Young Adam (2003)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #100

Everyone has a past.
Everyone has a secret.

Country: UK & France
Language: English
Runtime: 98 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: NC-17 (uncut) | R (cut)

Original Release: 4th September 2003 (Netherlands)
UK Release: 26th September 2003
First Seen: DVD, c.2005

Stars
Ewan McGregor (Shallow Grave, Big Fish)
Tilda Swinton (Orlando, We Need to Talk About Kevin)
Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, Tyrannosaur)
Emily Mortimer (Lovely & Amazing, Match Point)

Director
David Mackenzie (Starred Up, Hell or High Water)

Screenwriter
David Mackenzie (The Last Great Wilderness, Hallam Foe)

Based on
Young Adam, a novel by Alexander Trocchi.

The Story
Joe is earning his keep helping transport coal on a barge between Glasgow and Edinburgh, spending his free time lusting after his employer’s wife, when he spots a woman’s dead body floating in the canal — something Joe knows more about than he lets on…

Our Hero
Joe is a young drifter, who’s wound up working on a barge with Les and Ella Gault and their son. He’s a horny bugger, sex obsessed to the point of distraction, which will have an effect on everyone’s lives.

Our Villain
It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say the film is a murder mystery — especially as it’s not clear if the woman was indeed murdered. But how did she die? How was Joe involved? He’s the main character, which makes him the hero, but is he actually a bad’un?

Best Supporting Character
Harried barge wife Ella is not anyone’s typical image of desirability, but nonetheless becomes the object of Joe’s own brand of affections, which brings her some happiness… for a while. Mainly, it’s a brilliant, layered performance by Tilda Swinton.

Memorable Quote
Joe: “Are you sorry?”
Ella: “Fat lot of good that would do me.”

Memorable Scene
Cathie, another of Joe’s lovers, comes home soaking wet. As she undresses, she berates him for doing nothing useful with his time. He informs he has made custard, which he throws over her, followed by various other condiments. Then there is, shall we say, an act with (at best) debatable consent. I believe this is a version of something called “sploshing” (thanks, internet).

Memorable Music
David Byrne’s ambient score haunts the soundtrack, as essential to the film’s grey mood as the drizzly Scottish locations and overcast photography. My favourite part is the plaintive closing song, The Great Western Road.

Awards
4 BAFTA Scotland Awards (Film, Actor in a Scottish Film (Ewan McGregor), Actress in a Scottish Film (Tilda Swinton), Director)
4 British Independent Film Award nominations (British Independent Film, Actor (Ewan McGregor), Actress (Tilda Swinton), Director)
3 Empire Awards nominations (British Film, British Actor (Ewan McGregor), British Actress (Emily Mortimer))

What the Critics Said
“Joe is a hard case. Opaque. Not tender, not good with the small talk. Around women, he has a certain intensity that informs them he plans to have sex with them, and it is up to them to agree or go away. He is not a rapist, but he has only one purpose in his mind, and some women find that intensity of focus to be exciting. It’s as if, at the same time, he cares nothing for them and can think only of them. […] He is not a murderer but a man unwilling to intervene, a man so detached, so cold, so willing to sacrifice others to his own convenience, that perhaps in his mind it occurs that he would feel better about the young woman’s death if he had actually, actively, killed her. Then at least he would know what he had done and would not find such emptiness when he looks inside himself. This is an almost Dostoyevskian study of a man brooding upon evil until it paralyzes him. […] The death of the girl and the plot surrounding it are handled not as a crime or a mystery but as an event that jars characters out of their fixed orbits. When you have a policy of behavior, a pose toward the world, that has hardened like concrete into who you are, it takes more than guilt to break you loose.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Score: 62%

What the Public Say
“McGregor, putting his meat and two veg on show once again, is really good as the conflicted and sex addict, Swinton does almost steal the show as the sex-craving barge woman, who also gets naked, and Mortimer in the flashbacks is very good, with her clothes off too. The film is just stuffed with sexual scenes, and with the dead body premise it combines film noir and melodrama, all adding up to a well crafted and most watchable period drama.” — Jackson Booth-Millard @ IMDb

Verdict

Part murder mystery, part beat character study, part erotic drama, Young Adam is an enigmatic, moody, conflicted film — in a good way. It presents a grimily realistic view of life and sex, around which writhes a murder mystery that, as it turns out, doesn’t contain a murder and, relatively quickly, isn’t much of a mystery. Instead it’s something of an ethical dilemma, presented to a character who’s not exactly unethical but isn’t necessarily concerned about doing what’s right either, especially if it’s against his own interests. Not a cheery one, then, but a film of grey morals, grey imagery, and grey mood — in a good way.

Next time… looking back over my 100 favourites.

The Decoy Bride (2011)

2015 #155
Sheree Folkson | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / PG

This is not a well-reviewed film — Little White Lies described it as “possibly the worst thing ever in world history.”

Obviously they’re being intentionally hyperbolic (well, I hope), but it’s not merited. Okay, it’s a standard rom-com, of the form we’ve seen dozens of times, but it’s no worse than most and better than plenty. Kelly Macdonald and David Tennant are appealing leads with some chemistry, “TV director” Folkson’s work is cinematic enough, and there are decent laughs in the screenplay by Sally Phillips.

There’s nothing special about The Decoy Bride, but it’s pleasantly entertaining. It could be much worse.

3 out of 5

This drabble review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Shallow Grave (1994)

2015 #105
Danny Boyle | 89 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English | 18 / R

The debut feature of director Danny Boyle was hailed on release for being a British film that wasn’t another period-piece literary adaptation. Instead, it concerns three ultra-chummy flatmates in contemporary Edinburgh (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston, Kerry Fox) who take in a fourth lodger, who promptly dies, leaving behind an insane amount of cash. Rather than report it, they dispose of the corpse and keep the cash. You don’t get much further from Merchant-Ivory than that.

Naturally, things don’t go swimmingly. The trio’s subsequent behaviour begins to cause ruptures among them; there are some Nasty Men looking for the cash; and when the remains are discovered the police get involved. It’s kind of a dark thriller, as it sounds, but also funny — the kind of film the ’90s specialised in, in some respects (think Fight Club, say). It’s also morally and emotionally complex, however. The flatmates aren’t the villains, they’re ‘us’, tempted to extremes by unusual circumstances. Consequently, it has that great discussion-generating feature of many a zeitgeist-y ‘watercooler’ film: what would you do?

Of course, it’s testament to the film’s quality — Boyle’s kinetic direction, the accomplished performances, the entertaining screenplay — that Shallow Grave endures past that initial ponderance to remain one of the Oscar-winning auteur’s best films.

5 out of 5

The Eagle (2011)

2015 #60
Kevin Macdonald | 106 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Hungary / English & Scottish Gaelic | 12 / PG-13

The EagleChanning Tatum is a brave Roman general whose father lost his company’s standard, the titular eagle, north of Hadrian’s Wall (a real historic event, coincidentally depicted in Centurion). Determined to reclaim his family’s honour, he ventures north with slave Jamie Bell to attempt to retrieve it.

Adapted from Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s adventure novel The Eagle of the Ninth, director Kevin Macdonald’s film is, perhaps surprisingly, almost leisurely paced, as much about mood as it is about action. Big fights and battles clearly aren’t the film’s goal or forte, though an early sequence where Roman forces battle druids outside the fort Tatum commands is excellently done. Conversely, it makes the last-stand climax feel a little underwhelming, even somewhat anticlimactic in its briefness.

Between the two battles, Macdonald has made almost an understated second-century buddy movie, as Tatum and Bell trek across the North, bonding — or not — as they encounter the locals. Personally, I rate both of these actors (Tatum, a little to my surprise, has really grown on me this year), so the focus on their cautiously-trusting, always-uncertain relationship worked for me. However, the movie’s real strength lies in how incredible it looks, with rich cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle that shows off some dramatic scenery, shot on location in Scotland and Hungary. When the duo reach a far-north tribal camp, there’s an edge-of-the-world — indeed, almost other-worldly — Sceneryquality to the setting, characters, and imagery that’s quite striking.

The Eagle is a little more thoughtful and measured than you might expect from a PG-13 adaptation of a children’s adventure novel. Clearly a movie that doesn’t meet with all tastes, it has a number of strong qualities that did mesh with mine.

4 out of 5

Local Hero (1983)

2014 #75
Bill Forsyth | 111 mins | download | 1.85:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

Local HeroGentle comedy in which Peter Riegert’s middle-management American oil exec has to persuade the residents of a Scottish village to sell up, unaware that they’re only too keen — for the right price. One of Quentin Tarantino’s Coolest Movies of All Time (seriously).

It’s a funny one, lacking some structural focus and, being independently produced, able to eschew expected endings and pat resolutions. The cast make it, particularly Denis Lawson as the town’s publican/hotelier/solicitor/leader and Burt Lancaster as a beleaguered CEO.

A more acquired taste than you might expect, Local Hero is lightly, loosely likeable. But cool? Hm.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

September 2014

“Did you sept emb ‘er?”
“No, I oct obe ‘er!”

(Don’t worry, it doesn’t make any sense. Let’s move on…)


What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…?

This month’s WDYMYHS film was the massively appropriate Braveheart. I also watched a film actually about a public vote on the future of their country, No. About a nation seeking to get rid of a nefarious ruler who had reigned over them with malicious intent for far too long, the Scottish referendum is what connects these two movies. (Ho-ho!)

On the topic of WDYMYHS, I also finally posted a review for one of last year’s movies, Touch of Evil. I’ve still got Seven Samurai and The Night of the Hunter to go, as well as one other review, and then I’ll finally be done with 2013. (I’ve been exceptionally tardy with that, haven’t I?)


But back to 2014:

September’s films in full
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
#81 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)
#82 Crimes of Passion: Death of a Loved One (2013), aka Mördaren ljuger inte ensam
#83 Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)
#84 Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
#85 The Grey (2011)
#86 Dark Shadows (2012)
#87 Braveheart (1995)
#88 Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Frankenweenie#89 The Spirit (2008)
#90 The Wall (2012), aka Die Wand
#91 Frankenweenie (2012)
#92 Always (1989)
#93 American Hustle (2013)
#94 Mad City (1997)
#95 Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
#96 No (2012)
#97 This is Not a Film (2011), aka In film nist


Analysis

At the start of the year, there’s rarely very much to say in these sections; by this point… oh, there are so many ways to look at the data! September is where that really kicks in, because it’s a month in which I’ve twice reached #100, the earliest I’ve ever managed it. That means “how near is #100?” becomes a very viable proposition; plus, I tend to get very watch-y as the big target nears — when it’s only a few films away, why not squeeze in a couple more than normal and get there sooner?

On that last point, it’s perhaps interesting to start with previous Septembers. Last year was my best-ever tally for the ninth month, by some 23% as well… and yet I didn’t reach #100 until two months later. In part that was just the aforementioned pushing on to get closer to the end — the same thing happened in October, and after I actually reached #100 (in early November) I only watched a couple more films. This September, meanwhile, is 31% higher than last year’s — or, to put it another way, 55% better than the best-before-2013 was. And yet I still haven’t reached #100…

What viewing 17 films this month does mean, however, is that it’s my joint-second highest month ever — hurrah! That’s tied with March 2013; it would’ve needed only one more to be outright-second (oh well), two more to be joint-first (looking right back to December 2008 for that), and (obviously now) three more — i.e. have reached #100 — to set a new record.

What does having reached #97 mean for the rest of the year? Well, it’s the furthest I’ve ever gotten by September without reaching 100. Next nearest was last year, when I was at #84. From there, I went on to #110, which is another 26 films — if I do the same this year, I’d reach #123, which would become my second-highest total ever (behind 2007’s 129 and just ahead of 2010’s 122). Widening the parameters to include all previous years, my average total for the year’s final three months is 27 — making last year the most average of the lot, in fact.

That might be the most accurate predictor of where I’ll end up (though still prone to wild variation: I may’ve watched 26 more last year, but the year before that it was only 16, and in 2009 it was up at 40), but let’s use the rest of the 2014 to make some wild assertions anyway. So, my year-to-date average suggests I’ll reach #129, which (as mentioned) would put 2014 equal-best with 2007; pushing a tiny bit harder would leave me with a record-setting 130 films. The most recent months bode well for that: if I maintain my average viewing from the last three months, I’ll reach #139; if I keep up the average of the last two months, however, I’d make it all the way to #145; and if I kept pace with September, I’d make it all the way to #148!

Will any of that happen? Probably not (never say never!), but it’d be nice to end up in the 120s at least.


Slipping…

A side effect of the higher-than-average viewing is that the extent of my backlog has worsened. You may have noticed the number of new reviews step up a little in the past few weeks to try to stave it off, but in the end I had to relent: having kept the “coming soon” list at no more than 49 films ever since July 2012, it slipped to 50 this month. Ah well. Efforts will continue to stop it growing any longer.


This month’s archive reviews

A bit of a lax start to the month means just 17 archive re-posts this time…

Also this month, the two bookend posts from my 2011 David Fincher Week. Most of the reviews featured therein have already been brought over to this blog, but Fight Club and Panic Room will round them out tomorrow and Friday.

(You may have noticed my Se7en review appeared here before this post, but as that’s technically the archive repost for October 1st it’ll be in next month’s update. I am nothing if not precise about these things that don’t really matter.)


5… what?

This is the second month in a row without a “list of five”, but they have not necessarily gone the way of the dodo — last month I couldn’t think of anything worth doing; this month I’ve run out of time.

I was considering “5 favourite Tim Burton films”, because I finally caught up on both Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie this month. My list would probably have included Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride and Sleepy Hollow (along with a fifth, obviously), and definitely would have left out Planet of the Apes, Mars Attacks and Beetlejuice. (Lest you judge my selections harshly, bear in mind I still haven’t got round to Ed Wood or Big Fish. Or Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.)

What about you, dear reader?


Next month on 100 Films in a Year…

98…
99…
100!

101?

Braveheart (1995)

2014 #87
Mel Gibson | 178 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

BraveheartI figured I ran the risk of affecting the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum if I posted this review yesterday (because of course I have that kind of reach and influence), but after Mel Gibson’s historical(ly-dubious) epic wound up on my 2014 WDYMYHS list, it seemed too good an occasion to miss. So whether Scotland is about to become independent or not, here are my thoughts on a movie that hopefully didn’t actually influence anyone’s vote…

I say that because Braveheart, for thems that don’t know, is the Oscar-winning story of William Wallace (Mel Gibson), a Scot who led a rebellion against English rule and King Edward ‘Longshanks’ (Patrick McGoohan) at the end of the 13th Century. That much, at least, is true — I think. Y’see, Braveheart has been described as “the least accurate historical epic of all time”, its plot and subplots riddled with changes that go above and beyond the usual tweaks needed to make a coherent narrative out of a true-life tale. You don’t have to dig very hard on the internet to find those errors catalogued, so I’m going to set them aside: this is a movie, not a history lecture; and while I can completely understand the frustration its inaccuracies must provoke in those who’d rather see the truth on screen, it’s not as if rewriting the past is anything new for dramatists (to stick with Scottish examples, Macbeth — resplendent as it is with cold regicide and prophetic witchcraft — is based on history), and we can (should?) view it as an entertainment rather than an education.

Blue da-ba-deeJudged as that, Gibson’s three-hour (near as damn it) movie is a pleasingly traditional epic. Many big films these days are just long, but the story here has scope too — it’s about a war, essentially. And war means battles, which are a particular highlight. The standout is surely the famed Battle of Stirling Bridge — you know, the one where the Scots moon the English. Funny and all, but just a small part of a larger sequence. Gibson has the confidence to show the build-up to the fighting, outline the tactics that will be used, and only then launch into the fray. It’s this measured approach that makes it so effective, rather than the crash-bang-wallop straight-to-the-slaughter style of more recent movies. Due to its notoriety I’d assumed the aforementioned clash was the film’s climax, but it’s actually the centrepiece, pretty precisely in the middle of the film. Fortunately there’s enough else going on (because this isn’t actually An Action Movie) that it doesn’t make things feel lopsided.

A big plus comes courtesy of the era the film was made in. It’s the mid-’90s, still a few years away from “let’s use CGI for everything!”, so it was all done ‘for real’. That means great sets and location builds, stunning scenery that’s beautifully photographed, and swathes of extras in the battles. There’s something much more viscerally exciting about watching a few hundred men run at each for real than watching a few hundred thousand polygons do it. The downside of the aforementioned era is some occasionally dated direction, in particular at least one sequence that goes overboard with the slow-mo, but almost everything becomes dated with time — it’s not as bad as, say, Robin Hood with a mullet from Prince of Thieves.

Evil KingIt also doesn’t suffer from that film’s accent issues. Mel Gibson isn’t an American-Scot (or an Australian one), instead delivering an accent that sounds passable to this Englishman. He believed he was too old for the part, which may well be true, but when the rest of it is so inaccurate what does that matter? He’s a solid leading man and a commanding-enough presence. The supporting cast are an array of recognisable Celtish faces — including at least one Irishman playing a Scot and a Scot playing an Irishman — and, because they’re from our fair isles, of course they’re all brilliant. Best of all, however, is Patrick McGoohan. He makes for a fantastic Evil King, given some juicy lines that are even juicier thanks to his delivery. He may not be moustache-twirling-ly memorable like an Alan Rickman creation, but any scene is enlivened by his presence.

Interestingly, Braveheart’s Best Picture Oscar win was the only time it took that gong — no other award or critics group saw fit to deem it 1995’s best movie. So what’s wrong with it? Well, that’s hard to pin down precisely. It’s a little politically simplistic, with the Bad Oppressive English and the Good Honest Scots, including inventing all sorts of stuff to sway the arguments in both those directions. Plenty of old-fashioned epics do exactly the same thing, but I guess by the ’90s we were demanding a little more nuance. The same can be said of the characters — there’s nothing wrong, but aside from Gibson’s grandstanding speeches and McGoohan’s first-class villainy, the only really memorable turn is from the morally-troublesome camply homosexual prince — and that’s a whole can of representational worms.

Royally f**kedThen there’s that issue of historical accuracy. I know I said we should ignore it, but even if you accept fiction films shouldn’t be slavish history lessons (and not everyone does), how far can they ignore the facts? Often with such films the viewer assumes they’re true until someone says, “actually, I think you’ll find in reality…” Not so with Braveheart: you don’t have to know anything of Scottish history to guess that the face-to-face chats (and more, wink-wink-nudge-nudge) between Wallace and the future-Queen must be almost entirely poppycock (and, in fact, you can drop that “almost”).

How much that matters — indeed, how much any of those issues are a problem — will vary from one viewer to the next. For some, Braveheart goes beyond the pale. It does make for a rollickingly good story, though.

4 out of 5

Braveheart was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

Centurion (2010)

2011 #82
Neil Marshall | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Last week, as I’m sure you’re aware, I posted the top ten films I’d watched in 2011. Among them were three I’ve yet to post a review for… so what better way to begin finishing off my 2011 reviews than with those. So here’s the lowest, #9…

CenturionThe fourth feature from writer/director Neil Marshall (despite owning his first three on DVD, this BD rental is the first I’ve actually watched — story of my life) is a bit of a departure: where the first three were horror (or at least horror-leaning) flicks, Centurion is an action-adventure crossed with something a little more artsy. Only a little, mind. Think Seraphim Falls.

The story involves a Roman legion (a real one, in fact — the story is based in historical fact) venturing into Scotland to take on the natives. They get massacred, the survivors try to get home alive. The story moves quickly, keeping the momentum up. Indeed, at times it moves so fast that some characters seem to be given short shrift. There’s a “who will survive?” element to the plot — Marshall’s horror roots showing through, perhaps — but you can largely guess which order they’ll be shuffled off in based on, a) how much screen time the character has, and b) the good old deciding factor of “which actors are most recognisable”. Predictability doesn’t really matter though, because there are (perhaps) a couple of surprises in store, and it’s only one element of the story.

Run, Fassbender, runRegular readers may know that I have an ever-growing dislike for films that begin at or near the end for no good reason (and most of those that do have no good reason to do so). Centurion’s opening line notes that “this is neither the beginning nor the end” of the lead character’s story. Oh dear, thought I; though perhaps “nor the end” signifies we might reach this point suitably distant from the credits, maybe. Not meaning to spoil it, but we’re there just 10 minutes later. Nice work Mr Marshall.

And with the mention of credits, allow me to note that both the opening and closing credits are wonderful, reminiscent of Panic Room’s much-exalted titles without being a clone.

The characters who do get screen time are well built. Most of them conform to regular men-on-a-mission types, but in the hands of actors like Michael Fassbender and David Morrissey that doesn’t matter. This seems like an appropriate enough point to note that Fassbender is fast becoming, if he isn’t already, an actor where it’s worth watching something with him in even if it doesn’t otherwise appeal. His mixed choices of blockbusters/mainstream-skewing movies and acclaimed artier fare suggest pretty impeccable taste. (Or, at least, tastes that match my own.) Olga the ScotThe cast is packed with people who, even if you don’t know their names, there’s a fair chance you’ll know the faces (assuming you watch your share of British drama): in addition to Fassbender and Morrissey there’s Dominic West, JJ Field, Lee Ross, Paul Freeman, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, Imogen Poots, Rachael Stirling, Peter Guinness… not to mention Film Star Olga Kurylenko. Recognisability doesn’t guarantee quality, of course, but that’s a pretty good list.

On the action side, there’s a selection of excellently choreographed fights. Lots of blood and gore, but surprisingly not gratuitous considering we have all manner of limbs being lopped off, decapitations, heads being shorn in two, and so on. It’s unquestionably graphic, but it doesn’t linger — the battles are hectic, fast, a blur… but in a good way: you can see what’s going on, but it feels appropriately chaotic.

On the artsy side, the Scottish scenery is extraordinarily stunning. Helicopter shots are put to marvellous use. Think Lord of the Rings, only this was shot on our own fair island. The filmmakers went to extremes to achieve this — it’s entirely real location work, beyond the back of beyond in the depths of a snow-covered Scottish winter; no green screen, no CG enhancement — and their effort has paid off. It looks thoroughly gorgeous. I fear I’m overemphasising the point, but… nah.

Stunning sceneryI really enjoyed Centurion, appreciating its mix between brutally real action and stunning scenery, with a slightly more thoughtful side emerging in the final act. It’s also always pleasant to see a film that runs the length it wants to at a reasonable speed, rather than padding itself to reach two or even two-and-a-half hours. Splendid.

4 out of 5

Centurion placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

Brigadoon (1954)

2010 #93
Vincente Minnelli | 104 mins | TV (HD) | U / G

“Oh dear,” is surely the initial reaction to Brigadoon. The Scottish accents are appalling, the costumes and setting gratingly twee, the Highlands recreated entirely on a soundstage. I wonder if many Americans visited Scotland in the wake of this film expecting to find such things? If they did, I imagine they were sorely disappointed.

But, importantly — and thankfully — it does grow on you as it goes on. The ill-conceived cast, costumes and studio-bound setting begin to pale under the charm of Gene Kelly and the machinations of the plot. Even the Scottish accents, though consistently dreadful, eventually become less irritating. The casting of Kelly and Cyd Charisse resulted in several musical numbers being dropped and a greater emphasis placed on dance. As I think has become apparent in some previous reviews, I’m not the biggest dance fan, but luckily Brigadoon contains no extended sequence to rival those I dislike in An American in Paris or Oklahoma!. Instead, the routines remain at the kind of length where I can still afford them some appreciation, and they are worthy of that.

The reveal that Brigadoon is a village stuck in time, only emerging from the fog for a single day every hundred years, is saved for the halfway point. It’s one of those occasions where, as a modern viewer, you know the twist and almost wonder why it takes so long to be revealed; equally, it doesn’t hamper proceedings in any meaningful way. In fact, the shock when (spoiler!) the film suddenly cuts to a busy, noisy New York for the final ten minutes is a bigger one. There’s a neat conclusion though, working its way around the film’s self-established rules without destroying them.

If you go doon to the woods today...I think it’s fair to say this isn’t the greatest of musicals (though I know some might disagree). The poor realisation of Scotland takes some getting used to — and remains either irritating or amusing, depending on your mileage for such things — and generally there’s a dearth of particularly memorable songs or dances. But it’s not bad either, once things get underway.

My ultimate verdict is stuck somewhere between a 3 and a 4. I’ve erred on the generous side, again, because I liked it more than An American in Paris (which I also gave a 4) and I’m soft. I really need to stop giving every film I sort-of-quite-like a 4 though — a better scale/spread of ratings is needed on here, I feel.

4 out of 5

Culloden (1964)

2009 #48
Peter Watkins | 69 mins | TV | 12

CullodenCulloden tells the story of the 1746 battle — famously, the last fought on British soil — and the events that followed it, as if it were covered by a modern TV news report (albeit a feature-length one).

This adopted style — a first — makes for an effective presentation. As a form it obviously foreshadows the docudrama, a method of presenting history which is so popular today, though not quite in this way. Writer/director Peter Watkins gratifyingly refuses to break from his premise: the whole film is very much like an extended news piece, featuring interviews, facts, and the famous BBC objectivity — at no point does the narration inform us who is good and bad, right and wrong, yet leaves us with little doubt about Watkins’ opinions (which are pretty low of just about everyone).

In fact, the film is fuelled by much youthful righteous indignation from Watkins, in his late 20s when Culloden was made. That said, his (perhaps unrealistic) idealism is still in evidence in every interview I’ve seen with him from decades later (though in those cases applied to what TV is and should be). But he allows it to dominate proceedings here, too often focusing on the awful conditions of the poor or the wrongs committed against them by Nasty Rich Folk. Should we be cross about this? It is 1746 after all — of course life was awful for common folk and the upper classes were rich twits who rode roughshod over them. That’s how things were in The Past, for thousands of years before it and hundreds of years after. With our modern developed sense of morality it all looks Nasty and Wrong, but we can’t go back and change it so why get so upset about it? Surely such vitriol is better directed at places where this is still the case?

While Watkins’ righteousness is clearly present before and during the battle, it’s really let loose in the aftermath, as English soldiers commit all sorts of atrocities to the Highlanders. Perhaps this was genuinely shocking and deserved in ’64, and it’s still true that the actions taken were unforgivably horrid, but it’s no longer shocking — not because we’re desensitized to violence at this point, but because we’re now very aware that we have done horrendous things throughout our history even while painting ourselves as the good guys (as we still do today, of course). Early on he describes the workings of the clan system, ostensibly factually but with a clear undercurrent of its unfairness; yet at the end bemoans its destruction by the English. Maybe this is why Watkins struggles to find anyone likeable in the film: they’re all as bad as each other.

Even if his overly moral stance falters, Watkins’ filmmaking techniques rarely do. The use of ordinary people as actors works fine most of the time, though occasional performances or scenes show off the cast’s unprofessional roots. Watkins’ theories about how TV should be run and the involvement of the public in the way he did here may be romanticised and impractical, but it’s hard to deny that his application of them worked wonders. Performances frequently aid the documentary effect by seeming just like those in genuine interviews or news footage, whereas even the best professional actors trying to emulate such reality are usually mannered enough for the viewer to realise they’re acting.

Best of all, however, is the titular battle. These scenes are extraordinary, creating a believability even the largest Hollywood budget has often failed to challenge. It’s epic but also involving, disorientating but clearly told, brutal without needing expensive prosthetic effects or an 18 certificate. It’s a brilliant example of camerawork, sound design and editing combining under inspired direction to create a flawless extended sequence.

Culloden was a bold experiment in filmmaking — indeed, the notion of a distant historical event being presented as if covered by news cameras still sounds innovative — and Watkins mostly pulls it off, with stunning battle sequences, effective performances and a high concept that is never betrayed. A few minor weak points aside, the only serious flaw is that Watkins lets his overdeveloped morality run unchecked. His application of a modern outrage to what seems a typical historical situation grates quite quickly but never abates, ultimately reclaiming a star from what is nonetheless an exemplary effort.

4 out of 5

Culloden placed 8th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.