dead. Police cuff him as he comes back around. Sees cross in the distance. Young guy walks over to it. The main girl is there looking over it as the camera focuses on her fear filled eyes. Flirt insists on drawing closer. Looks at him. He is pitifully looking up and we cut to the main girl’s upper face obscured by the cross before she runs away. Mirroring and contrasting of the main guy earlier where we could only see him mouth. Police lead him away. Everyone goes back. Flirt keeps on at main guy then shifts to another. Last to go is the young priest placing the cross upright again.

Men walk back across the hay bale filled field. Conductor woman didn’t see blonde enter train nor leave it. Let’s blonde on but not young guy as compartments are not locked… so why let her? MARTA he calls. So she finally is named on the subtitles. Were the names of the characters not meant to be known up until now? It would make sense considering the themes and such of the film but I wonder… Flirt’s husband complains and she snaps back. Young priest returns her other shoe. Baldy returns with the bruise to his face and female conductor says nearly left him behind. Young guy is almost left behind as sailor and girl leans out window, writer says would have been good story if the main guy innocent caught the murderer. Flirt flirts.

Then a guy comes out of his cabin making weird sounds shouting ‘you won’t get me’ waving his arms then goes back and bald one enters his too. Random moment in the film making no sense…

Back to cabin 15/16: main is a doctor whose 18 year old suicide girl died on operating table. Had 3 operations and that last one was a failure. Washing his face and hands. Main girl draws close and embraces him with a towel in her hands.

Flirt and her boy toy arrange to meet 5pm tomorrow. Writer sits in the corridor reading again. Female conductor is dozing off. Baldy leaves his cabin. Wont show on wedding day. Will remain batchelor. Flirty flirty flirty. Song plays again as the scenery outside the window blows by. Conductor goes to cabin of white haired guy waking him. And then the others. The writer is slumped over sat in the corridor. Writer can’t believe he fell asleep. The scenery outside the window.

Main girl explains why she got the train. They are both adjusting their clothes. Marta is in focus taking up most of the screen in portrait while main guy is out of focus with his back to the screen in the background. Is it implied they had sex? Having a cigarette always seemed to be the code in black and white films for ‘there was sex but we can’t say that’. Young guy is searching for something. So he isn’t anonymous. ‘The disease of our times’. Used her emotions like a mirror. Searching for a reflection of himself, confirmation of his self esteem.

Marta declares to Jerzy:

‘Nobody wants to love. Everybody wants to be loved’.

People don’t want to expose themselves and risk being hurt but all they desire is to be accepted. So many conform while some take a risk for better or worse. She was happy to be chased by her ex but now finds herself as the one who loves and it pains her to admit this not only to Jerzy but moreso to herself.

The young guy is stood off the train with a backpack of his belongings on. Knows the window of her cabin somehow. Is surprised when the main guy answers. No words are exchanged as the train pulls away. She had moved on. The young girls has also disembarked along with the old women and the priests who lead them in a pilgrimage journey.

It doesn’t matter if ‘he’ will be at the station anymore. She no longer feels she needs to contrast or mirror herself with another in order to have a sense of self.

‘I’m quite alone now but really happy. Very happy’

Marta says this but with a sense of melancholy clear on her features.

Her hair though pinned back is down unlike the central part of the film. The open back of her top… visual language that she is hiding something but in past tense is open. The main guy says his wife is waiting for him on the platform as the train draws into the station.

Someone calls the name Barbara we then see Marta holding onto the top bunk from behind. On her left hand is a wedding ring. Is this intentional? So many revelations and yet no definitive answers. All we have a myriad truths and the final decision of what is true of these events to conclude for ourselves.

The conductor woman says goodbye doctor… they young guys disembark and then the older gentlemen including the bald on eand the writer and grey hair discuss if they had seen yesterday’s paper. They shake the conductor man’s hand. The female conductor looks pensive and goes along the carriage.

Marta is still there. Looking like she had been crying but says she lost her bracelet. Conductor helps her pack. Conductor says ‘what a night. Not one you will forget quickly. At this Marta leans in hugs her and kisses her then leaves. Conductor lets her out on the beach side though others got off the other side. ‘Have a good holiday’ she says but Marta doesn’t reply. She left something on the train. Conductor picks the parcel up and sees Marta walking across the shoreline as a fog horn blows. She walks off screen and we never see her again…

Cabin 18/19 – a young couple, the girl answering the door dishevelled as if only now having woken up. Answers. Janusz, her partner, she wakes up.

Then the camera pans across all the empty cabins. And we see a train pass by 16/17 as the song again repeats and the screen goes black.


Conclusion: You like Hitchcock and European cinema? This is for you. You like the French New Waves? Well apparently the Polish got there first. It’s a taut, compelling, and insightful psychological portrait of emotional need, hysteria, and mob mentality. It is a visually stunning film with great cinematography and really forces the audience to be absorbed into the claustrophobic close quarter environment of the train’s interior and the emotionally invasive intensity of the character’s interactions.

Extras: A short documentary about the film saying that the Polish proto-New Wave preceded the more renowned French New Wave and how it influenced Czech cinema. All the more impressive for being during the socialist realism period as the film never really addresses the reality of the time and so in many ways it quite escapist.

An interview with leading man Leon Niemczyktalk about the technical tricks that were used in the filming process e.g. a train car was purchased and the windows each had a back projected 7 inch screens so that there was the illusion of the windows showing passing scenery outside as the characters walked down the corridor.

It is only a few minute long and an excerpt from ‘my seventeen lives’ but very interesting compared to the sort of ‘trailer’ extras you usually get with older films.

The included essay booklet also helps you better understand the context of the film and its place in the history of European cinema.

I enjoyed it and certainly the theme is truly memorable. I would definitely recommend checking it out and could have easily done a more thorough analysis of the film but I think this is enough for now.

I also found this ’40 years later’ documentary but obviously haven’t a clue what they are saying…


Somehow I have both written far too much and yet not really addressed this film’s true philosophy at the same time…. On the weekend I will finally post the movie review of O slavnosti a hostech a.k.a The Party and The Guests. A 1966 Czech film which was permanantly banned in its country of origin for challenging the existing political system at the time. I may post some more light hearted stuff between now and then… but maybe not… we will see.

Comments, etc, are all welcome.