British cinema

THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM

UK, 2017

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The phrase mixed reception is a cliché that suits the polite English. The Limehouse Golem, though, really has had a mixed reception. English film critics have been friendly and positive. Across the Atlantic the Americans have dismissed the movie as nothing more than routine TV fare. As the more objective Americans have realised, the film is not great. Peter Ackroyd writes novels, non-fiction and produces articles and criticism for newspapers and magazines. Ackroyd has influence, and his British friends have been obliged to overpraise a film that was based on his novel Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem. The book feels like something written by an intellectual slumming in genre fiction.   Bad things can happen when literary pretensions are added to basic thrillers. The dreadful Night Train by Martin Amis is a good example of a talented and serious writer underestimating the demands of popular fiction.  Something similar happens in The Limehouse Golem. The film begins with Dan Leno telling us that this particular story will begin at its end. This is more than a tedious affectation. It is incorrect because the film begins half way through its narrative. Not only do we have the slumming of Ackroyd but Jane Goldman, who confuses violence with horror, has also added her thick-eared sensibility to the script. Anachronisms are avoided, and the actors make an effort but the dialogue never feels like real conversation.   No one ever says ‘did you know that’ but there are too many moments of explanation and opinion.

The mystery element in the movie is basic, and that is being kind.   God help us if Theresa May sees the film. Despite rising crime rates in the UK, increased violence and the mysterious disappearance of policemen from British streets the Prime Minister remains convinced that the police force can withstand even more cuts in its budget. By 2020 the budget will have been reduced by £700m.  Without wishing to be fair to Theresa May, it has to be said that the police in The Limehouse Golem do dawdle.

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After seeing a scrawled phrase on a wall next to a Jack the Ripper style victim Inspector Kildare visits the reading room of the British Museum to check out the helpful reference left on the wall by the killer. Kildare finds a book on the original golem that happens to have across a couple of its pages a description of the recent murders. We can ignore that an awful lot has somehow been written in the margins of the pages. The book has been signed out of the Library by four people. All Inspector Kildare needs to do is check the handwriting of the four book borrowers and bingo he will have his killer. In a normal world the case would have been sorted by lunchtime and Kildare could have gone for a beer to celebrate. Instead the investigation is dragged out over several days and across various CGI assisted locations. Kildare and his assistant Constable George Flood even manage to somehow debate this nonsense as if it contains a complicated mystery.  Note that the names inspired by the supposedly fertile imagination of Peter Ackroyd are awful. Kildare is bad enough but a playwright who is also one of the four suspects is writing something called Misery Junction.   The idea is that the playwright lacks talent and misunderstands what qualifies as entertainment.   This is not subtle, and neither is the rest of the film.

Women are the victims in The Limehouse Golem or are supposed to be. There are two women in the movie who qualify as sadistic monsters, and none of the rest would you introduce to Mother. The heroes that do exist are both male, and the denouement buries the feminist concerns in less time than it takes Inspector Kildare to ask for a sample of handwriting.

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Nothing is suggested in The Limehouse Golem.  The themes that do exist are suppression of women, the relationship of existence to performance and our vicarious relationship to violence.  We do need drama and we spend too much time imagining our lives as the spectacle that they are clearly not. If all our work and effort is mainly performance then it has serious implications for what we think is ambition.   The Limehouse Golem has several references to Jack The Ripper and it suggests that his mayhem was soon transformed by our imaginations and desires into a continuing spectacle that has had little concern for the suffering of his five female victims.  All of this is interesting and valid but we only become aware of these ideas because someone is always on hand to tell us what to think.

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Peter Ackroyd lives in London and he likes the place. His non-fiction includes biographies of Dickens and other famous natives.   Most of the time Ackroyd is attracted to supposed genius but in Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem there is much about working class life in a music hall.  Ackroyd creates a sympathetic role for music hall star and comic Dan Leno. In the movie the music hall scenes are well staged but none equal what Hitchcock achieved on a small budget in The Thirty Nine Steps eighty years ago.   If the jokes by the performers in The Limehouse Golem are authentic, they are evidence that human beings have made more progress than we realised. If the jokes were created by Ackroyd and Goldman then they should be ashamed of themselves.   The fusion between the Jack The Ripper legend and the artistic ambition of music hall performers ensures that The Limehouse Golem is different.   But All About Eve combined with the savage slayings of a serial killer feels like a daft rather than an inspired idea, especially as the rivalry between the two women performers in The Limehouse Golem is thin cheese when compared to what happens in All About Eve.

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Elizabeth Cree and Aveline Ortega are the two female performers and rivals.   Aveline is a meaningless reference to Inspector Abbeline, the policeman who investigated the Jack The Ripper murders.  It is the kind of pun that can only be invented by the self-indulgent and self-regarding.  Actress Olivia Cooke plays the waif who wanders into the music hall and dreams of becoming a comic. The actress is fine and she has important moments including one in front of a mirror that has a real effect and helps us remember what Cree sought in the attention of an audience.   Cooke, though, does have to endure an awful lot of unbelievable silliness.  Bill Nighy plays Inspector Kildare. His remote style keeps him at a distance from the melodrama, and on two occasions he redeems previously bad dialogue. It feels like ad-libs from an actor who has more wit than the scriptwriters. Daniel Mays and Eddie Marsan are reliable English actors and provide good cameos. The decision, though, to choose Douglas Booth to play Dan Leno is bizarre. Presumably someone in one of the many production companies who financed the film insisted upon a handsome male in the cast.   Booth is a tall man who has the bearing of someone who has had a private education. This may sound unfair but Booth looks like a toff.  He also has impressive cheekbones.  Dan Leno was a short plain man ravaged by alcohol.   His looks helped him play female caricatures.  Booth in drag looks absurd. A film is not obliged to attempt reality but neither can we be expected to ignore cynical disregard for what defines a key character, especially as Ackroyd is good at identifying important aspects of Leno. The comic had a charitable nature and aspired to be a serious actor.

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Alfred Hitchcock was criticised for including a lying flashback in his unexciting 1950 movie Stage Fright.   Because each of the suspects has to write down what Kildare found in the book in the Library, there are four flashbacks that refer to murders. Each of these untrue flashbacks is defined by violent gore. For those who want a definition of gratuitous violence it does not get much better or more stupid than this.   Anyone who remains engaged after such repetition deserves credit for staying the course. One of the book borrowers is Karl Marx, so he becomes one of the suspects.   Not sure why but there is something very unsettling in seeing a key architect of left wing thinking decapitate a London prostitute.  No doubt it will make many smile but there is no need for ideological objections for it to feel like adolescent humour.

The episode with George Gissing is better but that becomes less interesting when the violence begins. Kildare, though, appears to have time to waste and he listens with patience.  Although Bill Nighy is watchable as Inspector Kildare he is too old for the role. But with all those cuts in the numbers of British police that Theresa May has demanded Kildare may have a future as an unpaid pensioner volunteer.   Efficiency targets will mean he will need to move at a faster pace than he does in The Limehouse Golem but from what we hear there are some desperate Chief Constables out there.

Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE SHOUT

1978, UK

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Much of what happens in The Shout is mysterious. There are odd snippets of disconnected dialogue and unexplained incidents. We are expected to surmise and wonder. The idea behind the film, though, is simple. A cricket match takes place in a lunatic asylum. Inside the scoreboard one of the inmates tells a story that may or may not be accurate. The storyteller admits that he changes the story every time he tells it to someone.  His tale concerns a man who has been taught by aborigines to create a shout that kills people. The man with the special tonsils invites himself into the home of an avant-garde musician. He persuades the wife of the musician to commit adultery. The husband resists and resorts to similar aboriginal sorcery.

If unreliable narrators and magical powers are not complicated enough, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowsky adds surreal invention. The Shout appeared in cinemas before the end of the 70s decade but it feels like a British film from the 60s.  Nothing in The Shout is as bizarre as the theatrics of cricket, and the surreal invention merges into a satire of British eccentricity.  The original story was written by Robert Graves.  His work ranged from the commercial but mechanical I, Claudius to the almost unreadable The White Goddess. Graves was gifted, clever, superior and original but he was also a historian whose head was full of not just the important myths of our culture but a fair amount of mumbo jumbo.  His claims often made interesting reading but the serious scholars tore his work apart.  Robert Graves would have welcomed the 60s.  The Shout was written in 1928.

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Both the 60s and the 20s were distinguished by know-all hedonism. This connection means that the original story and its purpose remain intact in the film. The Shout is a weird mix of domestic drama and strange musings about pagan sorcery and power. The additional invention by director Jerzy Skolimowsky can be a distraction. It weakens rather than strengthens the metaphor and drama.   There are viewers that find The Shout baffling but there is a simple explanation for what happens in the film. That explanation and the mystical mystery are not incompatible but they are obscured because of the additional invention and sly humour.

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In the tale within the tale the shout from the man who has been taught aboriginal powers kills people.  Sound is important to the film.  The musical score was created by Michael Rutherford and Tony Banks. These two gentlemen were in the pop group Genesis. There is nothing in the music that is either memorable or offensive. The rest of the soundtrack, though, is impressive.  Movie sound has declined in recent years. Booms, explosions and surround sound have defeated clarity. In 1978 the technicians understood the importance of the counterpoint of silence and individual highlights. We watch Anthony Fielding, the husband whose home is invaded, work in his studio and experiment with different sounds. He uses the microphone to add scale and mystery to mundane noise. All the scenes in the film, though, are distinguished by not just what we see but what we hear, falling rain hissing down, cricket bats hitting a ball, a motorbike engine roaring, isolated footsteps echoing inside a corridor, kettles boiling and murmuring, windows cracking and much more. All are important.   The Shout anticipates the recent horror classic The Berberian Sound Studio in which the sound technician on a cheap Italian movie loses his identity.   Fear and unease transform sounds into haunting echoes.

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Jerzy Skolimowsky contributed to the script of Knife In The Water the famous movie by Roman Polanski.   When the characters in The Shout are not discussing the transcendental, the dialogue is professional, authentic and accomplished. The stuff about the human soul is not that meaningful for modern audiences.  The digital age has reduced metaphysics to abstract numbers, and these days fewer people imagine death releasing beautiful butterflies to float around heaven.  For a while Skolimowsky looked as if he might be the missing misanthropic link between the brooding films of Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter and the edgy genius of Polanski.  Deep End and Moonlighting are impressive films and promised an oeuvre from Jerzy Skolimowsky that would contribute to a distinguished genre within British cinema. It did not happen. The more Skolimowsky learnt about the British the more they confused him. His attempts at pure British comedy were a disaster. The good news is that he recovered his form when he returned to Poland.

As in Knife In The Water, two men in The Shout become competitive and try to impress the woman caught between them. Susannah York is the woman who tempts Alan Bates, the intruder, and John Hurt, the husband.  Bates manages to be both threatening and sympathetic. Hurt is weak but vital, and York is mysterious and deceitful but not malevolent. The wife has needs that go beyond her marriage.   She may have been fed nonsense by her seducer but he has enabled her to think again about the rest of her life, and this is apparent at the end of the film. The final scene is very effective. It not only adds a common sense perspective but also serves as a rebuke to overheated imaginations.

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Meanwhile there is the shout that may or may not kill people. No one can deny it functions within the story and connects the world of myth and sorcery to the faith or hope that inspire creativity.  The shout also resonates as a symbol of masculine power. Bates is in an insane asylum when he tells his story. He imagines himself as the omnipotent male who can seduce women and reduce other men to impotency.  The shout also represents what may be possible if we resist the constraints of civilisation, the animal strength and mystical power available to the uninhibited rather than just the powerful. But if the shout defines a freedom that can offer fulfilment for the individual, it can destroy others. The shout has to be resisted, and that means invoking other mystical rituals.

Horror fans or at least those fans that like The Shout have claimed the film for their favourite genre.  For that to be valid we have to give an awful lot of credence to the tale told by Alan Bates and neglect his presence inside an insane asylum. The old, cautious and staid will settle for a simple and mundane explanation of the plot. This may reduce the mysticism to inventions of the human imagination but it expands the mystery of human nature. The Shout has been defined by horror expert Kim Newman as a combination of Somerset Maugham and M R James. Newman has a point, and it is an elegant observation. When he was older, John Hurt played the haunted man in a BBC adaptation of the M R James story, Whistle And I’ll Come To You.   It would do no harm to watch The Shout after reading some M R James.

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Made in 1978 The Shout was preoccupied with an England that was avoiding the modern world. The village life is gentle but a little dull. The impressive coastal landscape and footpath still exist but despite the efforts to preserve the past the lives of rural Englanders have changed.  Now many of them juggle jobs in order to pay the bills. In the winter the picturesque villages they live in are emptied because the tourists and their money disappear. Disturbed by the people from the city the natives cling to tradition and pledge their faith to a political party that feels entitled to both use the title Conservatives and commit to the endless radical change of modern capitalism.  The more Britain changes the more the countryside has to be preserved for the tourists and their financial support. The Shout was filmed in six weeks of uninterrupted sunshine and good weather. The film may be concerned with complicated human impulses but the sunshine ensured that the dark prospects for rural life could be ignored.

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Since the referendum decision to leave the European Union there has been a debate about who will pay the substantial EU subsidy to farmers. The Conservative Party has promised that the British Government will make good the Brexit shortfall. Promises have been made before. The Cameron government pledged to reform the NHS and improve the service to patients. The deterioration within the NHS has been shocking and rapid. This winter patients have died in corridors, and cancer treatments have been postponed. Rural dwellers have ensured that in Britain right wing governments have outnumbered those of the left.   In The Shout the eccentricity of the British upper class was mocked. Today the privileged are groomed in ruthless and efficient public schools. No one thinks that they are eccentric any more.  Instead, we have neoliberal ideologues that talk about the invisible hand.  Such people have no regard for subsidies and will be reluctant to support the farmers to operate outside market economics. People change, and so does life in the villages.

 Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, a travel book and collections of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.