• Design of the times?

    The weekend brought me to the new Design Museum for the first time. Relocation from its ‘white box’ home on the riverside just along from Tower Bridge to the former Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park has been a controversial process, with questions asked over the changes needed to make this famous piece of post-war architecture suitable for its second life, the gleaming cubes of luxury apartments erected right next door that were deemed necessary to fund the scheme and the then culture secretary’s perceived willingness to de-list a heritage asset to make it all possible. Politics aside, the question now is simple – does the resulting building actually work?

    Opened in 1962 and designed by RMJM, the Commonwealth Institute was known for its concrete hyperbolic paraboloid roof suspended from massive but delicate angled columns like a tent, the whole sheathed in 25 tonnes of copper donated by Northern Rhodesia. Engineered by Harris & Sutherland, the roof covered a single exhibition space dedicated to promoting the Commonwealth. This was broken up by a raised circular central platform, curved mezzanines and various flying staircases, with much of the display – by James Gardner – placed on freestanding structures. Glazed walls gave onto an approach landscaped by Sylvia Crowe with a stylised canal, causeway and statuary. Siting such a building just yards from the Blitzed remains of the Jacobean Holland House, whose grounds form the park, was a bold statement of post-war optimism and intent.

    The institute as a body survived until the Millennium, when the end of its status as a statutory body and transfer of its operations and assets to a private company to be funded by the Commonwealth nations took place. Faced with changed political and economic climates this eventually failed and was liquidated. The old building became surplus to requirements. Threatened by costly maintenance combined with a highly specialised architectural envelope, its Grade II* listing appeared a barrier to a change of use or, more darkly, demolition to realise the value of its plot. When news that this might be lifted emerged, heritage groups and locals protested loudly, especially after culture secretary Tessa Jowell appeared to support such a move even as she confirmed it was legally impossible and when news later leaked of a potential private members bill targeting the building.

    Ultimately only the attached administration block, more conventional in form, was permitted to be demolished. Sale to developer Chelsfield led to a plan for three mid-rise blocks of flats as well as the radical restructuring of the RMJM building. Reading the development brochure from about five years ago is amusing, its rather pretentious and self-justifying text tending to highlight the murky nature of the journey from there to here rather than the architecture.

    This transformation, then, by Rem Koolhaas’s OMA with John Pawson providing the interior fit-out, has in fact seen the complete replacement of the existing building’s façades and plinth and removal of much of its interior, whilst with protection for Crowe’s garden having also been removed, this too has been lost. The original esplanade off of Kensington High Street, with its forest of flagpoles, has also been replaced, by a straightforward piazza that now leads to the southernmost of the three residential blocks. My initial impressions here were however positive, in that these last crowd the Museum far less than I had been led to believe; indeed, clustered as they are to its west, they appear only as a ghostly white background and do not impinge on the drama of its folded roof planes.

    Nevertheless, and reflective of today’s other concerns, a forceful line of railings now demarcates the Museum’s much smaller domain, a hefty gate separating it from the park proper after hours. Once through this the land slopes down as a result of the remodelling and continues as a rather apologetic-looking area of hard and soft landscaping (admittedly the Museum only opened in November and thus immediately hit its first winter) complete with dull small water feature before reaching the entrance.

    Inside, it naturally takes a while to orientate, not helped by some exceptional crowds and the perhaps unfortunate decision to place the ticket desk right inside the inner door of the draught lobby. Ahead lies another problem on such busy days: Pawson’s main stair, which is wide but has built-in seats taking up more than half the width of the treads, a strange move given this is the only obvious method of ascending to the exhibition floors by foot.

    That said, it must be admitted that this stair is excellent from an aesthetic point of view and indeed forms the core of the scheme. Each flight starts on the opposite side of the floor to the last as the building rises and each storey is itself wider, thus creating a rectilinear spiral that has obvious echoes of Lasdun at the sublime Royal College of Physicians. Impressive too is the manner in which Pawson has fitted new, rational floors into the unwelcoming shape of RMJM’s original volume. Yes the delights of the roof and, more notably, its supporting walls are far less visible than they were, but they are not INvisible. The rough, grey concrete undersides of the original structure now peek above the restful, straw-coloured wood of the new spaces and the big concrete support columns dive through the new floors in plain sight, though they have been painted to match the new and partly clad in stainless steel.

    As with the Switch House at Tate Modern, a floor or so of private spaces – members’ room, education room, offices – sits between the main public floors, leading to some further circulation pressures, but the restaurant seems to enjoy a good view and small pocket atriums supply much-needed breathing space.

    The workmanship throughout is excellent, whether in the brushed stainless steel stair handrails with lighting concealed in their undersides or the simple, slightly sloped tops of the balustrading overlooking the main space – just right for leaning on. In the basement toilets a run of wash basins appears to have been made from a single slab of Corian, and the more conventional secondary stair – though somewhat hidden – is light and elegant in white and stainless steel, is provided with neat timber window seats and has good views over the park, even if the applied sunshade proves able to fox digital camera exposures.

    Exploration of the permanent collection galleries was rather less rewarding, accepting the large crowds. Seemingly crammed into a succession of spaces that are too small for the exhibits let alone those who wish to see them, progress is slow and confusing. The presentation is bitty and too in thrall to the current ethos of short captions and random placement. Where a good array of objects is encountered, such as a display showing the evolution of media formats from pens to iPods, the arrangement is scattered across a wall in no discernible order and leaving lots of wasted space, whilst locating the relevant caption is impossible thanks to the baffling lack of numbers linking both.

    Clearly a short visit on a busy day is clearly not ideal to assess such a complex project. A return visit would be useful to explore the remaining spaces in the building and its relationship with the park and the new apartment blocks in more detail, but certainly there is much to like in this new space for cultural review. Crucially the intimate changes to and immediate setting of the Commonwealth Institute seem coherent and convivial in many ways, even if they are source of some dismay intellectually and frustration practically. Crowd management and display quality are firmly for the management to address. Whether the venue will prove as amenable to the demands of a museum needing to display everything from cars to computers as the old venue was – itself a converted banana warehouse, it should be remembered – remains to be seen.

    Pictured below, for comparison, is the Institute as I first saw it in late 2011:



  • This year in the City of London

    There is far more to the City of London than skyscrapers and rampant commerce, as the Corporation of London itself is often at pains to point out, but you do have to look hard for small museums, churches and other cultural venues or even private spaces open to the public outside of the Big Three (the Barbican, Museum of London and Guildhall Art Gallery). True, the little City of London Police Museum opened at the Guildhall late last year, as did the new citizenM hotel on Tower Hill, but fresh offering are rare. This year, however, will be different, because by chance there are no fewer than three significant museums and two major hotels opening in the Square Mile for the first time in 2017. Here’s a summary, in order of launch date (as far as is known).

    Charterhouse – Sitting quietly across the northern boundary of the City, behind Smithfield and bordering Clerkenwell, this hidden historical campus dates from the 14th century and has been, successively, a “monastery, private mansion, boys school and almshouse”, as the institution’s website neatly puts it. But in just a week or so’s time, its gardens, new museum and café open to the public for the first time, allowing anyone to sample an astonishingly preserved slice of mediaeval London. Charterhouse Square itself, with its famous Art Deco block of flats (Florin Court) that served as the home of David Suchet’s Poirot and actually is in the City, will be spruced up, too.

    Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6AN

    Opens: 27 January

    Ten Trinity Square – This swaggeringly Imperial building, which appears in my new book ‘How to Read London’, was built for the Port of London Authority by Edwin Cooper between 1912 and 1922. With its astonishing Baroque tower and statue of Father Thames pointing commandingly toward the estuary, it is something of an unknown icon for London, having appeared in the opening titles of every episode of The Professionals and in the Bond film Skyfall, to name just a few of its starring roles. A domed concrete Rotunda housing a series of concentric counters for logging shipping movements was lost in the Blitz and years of occupation by insurers Willis Faber followed. Now, after a few false starts architecturally – an earlier scheme filled the central space with a giant glass scoop or cone – it will become “a distinctive collection of spaces harmoniously arranged to provide the very best of places to live, to stay and to meet [;] the Residences, Four Seasons hotel and spa, and the Club.” Fancy a room? Yours, ‘from’ £430 a night…

    Ten Trinity Square, London, EC3N 4AJ.

    Opens: February

    The Ned – Ok, so it’s a silly name, but Edwin ‘Ned’ Lutyens’s stunning head office and branch for the Midland Bank, closed for almost a decade, has also been restructured as a hotel and private members’ club and so will once again be open to the public, in part at least. As explained in my new book too, it was built between 1924 and 1939 with Lutyens providing the facades and representative areas and E. G. Stevenson and executive architects Gotch & Saunders handling the rest. The vast banking hall, with its forest of columns in green African stone with contrasting white plaster capitals, will become a food court with half a dozen restaurants; the directors’ board room, containing the largest tapestry ever made in England, will be an exclusive dining area and the basement safety deposit – with its massive circular door wedged firmly open – becomes a bar. I suspect the building will no longer be taking part in London Open House after this, but no matter, it’s still thriving.

    27 Poultry, London EC2R 8AJ

    Opens: April

    The Postal Museum – Along with the railways, the general post office MADE modern Britain, and so it’s fitting that this year we get a brand spanking new museum near Mount Pleasant telling its story and covering the incredible organisation, art (think of those beautiful stamps) and technology it spawned. Oh, and you also get to actually ride on Mail Rail, the GPO’s own small-gauge railway network that ran below London from Paddington to Whitechapel for three quarters of a century before its closure. Given the unfortunate closure in the City of BT’s own Museum of Telecommunications years ago, this museum is definitely a good thing. Sign up to their email newsletters for more.

    Opens: mid-2017

    London Mithraeum at Bloomberg London – Norman Foster’s new sandstone and bronze headquarters for the financial services firm on Queen Victoria Street has taken six years to build. it should be completed at the very end of the year. A permeable ground floor will take a new street through the narrow gap between the building’s two halves; there will also be a new entrance to Bank tube station. Best of all, however, the ancient Roman temple of Mithras that was found in the 1950s when the previous building on the site was being constructed is to be reborn. Mithras was a Persian deity worshipped by Roman soldiers who clearly gravitated to its world of bull-slaying, underground spaces and ritualised drinking. Originally reconstructed very inaccurately, above ground and to the north, the remains that once attracted crowds so large the police had to marshal them have been prized away from their concrete-and-crazy-paving base and re-sited underground, much closer to their proper position. With state-of-the-art interpretation such as mist and atmospheric lighting and displays of some of the thousands of new finds from the site, hopefully including some of the wonderful Roman ‘notebooks’ that have been discovered, this will be a new chance to meet London’s past.

    Opens: c.September-December



  • 'Inside No.9: The Devil of Christmas'

    As a big fan of film and television from the 1970s, I was intrigued to read – during the ritualistic pre-holiday pore over the double issue of the Radio Times – a preview of The Devil of Christmas, a special festive episode of the blackly comedic anthology series Inside No.9 that was created, written and occasionally directed by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, of The League of Gentlemen fame. The programme promised to recreate “the style and idiom of ITV’s creepy 1970s anthologies and has even been taped on creaky cameras from that era by veteran director Graeme Harper”, whilst the cast “employs preposterously arch delivery” and the whole thing has “twists in the tale” (note that use of the plural). Even more interestingly, it continued, “shortly after the start, someone hits a rewind button and we hear a running commentary, as if it were a DVD feature, from the programme’s fictional director, Dennis Fulcher”. The recorder was duly set, but playback was only achieved this past weekend. I was alone in the house, and the lights were down…

    We start not with the drama itself but a brief technical cue-in to a studio session that the period-correct ‘blackboard’ VTR clock tells us is occurring on 10 December 1977. A library film (and I do mean film) clip of a snowy alpine lodge overlaid by gaudy onscreen titles introduces us to the drama proper, which in a further nod to its era is clearly being shot via multiple cameras in a studio, and recorded on videotape. Bluff, middle-class, middle-aged Julian (Pemberton), his young, pregnant, second wife Kathy (Jessica Rain), haughty mother Celia (Rula Lenska) and small son Toby (George Bedford) all enter the lodge – against a background of studio snow glimpsed in the doorway – with Austrian guide Klaus (Shearsmith) at their heels. As they bustle around their new temporary home, each actor declaiming his or her lines slightly too theatrically, the cameras follow them or pointedly push in or linger on a significant detail or face. Any viewer familiar with the style being emulated so precisely simply IS transported back thirty-odd years to their own youth.

    That curious voice-over does indeed pop up from time to time, cattily pointing out where the actress played by Lenska misses her mark or flubs her line; occasionally a second off-screen voice joins in, and as things progress we also see other instances of the curtain being twitched aside, metaphorically – the crew and the studio come into view, Pemberton is asked by a floor manager to “try the [dinner] plate please”, and a laugh continues – awkwardly – for far too long, until ‘cut’ is called. What is going on?

    As the family settle in, poo-poohing Klaus’s story of the fearsome local legend that is the Krampus, things start to warm up, but saying more would spoilt the surprises and the triple twist ending. Suffice it to say that this is a glorious piece of entertainment, both knowing and affectionate, that works – as with so many other such tributes – thanks to slavish attention to detail, both technical and artistic. So watch out for the notorious ‘comet tailing’ of the candle flames, the slap to the wrong side of the face, and the subtlety of the entire thing being presented in (almost) 4:3 aspect ratio. Of the performances Pemberton’s is the most noteworthy, simply because his voice is EXACTLY what you would expect to hear in this place and this time – plummy, strong, and with that very slight sense of patronising the material that was common to mature British thespians forced to work in genre television. Raine’s stridency, rising to hysteria at times, along with her strawberry blonde wig , very clearly channels Jane Asher in Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, whilst Bedford’s ability to copy a not-very-good child actor of the time is spooky. And whilst you might find the majority of the drama tongue in cheek and thus not especially frightening, that is likely to change when the macabre penultimate twist makes its appearance.

    This gem could only have come from the current generation of 40-something creatives that find themselves able to make original work that harks back to their own influences; see also talents as varied as satirist Charlie Brooker, film-maker JJ Abrams and movie director Gareth Edwards. That Harper directed a slew of episodes of 1970s and 80s television drama but especially the classic Caves of Androzani story for Doctor Who simply confirms the point. It turns out that I managed to miss Inside No.9 entirely until now, something I’ll need to remedy soon. In the meantime, Inside No.9: The Devil of Christmas is available on iPlayer for another 17 days so that you too can find out who was good and who was very bad indeed this Christmas. Don’t miss it.



  • Design desperation

    Yesterday the BBC launched a new series of idents for BBC One, replacing the ‘circles’ concept that has persisted for the last decade with photographs and footage of people from around the country (shot by Martin Parr, no less) that "capture an evolving portrait of modern Britain in all its diversity". Just to hammer the message home, the ‘ONE’ logo onscreen momentarily gets a scrolling, handwritten-style ‘-ness’ appended to it. Blimey.

    Well, after what seems to many like an especially divisive year for the country that might well be a good thing, but does the national broadcaster really need to spell out its worthy aim in such a clunky fashion? After all, the circles series made the point quite neatly already, whilst of course the Corporation’s original ‘revolving globe’ mark was arguably the ultimate indicator of that purpose and indeed ran in various forms from 1969 to 1997. And from a purely visual standpoint, the new identifications seem very far from ideal – without even the implied geometry of the circle to give the channel surfer a nudge, let

    alone any overlaid graphics to enhance the effect, there is surely little that actually identifies the image quickly and easily as a start-of-programme warning rather than a bit of the programme itself.

    Interestingly the same problem afflicts Channel 4’s current (and also relatively new) design for their own idents; its ‘deconstructed’ graphic element seldom appears, whilst Jonathan Glazer’s truly weird underground crystal mine/people in hazmat suits sequences confuse me even now…

    Perhaps, then, the nation’s favourite broadcaster should have stuck to its understated motto – Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation – to signal its principles, and adopted something simpler, clearer and more direct for the vital onscreen task of alerting the audience that Strictly is about to start. Something like a globe, say…?

    Happy new year!



  • 'Rogue One: A Star Wars story'

    A year ago almost to the day, I stumbled out of the Odeon Leicester Square in shock at how badly Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) had unreeled – indeed, unravelled – before my eyes over the preceding two hours or so. Its full horror, which I recounted shortly afterward, was obvious and required no laboured analysis to confirm. Now, twelve months later, history repeats itself; a new entry in the continuing saga is showing at the same venue, and once again I’m able to dash off a review that needs no hesitation or consideration. Fortunately, however, Rogue One: A Star Wars story is an absolute, almost unqualified, triumph; absorbing, powerful, tense and with some truly staggering visuals, it is for me the best film in the entire canon next to The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – omitting, of course, the original, which has to be regarded as untouchable.

    And yet in many ways this is a surprise, since Rogue One also introduces a clutch of new characters, including the by-now compulsory spunky young female, visits more new planets and re-treads several motifs and even scenes from other instalments, just as did J.J. Abrams last year.

    Why, then, is the result so different?

    Taking its inspiration from a few words in the opening ‘crawl’ of Star Wars (1977), the new film explains how the Rebels acquire the plans of the Empire’s new super-weapon, the planet-killing Death Star, thus setting up the final attack of that first movie. As such Rogue One immediately benefits from our foreknowledge of success, a counter-intuitive reaction perhaps but one that has been proven time and time again to be an effective way forward in film-making. To take just one example, Fred Zimmerman’s adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1973) is no less gripping for knowing that de Gaulle was not assassinated. In contrast, The Force Awakens suffers from having to set a direction of travel that has to be meaningful and worth following, a hard ask when two entire trilogies have concluded an epic tale before it.

    Here, then, a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta has led to a screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy that takes this simple concept and develops a solid, reasonably tight script around that actually makes you care. Yes, the complexities of the initial, rapid exposition, involving three or four separate planets, those new characters and plenty of implied backstory between all of them take some work from the audience to resolve, not helped by strongly-accented actors and poor sound at last night’s screening, but this vital step is achieved easily enough. The idea of a defecting (with the use of that specific word an early pointer to the several references to contemporary real-world events and concerns) pilot as the trigger is a clever one, though it does result in some additional complications over who wants who for what and a double-location climax, a straight-line passing of the Death Star plans from him to the Rebels apparently being too easy. Despite all this, director Gareth Edwards marshals his forces well, keeping things moving and building the suspense necessary to drive the rest of the film.

    Michael Giacchino's music helps tremendously. He scores highly from his very first note, a cleverly abbreviated introduction given – shorn of its traditional fanfare – this film starts with a single tone. There follows a series of cues that each step very closely indeed to the line of John Williams’s revered work yet always stop short, whilst simultaneously being distinctive on their own.

    The opening shots are properly arresting, using the coal-like rock of Mýrdalssandur beach in Iceland with a (genuine) mountain tinged green behind as the background for a tense meeting between Imperial Director Krennic (a chilling Ben Mendelsohn) and Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). The new all-black Deathtroopers, Krannic’s personal guard, whilst clearly in the lineage of the classic Stormtrooper, owe more than a little to the Kerberos Panzer Cops anime and manga by Mamoru Oshii, Kamui Fujiwara and Yutaka Izubuchi, as well as the Nazi design style implied by the original, all-white Imperial footsoldiers’ name.

    After, the sequences on the desert mining planet of Jedha, exquisitely filmed using Wadi Rum in Jordan as their core, properly open up the story and the film with an immersively atmospheric depiction of a souk-style market patrolled by occupying Stormtroopers. That this is a clear reference to Mos Eisley and Tatooine only now occurs to me, as the location has an identity of its own and acts as a base for one of the better new characters and a good action scene.

    Forest Whitaker’s mannered but fabulous Saw Gerrera is a highlight of this first act, not least for its revelation of a factional Rebellion that has an official contingent but also Gerrera as an “extremist” leading a breakaway wing. With his scarred face, battered cyborg body – a superb, layered piece of costume design – and frequent use of an inhaler mask, it is not hard to see Gerrera as a parallel to or even prototype of Darth Vader, a man who, as my friend pointed out, is an extremist on the opposite side of the conflict. Introduced, too, is the suggestion of the sacrifices a Rebel might be forced to make, something that is developed through the character of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) but which was made more explicit in an alternative version of this scene present in a trailer but excised from the final release. This had Gerrera asking of reluctant heroine Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) “What will you do when they catch you? What will you do when they break you? If you continue to fight… What will you become?”

    A series of reshoots and rewrites – comprehensively and helpfully discussed here and here – affected this part of the film, and also reshaped Jyn to become more sympathetic. Whether that was entirely successful, I’m not sure; I found it hard to warm to her any more than her basic presentation demanded, and found her ‘journey’ throughout uneven.

    Luckily, though, the intifada-style attack by Gerrera’s men on an Imperial squad and its tank-like armoured vehicle that follows is excellent, inevitably recalling more real-world events and adding another layer of political and emotional resonance. That Andor sees fit to deliberately gun down one of the anti-Empire fighters during the battle does the same for his character. The first example of Edwards’ ability to exploit the big screen, the possibilities of today’s visual effects and the world in which his story takes place comes when the just-completed Death Star is used to destroy the city in which this occurs. Edwards brilliantly conveys the terrifying power of the weapon and its ability to create a genuinely shattering, apocalyptic event, showing at length the horrifying impacts both from orbit aboard the Death Star and at ground level as our heroes flee. The scene ends as a prominence comprising millions of tonnes of firey rubble climbs slowly but inexorably kilometres into the atmosphere, reaching out for the weapon that sired it, drawn out like a cry and grimly fascinating, the equivalent of a mushroom cloud. It is a breathtaking moment.

    New droid K-2SO is a near-genius level construct; a bitingly cynical, sarcastic personality that is as obviously indebted to C-3PO as his name alone suggests yet which feels very necessary for the new tone that is being set and not merely as an in-joke.

    The night-time scenes on rainy Eadu form part of the (unnecessarily?) involved Erso plot, and do perhaps feel a little redundant; one might also question how it is that a Rebel air squadron can so easily stage an attack on Imperial research base. But again Edwards balanced pace and plot and incident well enough for it not to overly matter.

    The final act occurs on yet another planet, the lush littoral world of Scarif (actually Laamu Atoll in the Maldives). Here another of Edwards’ skills, hinted as on Jedha earlier, asserts itself – the ability to hold shots long enough for the viewer to understand, accept and even enjoy what s/he is seeing. Smooth pans and sweeps establish the layout of the Imperial base, from landing pad via transit system to central tower, something that will be repeated at a faster yet still coherent pace in the later battles.

    And, too, it is clear that the entire production this time around knows how to refer to the other films in the series with subtlety and whilst still, as Edwards has said, bringing something new to the party to make it worthwhile. Thus Scarif is shielded, yes, as was the Moon of Endor, but by a generator station-cum-gate sitting in the outer atmosphere that resembles a roulette wheel in its pleasingly circular shape. And, yes, it is also subject to a Rebel Wing fighter assault, but through the sheer quality of the visuals this feels fresh and exciting in a way that the tired re-tread in The Force Awakens did not. Make no mistake, the various ship designs in Rogue One are rendered with such a degree of detail, of resolution and conviction, that they appear real; the slashing combat around and above the shield generator is exceptional because of this as much as Edwards’ ability to direct the action. Similarly, the triple-level battle of which this is part – it continues on the ground, and in the tower – echoes the end of Return of the Jedi (1983) but is just as impressive and thrilling, even if much of the beach fighting was lost in the final edit.

    Every viewer will however be thankful that a critical element of that ending did NOT get cast adrift; destined to be forever referred to as THAT Vader scene, the Dark Lord – announced only by his breathing and lightsabre activation in the smoke-filled darkness – scything his way through a corridor of Rebel troops by deploying almost casually each of his powers in turn is shocking, dark and astonishing.

    The ending for those on the ground, when it comes, is inevitable given the stand-alone nature of the story, which clearly freed Edwards and team to be more bold than the canonical films allow. But every ending is a beginning, too, and the final shots are smart and satisfying.

    There are flaws; of course there are. Vadar’s brutal combat would have been even more effective had that been the character’s only appearance in the film. The CGI resurrection of Governor Tarkin works well for a minute or two, but is repeated several times to far lesser effect. The decision to do the same to evoke a youthful Carrie Fisher is a mistake since the result is poor to the point of inducing laughter.

    But these are quibbles. In its careful mining of unused or barely-glimpsed figures, machines and places from elsewhere in the canon, its treading of a sure path through a tangled plot and those extraordinary visuals, Rogue One is the very best Christmas present any fan could hope for.

    “I'm one with the Force, and the Force is with me”.




  • 'Mary Stuart'

    How finely balanced the future is… What would have happened if Mary, Queen of Scots – ‘the Stuart’, as she was often pejoratively called – had not finally been executed by order of Elizabeth I, after years languishing as her prisoner? If the pair had met, as Elizabeth planned for the year 1562, what could have emerged from that event? Might the childless, Protestant Elizabeth have agreed to anoint her first cousin, the in fact moderately ‘Catholic Mary’, her successor? And what is a worse confinement anyway, a prison of stone or the restriction of being Head of State? All of these points and many more are explored by director Robert Icke in his absorbing new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s two-century-old play at the Almeida, starring Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson who share the main roles.

    In retrospect having the spin of a coin, live on stage at the start of each performance, determine which of the identically-costumed co-leads takes which part for the next three hours is a neat summary of this nuanced ‘What if’, which plays repeatedly with the dualisms of Mary’s and Elizabeth’s respective positions and also points up – both subtly and more obviously – parallels with recent events in today’s geopolitics, where for example Britain once more has a female leader day-to-day but where America narrowly avoided following suit.

    Beginning mid-way through those 19 years of captivity, with Mary still believed to be not just the figurehead but also the driver for repeated Catholic plots to overturn Elizabeth’s throne, Icke’s work sets out the dilemmas, contradictions and possibilities of the situation in England (and Scotland, and France, and Spain). Mary – played, brilliantly, by Williams last night – alternately pleads, charms and rationally advances her cause to gaoler Paulet (Sule Rimi), dismissing the secret court that incarcerated her since it could not have been a trial by her peers and contained unreliable confessions. Enter Paulet’s nephew, Mortimer (Rudi Dharmalingham), whose spiritual investigations on the continent have opened his eyes to the Catholic faith so banned in England and who consequently pledges to help Mary escape.

    Already the parallels with today emerge. “He went to Paris and Rheims, and came back just as English as he left”, a relieved nobleman says of Mortimer, albeit unsuspecting of his change of heart, and it is not hard in Brexit Britain to find a domestic variant of the statement that we “ignore laws that bind half the world”. Mary’s assertion that “We only trust people like us”, meanwhile, must resonate on both sides of the Channel and both sides of the Atlantic at the very least in 2016. Later the single word “asylum” and accusations that “You treat us as ‘the other’” ring true as well, whilst talk of “mad extremists” and “Catholic cells” hiding in the shadows fits when one discovers that Mary was shuttled around a succession of remote castles like Tudor versions of the CIA’s black sites.

    Already, too, the delicate poise that separates the fates of both monarchs is tested: “Her power rolls with my head into the dust,” supposes Mary of her cousin, explaining Elizabeth’s continued reluctance to carry out the sentence of the court. Special praise should be extended here to Williams, whose electrifying presence grips throughout a long and complex first scene. Smart, sharp, sexual, her Stuart is lithe and in command, a teasing, taunting inmate dancing around her cell as though its walls were absent.

    Cut to Elizabeth, however, and the opposite is true. Henry VIII’s daughter, as played by Stevenson (which casting is, surely, quite right even if by chance), is fretful, disturbed, fickle, pushed first one way then another by her ministers and her public and unwilling or unable to decide what is best. To what extent monarchy is of or for the people is a thread that runs throughout the text, and as such Mary Stuart forms a useful pairing with Mike Bartlett’s stunning King Charles III, also at the Almeida two years ago, even if that work is less of a counter-factual than a pre-factual, perhaps.

    That Schiller and Icke’s Elizabeth is not the iron-willed icon familiar from countless films comes as something of a shock, though that her famous chastity is depicted as her final stand against the pressure of conformity aligns. “What more do people want”, she wails, cautioning also against wedlock – “Two rings may make a marriage yet also a chain.” Crucially her very position is shown as a burden in itself, especially if the people turn: “Being hated by the public IS a death”. Kate Maltby describes Elizabeth as a repressed career woman; Richard Lovelace put it more lyrically a century later in his famous To Althea, from prison: stone walls do not a prison make/nor iron bars a cage.

    The machinations of plot and counter plot beyond the principals bring the story vividly to life, with the powerful maturity of Vincent Franklin as Burleigh and the extraordinary John Light once more as the looser, more charming Leicester particularly notable. Mortimer, revealed as a triple agent in due course, becomes the fulcrum of this complex web of trust and distrust, which moves inexorably to a climax at the end of act two.

    The fallout sees a quieter pace, as both sides lick their wounds and prepare for the endgame. Here even the lowest functionary quails over the likely effect of execution, refusing to pick up the death warrant Elizabeth eventually signs, though she remains unwilling to order him to take it. The play climaxes with an exquisitely effective sequence in which the “sisters” are each dressed formally in order to carry out their final roles. Hildegard Bechtler’s absolutely minimalist design, which until now utilised only the stage’s revolve and some retractable seating, here flourishes, unveiling a coup de theatre that is enhanced immeasurably by the final iteration of Jackie Shamesh’s wall-washing colour lighting and a beautiful, haunting original song from Britain’s own Laura Marling.

    This is an intelligent, often intense and frequently thought-provoking drama that blends observations and conventions of three periods – that in which it is set, written and now performed – successfully and with feeling. Its stripped-down austerity tomes well with the times but also allows the themes, words and characters to breathe. And remember, history is made by the victor.

    'Mary Stuart' continues at the Almeida until 21 January 2017. Note that only rehearsal images are currently available, which do not give a full picture of the production. Accordingly only the poster/programme image has been used here.



  • 'Sully'

    On a cold afternoon in New York eight years ago next January, a routine domestic flight took off from La Guardia airport bound for Charlotte, South Carolina. One hundred and fifty passengers, three flight attendants and two pilots were aboard the Airbus. Two minutes later a flock of geese smashed into the plane’s engines, destroying both of them and leaving the aircraft a ninety-five tonne glider. With no thrust, limited electrical power and losing height rapidly, Captain Chesley Sullenberger calmly decided to steer the falling A320 across Manhattan island, line her up with the Hudson river and land her on its surface. Less than four minutes after leaving the ground, Flight 1549 ditched at a speed of 130 knots and came to a stop on the water. After Sullenberger gave the order to evacuate, the cabin crew assisted the passengers onto the wings of the floating airliner or into its emergency chutes, which also function as rafts. Within an hour and a half, the rescue effort that had immediately followed when ceased, with every one of the passengers and crew alive and safely ashore.

    That astonishing true story is the subject of this new film, directed by Clint Eastwood from a script by Todd Komarnicki and starring Tom Hanks as the title character, whose post-crash book (written with the late Jeffery Zaslow) forms the basis of the screen story. The ‘miracle on the Hudson’, as those dramatic few hours became known, was surely an obvious candidate for adaptation, but at issue is how such a world-famous event should and indeed could have been presented. The answers that Komarnicki and Eastwood have given are both the resulting film’s strength, and its weakness.

    We begin hearing the sound of a more horrific crash than actually occurred and then see it on screen, only for this to be revealed as a nightmare. Sullenberger and his First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are in fact confined, mere hours after the Hudson landing, to a hotel and awaiting the first of several inquiry hearing, these to be held between the crew and a range of experts across an uncomfortably small table. Further such meetings follow, with both Sullenberger and Skiles accused of risking rather than saving lives by not taking the option to return to the airport or divert to another.

    Already, then, several degrees of falsity are overlaid on the facts. In truth no hearing took place for days, and no such confrontational approach was taken when it did. Sullenberger’s midnight jogging sessions appear unreal too, as does the enforced separation from his wife (Laura Linney in a somewhat thankless role that involves her playing to a phone handset throughout) for the duration. If the aim was to conjure up the actual unreality that Sullenberger and the others aboard that day must have felt, I’m not sure that this cinematic sleight of hand is the best way of doing so. More widely, but equally obstructively, much of the dialogue is simplistic and awkward even when it can be heard, and secondary characters never rise above background status.

    Fortunately Hanks holds the screen whenever he appears and Eastwood recognises this, perhaps because as an actor he excelled at playing extraordinary people in relatively ordinary surroundings whereas Hanks flourishes in the exactly opposite situation. From an astronaut on a routine Moonshot that turns into a potential disaster (Apollo 13) via a teacher-turned-soldier on a near suicide mission (Saving Private Ryan) to a skipper in the merchant marine playing a deadly game with pirates (Captain Philips), this is Hank’s milieu and Eastwood responds simply by framing him squarely and letting the man react. Again, however, the contrived structure of Sully means it take some time for the audience to see Sullenberger truly in the hot seat, in turn rendering the artificially hostile interviews of this early portion a frustration.

    After the further induced drama of apparently contradictory air crash data, this audience member thus welcomed the film’s move into more expected territory when it becomes clear that we are, finally, watching the lead up to the accident itself. Here, as hinted through gentle gliding shots over New York’s night-time skyline previously, Eastwood’s decision to shoot on the IMAX corporation’s tweaked digital 6K ARRI Alexa 65 camera just about pays off, validating my own related choice to watch at an IMAX venue. You really will need to fasten your seatbelt even before the flight begins, as a similarly vertigo-inducing aerial shot of La Guardia places you right in the action in a way that even this ‘Lie-MAX’ variant, as detractors dub it, delivers. The familiar blue leather seating of an A320 cabin appears almost tactile as the passengers board, the camera pushing its way down that centre aisle with them. The format’s square frame comes into its own too in such a space, something also seen in the quieter building interiors. True, the cockpit shots feel a little flat, possibly as a result of the digital backdrops combined with a slight insufficiency of realistic aircraft movement, but given the short time between this and the main event cinematographer Tom Stern can be forgiven.

    As that accident begins, then, any doubts about Eastwood’s ability to summon tension vanish.

    Intercut very effectively (by Blu Murray) with the air traffic controller’s desperate, clearly 9/11-inspired attempts to maintain contact with Flight 1549 and provide it with alternatives for a safe landing, Sullenberger’s and Skiles’s efforts to work the relevant checklist, assess the situation and make decisions are gripping. It is, though, when the captain eschews a recovery, decides to ditch and informs all aboard to “Brace for landing” that things become almost unbearable: immediately echoed down the aircraft by two of the flight attendants chanting in unison, the startlingly present stereo (in both senses) of their joint instructions to “Brace, brace! Head down, stay down!”, repeatedly endlessly yet with an oddly beautiful harmonic, sends a chill down my spine even as I remember it to type this. It is an electrifying sequence that will, I think, curiously, confirm and allay fears over flying at one and the same time.

    The landing itself is highly effective, the evacuation, too, exciting and, with the commercial ferry crews and emergency services racing to help, real pace is delivered.

    Unfortunately the inevitable return to the inquiry slips into awkwardness once again, with a painfully drawn-out and repetitive courtroom-style contest between Sullenberger and the inquiry board over the validity of the various simulations run to test the former’s decision to ditch. Even if one accepts the corner the film-makers appear to have painted themselves into with this scene, the absurdly compressed geography and timescales weighs heavily against the film’s credibility. At this point its 96 minutes, barely enough to span the actual incident, feels rather longer.

    Another structural game is played around the cockpit voice recorder playback, which introduces a repeat of almost the entire downing but now with slightly altered and additional dialogue. If, again, the purpose is to set up, undermine then revalidate the concept of a single, objective truth, my conclusion deserves repeating as well – it was the wrong call in this instance.

    With satisfaction obtained, as history relates, the credits play over a final unsettling of reality – the actual Sullenberger, his crew and the passengers meeting and reminiscing. It’s very hard to discern any reason for this particular intrusion – why go to the effort of constructing a filmic version of reality, only then to puncture it in such a way?

    This film is a worthy simulacra of a supremely worthwhile event, for the true records of which the online world is an astonishing portal. It has moments that are superbly absorbing, and moments that are admirable. Ultimately, it fails to fully work thanks to badly judged decisions on form and content.

    The last line should belong to Sullenberger. That end-credits sequence functions as a postscript in more ways than one; after its recovery, the aircraft itself – visible in the background – ended up as an exhibit in the Carolinas Aviation Museum, which is adjacent to the very airport that was the intended landing point that day. Thanks to Chesley Sullenberger, Jeff Skiles, Donna Dent, Sheila Dail and Doreen Welsh, Flight 1549 made it to its destination after all.



  • 'Arrival'

    This intelligent, absorbing drama from director Denis Villeneuve is framed as a science fiction film and indeed the plot is driven by the global appearance of a dozen alien ships of unknown purpose or origin. It gradually becomes clear that this is simply a framework for the exploration of some very human truths about decision, action, reaction and regret, however, filtered through linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and the apparent recent loss of her young daughter.

    Working for but also in the shadow of the US military, with all that that implies in such circumstances, Banks partners with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and together they begin to make progress communicating with the Heptapods, as they are termed. It is only when the ambiguity of their first success raises concerns over its meaning that the temperature is raised.

    What follows should not and will not be spoiled. Suffice it to say that this is a film that engages the mind even after the lights go up, as the exact meaning of elements of what has unfolded settle in. If its ultimate conclusion seems a little trite, the manner in which it is reached is refreshing enough to forgive this and current world events suggest it might not be a bad thing for the film to be shown in the White House, Great Hall of the People and the Kremlin.

    The script is by Eric Heisserer, based on Ted Chiang’s pre-Millennial short story 'Story of Your Life', and the screenplay adds this military element as a concession to convention. It is the character of Banks that is the key, though, and in this role the film is anchored and indeed propelled by an astonishingly naturalistic and wonderfully sympathetic performance by Amy Adams. Calm, reflective, utterly believable, Adams is also photographed in a resolutely – at times almost wilfully – non-glamourous mode, both forming an instructive contrast with her other current release, the hugely disappointing Nocturnal Animals. It is certainly Adams’s film, as in truth the Donnelly character is rather redundant for most of the time, becoming significant only at the climax.

    As a writer it is good to see language and its structure at the heart of such a film, and the sequences in which the breakthroughs are made are as gripping any thriller. If it is a little disappointing that Villeneuve falls back on a montage and voice over to cover much of this, his approach to the remainder of proceedings compensates considerably. Complementing the dialled-down performances from all three principals, the other being Forest Whitaker as Col. Weber, Villeneuve employs a very quiet, informal shooting style that avoids entirely any show or bravura yet is still pitched aesthetically higher than the more visceral hand-held look familiar from its first appearance in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Coupled with Bradford Young’s low-contrast, slightly soft photography – which has caused some audiences to comment adversely – the effect is a kind of intimate, over-the-shoulder relationship between viewer and participants that is considered and considerate, of actors and audience alike.

    In fact, save for an exquisite series of shots showing the Heptapods’ ships departing, each interacting subtly but spectacularly with the atmosphere, the film has such reserve that it is not especially cinematic at all. This not necessarily a criticism, but simply an observation, though in this Villeneuve’s film departs visually from its closest comparable precursors, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978), Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997) and Gareth Edwards’s Monsters (2010). It does though clearly cleave toward that true categorical rarity to which they all belong: the smart, ideas-based speculative fiction film. Others from the same period include Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009), Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) and perhaps Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009), though certainly this is superior to Nolan’s ill-judged Interstellar (2014), which it otherwise closely resembles in parts.

    All of the above make one think, and adopt a tone that is contemplative rather than confrontational. By chance the difference between these two words is addressed in Arrival itself, caught in a line that about the definition of a certain Sanskrit word.

    We appear to have lost the imagination and openness of the more experimental side of SF cinema that emerged in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s, no doubt thanks to the box office and marketing pressures that produce the kind of histrionic, cataclysmically noisy material that comprised the trailers at last night’s screening. This is a welcome contribution to that lost art, a thoughtful, intriguing and humane drama that deserves attention. And with it, Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015) to Villeneuve’s name, things bode well for his Blade Runner 2049 next year.



  • 'Ghost in the Shell' (2017)

    What makes you human? Beyond that, how do you know that you are you? Could you tell if something changed either of those states? Could anyone else? And as you become increasingly connected to a sea of information much wider than your own direct experience of life, how well do you know yourself anyway? These are the questions at the heart of Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk action drama Ghost in the Shell, which first appeared more than twenty five years ago as a Japanese comic series and whose latest iteration, a live-action Hollywood film directed by Rupert Sanders and starring Scarlett Johansson, will be released next March. Its first full-length trailer was revealed yesterday at an event in Tokyo after weeks of fragmentary teasers, whilst the opening few minutes of the new film are also now available.

    Those familiar with Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime feature of the same name, undoubtedly the best-known aspect of Shirow’s universe, will have immediately recognised several elements of that ground-breaking production that are replicated in the new piece, from the skyscraping dive of lead character Kusanagi that opens the film to her hand-to-hand takedown of a gunman in a flooded city street. That hints are present in a brief on-location report of the scene that precedes this in the anime and also – in the trailer again – the battle with a walking tank that climaxes that version will also have gladdened fans.

    That film took animation as a medium to new heights of subtlety, using dynamic body movements, realistic depictions of reflection, refraction and fluid motion and the kinds of camera choices usually only seen in live action. Pioneering digital animation and compositing techniques were also employed to create convincing graphics for tactical displays, background cels that shifted in the correct perspective and, in a dazzling computed-generated shot that was a first for the industry, an entire building, lit up at night and rotating as it is circled by a (traditionally-rendered) helicopter.

    Oshii’s film, a thoughtful, at times melancholy work despite its thundering action sequences, borrowed freely from the original six-part 1989 manga, published in the West in 1991. It employed a sophisticated structure to tell a complex geopolitical tale of inter-agency and international government rivalry that frames a second, far more intimate, story musing elegantly and eloquently on identity and humanity in the face of exceptional, even transcendent, technological advancement.

    Set forty years into the future in an altered Japan (changed to Hong Kong in the anime, perhaps in response to its then-impending handback to China), it depicted a world in which artificial body parts are routine and individuals who could as a result truly be regarded as cyborgs – part human, part mechanism, depending on the degree of replacement.

    Crucially, this ability to improve on nature was also extended to the mind with the concept of cyber-brains, themselves composed of a mixture of organic and mechanical material and which could as a result interface with any electronic device, not just those in the body. The obvious if disturbing corollary is that a cyber-brain can be hacked just as a computer can.

    With this came the conceit that sits at the centre of Shirow’s invention – that if the shell or body is man-made, along with most of the brain and perhaps its memories and experiences too, what of that person’s ‘ghost’ or soul, and who is to say what is human then?

    Certainly Motoko Kusanagi, a major in the Section 9 special security unit, presents as a confident woman entirely in command of both her team and her destiny, yet as a near total cyborg herself has developing worries over what she is and particularly how valid the thoughts, feelings and memories that comprise what she thinks of as ‘her’ can be said to be. These are already clouding her pursuit of the powerful hacker nicknamed the Puppet Master from his habit of controlling his victims’ actions even before their respective fates appear inescapably intertwined. The revelation that life might emerge from the Net as well as be manipulated via it emerges as vital, and the end scenes occur in an abandoned natural history museum complete with stone relief of a tree of life, its branches labelled with stages in human evolution. Where have the exhibits gone? Superseded by something better? No longer relevant? Shirow’s cover art for the first part of the manga showing a physically connected Kusanagi in near-foetal pose also suggest this conflation.

    It can be seen how such a story owes much to the pre-Web novels of Philip K Dick and William Gibson, both of whose principal achievements in this field (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Neuromancer) appeared comfortably before Shirow made his own mark, but as I've written before, there is a solid and persistent anxiety – or at least morbid curiosity over – of humans becoming machines that infects much of Japanese anime and manga. In addition to the explanation I advanced in that piece I wonder now if this may have also been conditioned by the unique experience of a populace once decimated by the ultimate example of technology. And yet it's notable that notwithstanding the powerful collective culture in Japan, where anime has explored this theme – in Silent Moebius, or Bubblegum Crisis spin-off AD police – the fear is on a very personal scale rather than global or even supranational.

    Oshii’s film retains and actually amplifies much of this, not least with the exchange on a boat at night (itself preserved in the new film, it seems) in which Kusanagi appears sanguine about the risk of drowning without the buoyancy kit that her heavy cyborg body requires. This introspective quality is also signalled by carefully-considered scenes in which Kusanagi is mirrored in the glass partition of an interview room and the surface of a lake from below. The moment when she glimpses an office worker who has the same-model head and hairstyle as her own is a neat twist on this whilst reminding viewers that her cyborg body is simply, as Ryan Lambie perceptively puts it, "a vehicle to be driven, like a car."

    Thanks to the success of the 1995 film, the manga became the core of an ever-expanding multi-media empire that now includes follow-ups, animated features, television and video series and even a theatrical performance. It is, though, Sanders’ film – which has not involved Oshii (beyond a set visit) or, as far as can be determined, Shirow – that will deliver this poignant yet exciting story to a new and much larger audience.

    Written by Jonathan Herman and Jamie Moss, its cast also includes as Section 9 chief Aramaki cult figure Takeshi Kitano, who previously co-starred in Robert Longo’s adaptation of the Gibson short story Johnny Mnemonic that was released in the same year as Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell. Shot in New Zealand and China and with wuxia-style wireplay as well as the more familiar visual effects, it will be one of the very few live action adaptations of anime or manga to date, in stark contrast to the world of American and British fantasy comics that continue to be a rich course of material for film makers to plunder. Indeed it is perhaps instructive that Aeon Flux (2005), probably the only other example that comes to mind, is based on an American rather than Japanese property

    That said, many feature films from the last twenty years or so have either incorporated sequences that refer (consciously or otherwise) to their drawn counterparts or are infused with their spirit. Examples include John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992), the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999), Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) and Michael Mann’s Blackhat (2015). Mamoru Oshii himself also made the anime-like Avalon (2001) from his original screenplay.

    Of course it will be another few months before an assessment can be made as to whether this attempt succeeds or fails in any of these categories, though all involved must at least be congratulated for trying.

    Ghost in the Shell, a DreamWorks SKG/Grosvenor Park Productions/Reliance Entertainment/Seaside Entertainment film for Paramount Pictures, is released in the UK on 31 March 2017



  • ‘Napoléon vu par Abel Gance’

    There is epic cinema, and then there is epic cinema. Last night I attended the Royal Festival Hall’s new digital presentation of the current, restored print of Abel Gance’s 1927 silent monochrome biopic covering the first dozen years of Napoléon Bonaparte’s life, complete with Carl Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra through his own score. The film is now five and a half hours long, and as a result is split into no fewer than four parts with three intermissions. The total running time of the event was eight hours.

    The restoration itself – achieved through traditional photochemical means by editor and film historian Kevin Brownlow – is fifteen years old, and so is Davis’s score, but this was the premiere of the improved, scanned version of the single film print that was made. As such, according to Brownlow, disparate sources have been blended more seamlessly, colour grading has been improved and other problems rectified. The venue is also one of the few that, thanks to an elegant temporary installation, can project the famous climactic multi-coloured triptych or three-screen sequence as it was intended to be seen.

    For me, this was another revelatory movie moment. I had never seen any version of the film before, but had had my interested piqued by attending an illustrated talk by Brownlow a couple of years ago. Duly prepared, seated and armed with the beautiful and informative programme, I let this ninety-year-old drama unfold before me…

    “Napoléon lived amongst them in wild isolation” – intertitle card

    The story opens with the Corsica-born Napoléon as a young teenager boarding at a monastery-like military academy in northern France. The boys are playing wargames in the snow, with each team trying to take the other’s ‘castle’. Napoléon is an outsider – sullen, moody, contained, but also smart and assertive. As he leads his side to victory through a mix of ingenuity (using a polished belt buckle as a mirror) and aggression, Gance shows off his own skill through a series of astonishingly fluid and inventive camera moves. We follow Napoléon as he runs, cut away to other scenes, find ourselves jammed into the action through hand-held shooting. The first of Gance’s carefully-considered split screen effects also appears, which the screen divided into more and more panels until a three-by-three grid holds multiple viewpoints. A blizzard of superimposed shots, almost stroboscopic in their intensity at the end, heighten the action and Davis’s theme for the future leader of men recalls Wagner’s death of Siegfried in its power and sweep. Both script and style serve the incredible playing of Vladimir Roudenko as the wilful, frowning, 14-year-old Napoléon; 18 at the time (he died in 1976), Roudenko is magnetic whether he sits, struts or simply thinks.

    Exiled to a freezing garret by the tutors after a pillow fight (whose blinding whiteness echoes the snowy scenes of earlier), Napoléon reclines on an abandoned cannon, covered in a coat brought by a friend, and is joined by his pet eagle. The symbolism is obvious but so too, it becomes clear, is the foreshadowing.

    “Your hymn will save many a cannon” – Napoléon to Rouget de Lisle

    Cut to nine years later, and the Revolution is underway. Robespierre, in his round-lensed sunglasses, sits in a chair with an eagle as its back. A young officer arrives with a new song, which might do for an anthem. Soon, an entire church full of citizens is taught La Marseillaise, and to celebrate Gance his deploys his next trick – the entire frame shifts to a golden tone for the rest of the rousing sequence, ‘trigerred’ by light streaming through a stained glass window and ended again by a hypnotic flutter of superimpositions.

    Napoléon, now a young artillery officer and played by Albert Dieudonné (born 1889, also died 1976) looks on before retiring to his first floor apartment. Here, the colour shifts again to red as bloody Revolution continues quite literally outside Napoléon’s door. Hardly glancing up as a forest of pikes jostles past leaving crazed shadows on the ceiling, even when one supports a severed head, Napoléon bends to his own plans. He also remains unmoved as two men clamber along the ironwork balcony, straining at ropes and with bloodied hands; Gance cuts away to the street below, where a man’s booted feet leave the ground, kicking. It is a shocking sequence, but one of several to come. The red tint remains as a call to arms is expounded to the people in a blacksmith’s forge, but in a more sophisticated iteration of the effect shifts to green when cutting to the people outside. As Napoléon dreams and the Senate falls, gold and red are intercut.

    Throughout, Davis’s score is spellbinding. Borrowing, by his own admission yet also fully in line with how silent scores were always made, from others he manages still to create original leitmotifs of his own, and the live experience – thundering drums, pizzicato strings, a tubular bell for a school bell – is second to none.

    “A future Emperor, three kings and a queen in only a few metres of sea and sky” – intertitle

    In a pause, Napoléon visits his family in rural Corsica, an almost voyeuristic sequence that plays as though we are peering over the shoulder of snapshots in the process of being taken. Three shuttered windows opening prefigure the final triptych, and a new tint emerges – a soft purple. This is contrasted with a golden-lit sojourn in Casone’s grotto and when Napoléon poses in thought, Rodin-like, on a headland – shots are taken from further and further way until he is a mere dot against a pink sun.

    Flashbacks, a pale blue moonlight and an escape by dinghy – using the Tricolore as a sail – lead to the ‘Double Storm’, a masterfully dynamic intercutting between a jittery, nervy camera at sea and a sweeping, energetic one in the rafters of a hall as the Convention is tossed with words just as Napoléon fights his way forward in waterlogged silence. Make no mistake, this is no pathetic millpond, but a thoroughly convincing ocean. Tight framing also helps this illusion, something Gance will use again.

    Later, the camera moves backward as Napoléon walks toward us, into the Siege of Toulon, scanning the skies and the land and the sea with the topographic sensitivity of the artillery tactician. His plans to break the English are audaciously visualised by a rapidly-edited montage of plans – complete with animated symbols, a la Dad’s Army – flickering through his mind. His inspection of the exhausted French troops themselves, dusty, starved, poorly clothed, growing flowers in their artillery, introduces a level of humanity that is continued through a poignant sketch of a seven-year-old drummer boy who is thrilled that he has six more years to live when told that his predecessor died at 13 and sustained through what follows.

    The Toulon battle is one of the most remarkable filmic depictions of conflict I have ever seen. Hundreds of soldiers troop past a locked-off camera, demonstrating the scope of Gance’s vision; cannons are laboriously manoeuvred and realistically recoil, this last action sometimes followed by the camera itself. Napoléon stands firm, yet is active across the field, his green-tinted flashback to those innocent days at the academy inserted between the red-toned war. Two aesthetic aspects jump out immediately; the controlled chaos of each tightly-packed frame, stuffed with incident and depth in all directions, and the exceptionally truthful portrayal of rain, wind and smoke. This is a choking smog of blood and grime, into which men drown, gasp and die. It is, perhaps, informed by the filmed and photographed horrors of the Great War, less than ten years past.

    Small, far less spectacular details are found throughout that also speak to Gance’s concerns for those he illustrates: generals burn their boots for firewood, rain pours from the tricorn hat of an English officer inside a building as he reports, a wagon wheel rolls inexorably over an ankle, hailstones beat drums after their drummers have died.

    But Gance’s epic vision returns for the finale, which occurs against a blue-tinged dawn with a superb burned-out sun. Exhausted, asleep across a cannon, Napoléon rests as his men pile the flags of the defeated nations – Spain, Italy, England – around him.

    The terror of the Terror abides, however, enhanced through a surreal set of scenes in which various grotesques – a man in a self-driving wheelchair, a coffin full of execution orders, a man playing a hurdy gurdey – crowd around Robespierre and his cronies as they assign names to life or death.

    “What is that noise?”

    “It is Napoléon entering history again, Madame” - Joseph Fouché to Joséphine

    Napoléon is humbled only when awkwardly courting his future love. A very ‘twenties interpretation of an 18th century ball, at which he appears like a Goth rock star or Darth Vader, sets the scene.

    But he like me prefers action and as Napoléon prepares to enter Italy at the head of the French army, Gance unveils his trump card – the triptych.

    Last night, the single square screen on which the entire film had until now been projected expanded to triple its width, allowing the visionary spectacle of three-screen wideangle views to emerge. Napoléon’s review of his men spread across the full span of the stage, sparking, too, a faster and more stylised cutting method and rhythm in which the side panels show the same image but reflected, or all three present something different. Delivering an oratory from an arroyo, all three images tilt up slightly. Napoléon is pushed to the left whilst his forces are arrayed across the centre and right; a reverse angle allows us to pick him out, a tiny speck in black. The men muster, riding across all three screens. The pace now quickens, the shot choice, cutting and colouring becoming hallucinogenic. A different shot staccatos across each screen in turn, left, middle, right; a phenomenal stroboscopic melange fills the eye, the eagle rises, and the three screens are tinted blue, white, red as, boosted by the Hall’s organ, the score soars to a triumphal conclusion.

    This was mind-blowing stuff. Costumes aside, it could be shown to an audience today labelled as having been made in 1967 and few would bat an eyelid. An extract from Gance’s notes, translated, shows how directly he carried his thoughts:

    It’s impossible to guess how many film-makers have been influenced by this work, just as Gance copied the Old Masters – you might guess a few from the above. That Gance planned seven films in all, to cover the man’s entire life, must surely have inspired George Lucas, for example, even without the idea of a black-clad anti-hero stalking grimly through white sets. And reading of how Gance was “urging his cameramen to exploit all conceivable tricks. The camera has to march with the troops, gallop with the horses, slide with the sledge, drop, spin, somersault. He even asks Simon Feldman, his technical director, to build him a camera which turns through 360 degrees and which can be operated from long distance, a kind of improvised crane and first ancestor of the highly sophisticated dolly of today” with the camera also mounted or horseback, bicycle, boat, Leni Riefenstahl and Stanley Kubrick are just two others who might have been inspired by Gance’s film. Others might be Saul Bass and Maurice Binder.

    An epic feat of cinema demands, it seems an equivalent from the viewer. But it was worth it.

    ‘Napoleon’ is released in cinemas on 11 November and on Blu-ray and DVD on 21 November. The score is available on CD.



Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture


How to Read London

A crash course in London architecture

My new book is now on sale. It reveals the hidden gems of London's rich built history whilst celebrating the well-known landmarks. From shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village's Deconstructivism, from Royal palaces to pleasure palaces, and from extravagent banks to Modernist apartments, over one hundred buildings are featured.

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