Archive for Vanessa Redgrave

The Devils and Miss Jones

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2016 by dcairns


I totally missed an excellent opportunity to interview Gemma Jones this week. I could have called in THE DEVILS and Miss Jones. It didn’t even occur to me to ask, as I was all geared up to interview somebody else — and the fruits of THAT interview will appear here soon.

I would have asked her all about THE DEVILS, of course — I’m pretty well totally ignorant about the rest of her career. But she manages an important and difficult task in that, her debut film (wait, hang on, just looking it up — yes, it WAS her debut film). She’s the least extreme character in the movie — and yet, surrounded by lunatics and scheming villains, she holds our interest. Though the movie seems at times to endorse a Catholic Madonna/whore schism, GJ’s character is neither — she has a perfectly healthy sex drive and the film respects her for it. She is puzzled and vexed by the challenge of living a good life according to the precepts of the Church, whilst surrounded by corruption and things that don’t seem to fit with what the Book says — as anyone might be. Besides marrying Oliver Reed (in a “blasphemous midnight nuptial,” my favourite kind), her main plot role is to ask intelligent questions.


As madness takes over, Jones disappears from the movie, only to abruptly take over in the final shot, which is a stunner. I actually suggested this film to Sight & Sound when invited to write about a movie ending. This is surely the best of its year. I’m kind of glad I wasn’t tasked with writing a thousand words for publication on it, though, since I don’t know what I’d have said, other than raving on about its magnificence.

Well, maybe I’d have referred back to the two dream sequences — actually, masturbatory fantasies would be more accurate. Looks to me like these were shot in Russell’s beloved Lake District (Russell fans should totally go there — it’d be like TOMMY going back to the source at the end of his film), although the only non-Pinewood location listed is Bamburgh* — a stone’s throw from me! (But we know they also filmed in a prison somewhere, for Richelieu’s library, and some stately gardens for the King to shoot his Protestant crow in.) Russell always regretted not shooting both of these in black & white, for consistency’s sake. I say the hell with consistency — the vibrant red of Vanessa Redgrave’s hair is reason enough for colour.


Vanessa’s Sister Jeanne has hair in these sequences as she imagines herself as Mary Magdalen, drying Christ’s feet with her hair — probably the sexiest bit in the New Testament — if you need porn and all you have to hand is the Bible, I recommend turning to Book One. The red is great, but admittedly what cinematographer David Watkin does with the b&w is also wonderful — printed on colour stock, it emerges with quite a strong indigo tint, and it has the blown-out highlights he discovered on THE KNACK.


How does this reflect on the ending, in which Gemma Jones wanders from close-up into extreme longshot, through the broken walls of Loudun (up a hill of shattered masonry) and off along a narrow road lined with skeletons broken on the wheel. Well, that shot imperceptibly turns to b&w as it cranes up, helped by the lack of colour in the setting anyway, so that by the time we’ve risen over the wall to see the distant terrain, the world has performed a reverse Oz transformation, just in time for the end credits to appear in bold RED.

It’s beautiful and bleak, and it feels meaningful too, in a poetic way I can’t pin down. I want to suggest that the world has been subsumed into Sister Jeanne’s fantasies. Madness has won. Her perverted view of religion has triumphed even as the city walls came tumbling down. The connection is not really that literal, of course, since Russell does not use words to express it, only images, which speak more powerfully and more primitively to us.


*Bamburgh Castle doubles for Loudun in the long shot near the film’s start, where Dudley Sutton and a Protestant slave gang is transporting a vast, grey, slug-like tarpaulin-swathed cart of demolition equipment across your basic blasted heath. It’s probably the same landscape from the final shot — I never knew it was Scotland! The castle and adjoining beach also feature in Polanski’s MACBETH, BECKETT and THE TEMPEST, directed by DEVILS’ designer Derek Jarman.


Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2012 by dcairns

I was quite glad when ANONYMOUS got an Oscar nomination for Best Costumes — I saw it with my costume designer friend, whose expert eye gave it the once over and declared that it was maybe the best Elizabethan stuff she’d ever seen. And designer Lisy Christl had never done such a big film before (though her matching tennis duds and white gloves for the killers in FUNNY GAMES are one memorable contribution to cinematic dress — I hate the film, but it’s an arresting look).

Though I didn’t like the film quite as much as my expert friend did, I was pretty astonished that such a handsome, unusual, well-structured and basically non-sucky movie could come from Roland Emmerich, the mind behind INDEPENDENCE DAY (credit where it’s due: that movie did cause me to go see a lot fewer blockbusters in the following years). While it’s true that every good point of the movie has some accompanying bad points, the overall experience does NOT leave you feeling ripped off and insulted, which is maybe a first for the director.

The look: apart from the beautiful costumes, which are simultaneously original and convincing, the movie benefits from good mucky sets, planks strewn through muddy streets, and impressive CGI overviews — the next step on from Olivier’s vast model shot of Shakespeare’s London which opens his HENRY V, and a lot more handsome and convincing than the comparable stuff in the ELIZABETH duology. This is a big film, but not a HUGE film, so it’s an impressive achievement.

On the minus side, Anna Foerster’s cinematography (or the digital grading thereof) is in thrall to the current fad for orange and teal colour schemes. There are a few welcome bits that depart from this, but generally in favour of monochromatic effects, so the spectrum isn’t exactly original. BUT on the other hand, it all looks genuinely pretty, and candlelight and firelight do at least provide motivation for the warm flesh tones. I think the fact that this look is currently over-used is the only objection — at least here it’s used well.

Performances: we get a new side to Rhys Ifans in this, where he has to emerge as something approximating a leading man. We also get some fresh faces in meaty roles, which is unusual and refreshing — it can be assumed that Edward Hogg in particular, whose cold villainy enlivens many a scene, is going to be very big. And Rafe Spall gets his best role yet as Shakespeare — you know, the guy who didn’t write Shakespeare.

The only down side to this is the potential for confusion in the  large cast, some of whom inhabit more than one time frame, and some of whom are consequently played by more than one actor. But when was the last time you felt you had to work to keep up with an Emmerich movie?

The story: the notion of the Earl of Oxford being the author of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets may or may not be nonsense (but I highly recommend John Michell’s fascinating Who Wrote Shakespeare? for a broadminded summation of the various theories), and the political subtexts attributed to the plays in John Orloff’s ambitious script ARE complete fantasy, but the story moves, intrigues, surprises and ultimately delivers.

Dialogue: only Rafe Spall really sounds like a person, but the others, working in a more stylised mode, get away with the formal speech, and somehow the obvious question — Why does everybody speak in such an antiquated way in the plays, while never using a single obsolete expression in their offstage speech — never really jumps out at you.

Shakespeare may not have written any plays, but he totally invented the stage-dive.

Art/life: the movie’s take on the purpose of Shakespeare’s plays — political propaganda to influence the mob — is kind of dumb, and does the work a disservice. But the evocation of HENRY V’s debut is striking and exciting. Elsewhere, there are gigantic, and quite deliberate, factual errors (like the Globe burning down ten years early), which is all acceptable for dramatic purposes. But the final device, whereby Oxford, the true author, tries to mobilize public opinion against hunchbacked politico Robert Cecil, by staging Richard III. Leaving aside the fact that the play staged at this historical moment was actually Richard II, this makes about as much sense as the computer virus that takes down the aliens in ID4. The Globe-mob become immediately enraged at the sight of the Cecil-lookalike, before he’s even gotten as far as “…determined to prove a villain.” I wanted to actually hear the following dialogue:

“Hey, he looks like that other guy!”

“The play’s right! He IS a hunchback!”

“Yeah, I hate him!”

“Let’s riot!”

Had the movie been a little less impatient, it could certainly have made this scene play a bit more convincingly, and since it cues the film’s climax (an attempted coup: basically VALKYRIE with ruffs), it’s important to try and get it right. But it doesn’t wreck things altogether.

It’s a bitter irony that Emmerich’s first non-travesty has underperformed compared to the ghastly trash he’s pumped onto our screens in the past. I can’t feel altogether sorry for him, since really the director of GODZILLA deserves some grief. But it’s a shame for everyone who suffered through the big lizard but missed out on the court intrigue.

I wrote two lines of a limerick about this, so inspired was I by the bard’s poetic vision. Then I couldn’t think of an ending, so Hilary Barta of Limerwrecks stepped in —


Is Shakespeare a bard or a boor?
It appears that it’s hard to make sure!
Was it really an earl
What coined ev’ry pearl?
Is it all a canard of manure?

Buy John Michell’s terrific book: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

My favourite Shakespearian authorship theories —

The great Ken Campbell came up with the audacious, balls-out insane notion that the plays were “improvised by the actors.” To prove it was possible to improvise in iambic pentameter, he organized marathon improv sessions for actors, demonstrating that “the iambs only kick in after the twelfth hour.” But after twelve hours of it, you may find it easier to continue than to stop.

And in Bob Burden’s comic, The Flaming Carrot, our hero “the world’s strangest man” travels back in time to meet the swan of Avon, only to discover a drooling bumpkin. The true author, a shadowy caped figure, is eventually tracked down, and in a surprise revelation, proves to be Buddy Hackett.

Steam Heat

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2010 by dcairns

Special Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean offers this entry to THE LATE SHOW: THE LATE FILMS BLOGATHON —

Steaming is notable for being the last film made by three of its collaborators; Joe Losey, Diana Dors and cinematographer Christopher Challis.  I’m happy to report that Challis is still alive at 91, but Losey and Dors, who were both in poor health at the time of the shoot in early 1984, died shortly afterwards, she in May of that year aged only 52 and he a month later at 75.  It’s sad therefore that this talented team should have produced a work of such disappointing quality and that their careers ended on what must be regarded as a low note.

The project was beset with difficulties from the start.  Casting problems, wrangles over nudity, crew changes and an inflexible set all played their part but the root of the film’s failure seems to lie in its unsatisfactory script, adapted from Nell Dunn’s stage play by Losey’s wife, Patricia.  She and Losey had seen the play together and his biographer reports her as saying “I was so enthusiastic and certain about it that I asked Joe that night to let me do the adaptation.” Losey was apparently anxious to launch her screenwriting career so she would have a means of support after his death and, although others had a hand in it, the script is mostly her work and the inexperience shows.

Even an unrepentant second wave feminist like me finds it hard to watch films from the period such as Agnes Varda’s L’Une Chante, L’autre Pas and  Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman without a slight wince of embarrassment but Steaming had me groaning aloud with my head buried in my hands.

Set in a women’s bath house in East London and with an all-female cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles, it’s crudely put together, full of puzzling non sequiturs and riddled with stereotypes.  They’re all here – the abandoned upper class wife and mother regretting her years of domesticity, the successful career woman longing for a child, and the working class victim of domestic violence who goes back for more.    Why two wealthy women should meet regularly at a shabby east end baths with threadbare towels and cracked tiles instead of an upmarket spa is inexplicable, except for the purposes of a plot that requires them to complete the film’s social class jigsaw.  What unites them is, predictably, their suffering at the hands of men and, for much of the film, the trio sit around in various stages of undress relentlessly bemoaning male shortcomings until even Andrea Dworkin would shout “Enough!”

The manager, played by Dors, is aware of a plan by the local council to close the baths but script and editing blunders result in her not mentioning it to her customers until about half way through the film.  The emphasis then shifts to their campaign against the closure. Unlike the play, the film gives us a happy ending in which the baths are given a temporary reprieve following an impassioned speech to the council (delivered off screen) by the working class woman who – yes, you’ve guessed it – has finally found her voice.

Apart from these four characters, and a rather baffling widowed mother and her daughter whose problems are never fully explained, there is only one other speaking part and we see little evidence of the hundreds of women who, the manager asserts, use the baths every week.  This means the cast have to adopt the kind of frantic mugging that is called for whenever a few people have to convey the impression of being many. An excruciating party sequence requires them to become over excited by a few balloons and sandwiches, and leap to their feet and start dancing manically and badly to undanceable music, invariably a hallmark of a bad film.

Acting styles are far from consistent. Vanessa Redgrave (abandoned upper class wife) and Sarah Miles (career woman) attempt to inject a note of screen naturalism into a theatrical script. As the working class woman, Pattie Love (who played the Sarah Miles part in the original Theatre Royal Stratford production) engages in that style of stage acting that, to quote Quentin Crisp, “embraces us with semaphore gestures and tells us her secrets in the voice of a town crier.” Only Diana Dors manages to look at ease in front of the camera.

If more effort had been made to address the play’s shortcomings, it might have been a better film but it does nothing to transcend its stage origins and they differ very little.  Pages of dialogue are lifted verbatim and there are no exterior shots, the set being made up entirely of a series of rooms within the baths. Losey did not see this as a problem, or chose not to, and told his cast and crew “In my experience cinema can be used in many ways: one of them is to increase enclosure rather than the Hollywood cliché of ‘opening up’.”

Christopher Challis, who was brought in at the last minute after Douglas Slocombe turned the job down, had previously worked with Losey on Blind Date. In an interview with David Caute (Losey’s biographer), Challis described the set as a disaster. “We repainted it, but nothing would float, you couldn’t move anything.  It was wedged in with backing.  The script described atmospheric weather outside, but it was impossible to get it from inside.” One outcome is that there is no sense of the passing of time and it’s not at all clear if the events take place over days, weeks or months.

Caute’s book also reports Slocombe’s damning verdict. Not wishing to offend Losey, he made the excuse that his asthma couldn’t cope with the damp atmosphere, but in reality he hated both the play and the script. ‘I thought it was a nasty, cheap thing for Joe to do, and I thought doing this will kill him.  It did kill him.  Sad to end on that note.”

The film’s reputation has not improved over time and, like the play, has attracted more attention for its glimpses of the naked body than for its political intentions.  Looking at the keywords allocated to it by IMDB (always a revealing exercise) we find the following; female full frontal nudity, female nudity, independent film, based on play.  No feminism there, then.   Of the three user comments on it on the same website, one is from a woman who had to decide whether to accept one of the nude roles in a local stage production, the second from a man who describes it as a ‘British nudie cutie film’ and the third from someone whose comments on other films such as Basic Instinct 2, Intimacy, Sirens, Full Body Massage, Showgirls and Love Crimes leave us in no doubt as to where his interests lie.

It’s significant that Christopher Challis’s autobiography does not mention the film at all.  In fact, there’s a strange omission in his filmography that forms an appendix to the book.  For every other film his name appears as either camera operator or photographer, but the entry for Steaming gives only the names of the producer, writer, director and stars.  Was this deliberate?  A proof reading error?  A Freudian slip?  Let’s just hope that in 1984, when he was 65, he was already planning to retire and not driven to it by his involvement in Steaming.

To end on a more positive note, Challis’s book, aptly titled Are they really so awful?, is the most level headed and good natured account of the filmmaking process I have ever read. It tells the story of his rise from trainee to DoP and his encounters along the way with temperamental colleagues with disarming modesty and considerable tact.  Yes, he concludes, they were awful, but he liked them.


Caute, David.  Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life. Faber and Faber, 1994

Challis, Christopher. Are They Really So Awful? Janus Publishing Company, 1995