Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘film review’ Category

Loving Vincent

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th October, 2017

Loving VincentVincent Van Gogh (1853-1890), the Dutch post-Impressionist painter, is today recognised as one of the fathers of Modern Art, though in his day his work was derided by all but a few devoted supporters, including his brother and the subject of one of his finest portraits, Dr Gachet. He sold precisely one of his 800 or so canvases before dying from a gunshot wound to the chest, usually presumed to be self-inflicted. But in the extraordinary hand-painted full-length feature film, Loving Vincent, now on release in the UK< the directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman, an alternative explanation of the artist’s demise is the centre of speculation: that he was accidentally shot by a gang of boys who had been tormenting him for some time. But what is truly original in this film is the way that an essentially new genre of hand-painted animated film using actors and backdrops of Van Gogh’s own work has been created. Apparently it took seven years to make, with a hundred painters working on it — a genuine labour of love. It is also a wonderful example of European film cooperation — with Poland in the lead — underlining just how valuable such transnational work within the EU can be. The film is visually seductive, sensitively handled and the provincial English and Irish accents of several of the lead performers give an added flavour of alternative authenticity.

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Goodbye Christopher Robin

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th October, 2017

Goodbye_Christopher_RobinWinnie-the-Pooh played no part in my childhood, unlike that of most British children of my vintage. I only became truly aware of E H Shepard’s wonderful illustrations when I was at university (well, it was Oxford, albeit 20-odd years after the publication of Brideshead Revisited). I still have not read any of the four Pooh volumes penned by A A Milne, though I think of him often when I enjoy the fruit of his generous legacy to the Garrick Club. However, I was aware that A A Milne’s son — the Christopher Robin of the book — found his unwanted fame burdensome and that he was bullied as a result at school. So I was genuinely curious to see how Simon Curtis would handle the story. It is a complex challenge, because the film has to try to balance the brutal effect of the First World War on the author (sensitively portrayed by Domhnall Gleeson) with the fairy-tale quality of the rural idyll to which he and his somewhat disgruntled upper class wife moved with little Christopher Robin, and where the Pooh stories and adventures materialised, as well as the boy’s growing disenchantment with his situation.

Will TilstonGiven that the film has to cater for the millions of Pooh fans in America (most of whom will know the bear of little brain through the Disney animation), there is an occasionally OTT chocolate box representation of England in the 1920s, but much of the Sussex countryside is indeed beautiful and all those who relish seeing period cars and furniture in pristine condition will be happy. The father-son relationship is touchingly presented, in all its ups and downs, as is Christopher Robin’s dependence on his nanny (played by Kelly Macdonald, more convincingly than Margot Robbie as the self-centred mother). But it is the young newcomer Will Tilston, who plays the young Christopher Robin, who steals the show. His is an extraordinarily competent performance, tantrums and all, and I can hear the “aahs” of a myriad cinema-goers as they watch his first entry on screen. So, this is a bit of a curate’s egg of an experience, but when it is good it is very good. And probably now I shall go away and read the Winnie-the-Pooh books at long last.

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Tom of Finland

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th September, 2017

Tom of Finland film posterI have never been a fan of the drawings of Tom of Finland, skillfully executed but to my mind grotesque caricatures of gay sex role models, from leather bikers to sadistic cops, all with bubble butts and humongous genitalia. However, they were phenomenally popular; when I was in California in the mid-1970s, researching my biography of Christopher Isherwood, they seemed to be everywhere. Until yesterday, however, I had virtually no idea about the man behind these homoerotic works, but after watching Dome Karukoski’s biopic of the artist Touku Laaksonen, Tom of Finland, at the ICA, I feel wiser and more positively inclined. A decorated officer in the Second World War, mainly fighting the Russians, Laaksonen found it difficult to adjust to civilian life as a gay man in a particularly homophobic environment. That environment only improved gradually and it is no exaggeration to say that Tom of Finland helped the cause of “gay liberation”, which really started in America, where he briefly rode the crest of a wave of success before the whole scene was clouded by the arrival of HIV/AIDS. One might imagine that this subject matter would make for grim, even sordid, viewing, but in fact Karukoski’s film is beautifully and sensitively constructed and features a stellar central performance by Pekka Strang in the title role. Laaksonen was clearly a very thoughtful as well as talented man who dared to express himself in a way that would inevitably at first provoke outrage and censorship, but which later became an important part of the counter-culture of the second half of the 20th century.

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Victoria & Abdul

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th September, 2017

Victoria &amp; AbdulThe extraordinary story of the maternal affection that the widowed Queen Victoria felt for a young Indian servant, Abdul Karim, brought over to England in 1887, is a worthy subject for Stephen Frears’ new film, Victoria & Abdul, which is now out on general release. The real Abdul — dubbed the Munshi or teacher, because he taught the monarch Hindustani (actually Urdu) at her request — was nowhere near as handsome as actor Ali Fazal, who plays him in the film, and as the years went by he became chubby and arrogant. But Victoria was certainly besotted with him, as she had been earlier with her devoted Scottish attendant, John Brown. On his mother’s death, King Edward VII ordered the burning of the correspondence between Victoria and Abdul, but there is enough material extant in diaries and other letters to reconstruct the skeleton of the story. As is portrayed in the film, the Royal Household was indeed scandalised by the Munshi’s increasingly high-profile presence at Court, for social and racial reasons. Of course, the film inevitably takes some historical liberties (there is no mention of Abdul’s trips home to India during Victoria’s lifetime, for example), but some of the things that might appear the most preposterous, such as Abdul’s kneeling down to kiss Victoria’s feet, are absolutely true. The settings, from the painted hall at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich to Osborne on the Isle of White, are stunning and the filming itself is a thing of great beauty. Judi Dench is magnificent as Victoria, her moods shifting from impatience to joy and then despair. At times there is a risk of caricature among the members of the Royal Household and doubtless some people will find that there is an uneasy balance between comedy and tragedy in the story as portrayed. But so there is in life, too.

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God’s Own Country

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th September, 2017

God's Own CountryWhen a young, inarticulate Yorkshire hill-farmer’s son, Johnny, gets particularly stressed out, as more responsibility falls on his shoulders after his father’s debilitating stroke, he drowns his sorrow in drink and quick, emotionless sexual release with blond youths. But then along comes a handsome, dark-haired Romanian temporary farmhand — initially humiliated and insulted as a gypsy — and Johnny’s whole world is turned upside down. Shot against the panoramic background of the Yorkshire Moors, much of it by hand-held camera, Francis Lee’s first full-length feature film (which he wrote as well as directed) draws on his own background growing up on a farm in the area, lingers lovingly over mucking out cowsheds and birthing lambs, and spares no blushes in the escalation of the two young protagonists’ growing physical intimacy. But this is a film in which some of the most eloquent moments are when nothing is said — just a look, or a gesture. And gradually the blinkers are removed from Johnny’s eyes, as well as the chip from his shoulder, and he even begins to realise that his father and gran are not quite as demanding and insensitive as he thought. There are stellar performances by both Josh O’Connor as Johnny and Alec Secareanu, as his liberating angel, and the final scene brings the whole movie to a triumphant resolution. A truly beautiful film.

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Dunkirk

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 4th August, 2017

DunkirkFor once, I agree with Nigel Farage. He said that all young people should go to see the film Dunkirk; I would only a that all older people would benefit from seeing it too. But perhaps our reasons for recommending the film are different. Farage doubtless feels it fits into his Brexit narrative of Britain can stand alone and proud, whereas I consider it powerful evidence of why there must never be war in Europe again. Dunkirk was almost a disaster of gigantic proportions, with well over 300,000 troops trapped like sitting ducks on the beach, prey to German aircraft and later potentially ground forces. Winston Churchill feared that maybe only 10-15% would be rescued by ships from England, whereas the extraordinary flotilla of small civilian craft of all kinds that set sail across the Channel brought back many times that number. Indeed, a victory of sorts, snatched from the jaws of defeat. It was nonetheless a traumatic experience for most of the men involved, not just those who were killed or badly wounded.

Dunkirk Rylance War is a terrible thing, and the founding fathers of what has evolved into the European Union understood that it was necessary to change the way we do things, to prevent any such conflict happening again. France and Germany, who had clashed three times in less than a century, are now the closest of allies within the EU. Britain should be proudly in there too, whereas thanks to the outcome of last year’s EU Referendum, the propaganda of Mr Farage and his ilk, as well as the stubbornness of Theresa May, Britain is now apparently heading for a Hard Brexit, turning its back on our EU partners and allowing the rhetoric of British exceptionalism to flourish. A dangerous path to follow, indeed. But to return to Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, it is also worth seeing on its own merits, brilliantly capturing the atmosphere of the operation, especially in the scenes of Spitfire dog-fights and the desperation of men trying to escape from a sinking ship. One could quibble with some small historical inaccuracies, but that would be petty. The overall effect is powerful and lasting. Mark Rylance consolidates his reputation as perhaps Britain’s greatest living actor with a totally credible performance as a humble skipper, determined to do the right thing, and the singer Harry Styles intriguingly shows he is a born actor. All in all, not a film to miss and best seen in a cinema that has the sort of acoustics that let the soundtrack literally make the place shake.

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