Monthly Archives: October 2014

First Knight – Disneyland, Man Love and 2 Marys

These are three of the main thoughts I have after reviewing this film 19 years after its release, when it quickly became and stayed a favourite film.

Criticisms slipped in, but then I realised that what I thought were faults were actually hints of a different reading.

It is easy to see how beautiful, wise, good Guinevere wins the hearts of two men. But I never felt either really deserved her or were right for her. I also had trouble seeing the love between her and Arthur. I note Guinevere lost her father within the year and has only older men as companions – such as Oswald who keeps calling her “child” (far more bearable in Cold Comfort Farm), in Jacob, and then Arthur. Her mum isn’t mentioned, and nor are siblings. Ladies in waiting are given non speaking roles, and are a minimal presence. I hate Freudian missing parent theories, but Guinevere’s love for Arthur does seem to be similar to the love she may’ve felt for her late Dad: a deferent and quiet passion, unafraid but not quite equal, and not a sexual love. When Arthur greets his bride on the hill over Camelot, he arranges a military show to make an entrance, though it is not a public event (a grand debut was in Connery’s contract, but it undermines the relationship). They do not rush to greet each other, even though she’s suffered an attack en route, but he debonairly takes her hand as one would a political ally or dance partner. When they speak about their marriage the next day, there’s no physical contact until Guinevere gets out his scratch on his hand. Even when she is rescued from Malagant’s lair, the embrace there could almost be converted to beloved child and father. We never see a love scene or any other passionate kiss. At his death bed, I fail to see the look of love that Arthur notes is missing; this is again a daughterly sorrow at yet another older man leaving her.

Note he speaks of the love of Guinevere as sweetness, not passion, not a soulmate.

I felt we needed more to believe in this marriage, supposedly a love match, but I wonder if it is meant to be a will (not heart) powered steady devotion – a paraphrase of what she says to Arthur when she is discovered with Lancelot.

Lancelot appeals to the physical, courageous side of otherwise intense and sensible Guinevere, who’s already having to run kingdoms on her own as Lady of Lyonnesse. Guinevere, who wishes to live and die there (so having a great sense of settling), has been born into duty, no doubt with finery – though she says he’s taught not to put faith in it. Here comes a man without home or finery, a man who speaks his desires – but doesn’t act until the lady asks – ie gives not only her permission but initiates. He is not the body man of Lehman and Hunt’s sex obsessed essay on Titanic – the contrast is less crude than a physical macho hunk, for Lancelot is polite (compared with Mr Turner in my next post) and unthreatening. He doesn’t care about hierarchy and I think that’s what shocks Guinevere at the first rescue as much as his implication that he’d like a sexual thank you: because for him, pretty women are no better if they’re dairy maids or ladies, and he doesn’t care about monetary rewards. He’s not suddenly deferential when he learns who she is – why should saving a lady be more gratifying for him? Once I stopped expecting Lancelot to be a particular kind of man, I accepted him better.

Guinevere, like Rose in Titanic, is an action heroine. When we first see her, she’s playing a vigorous football game – foreshadowing Jennifer Elhe’s Elizabeth Bennet which came out in the UK a few months later – who is also corporeal and enjoys physical exercise (particularly under Andrew Davies interpretation). Guinevere doesn’t wield an axe like Rose, but she does escape being hacked The Shining style by one into her carriage. Like an agile Western hero, she grips unseen to the running boards and throws her world be assassin off the careering carriage, before leaping and rolling from it, then lying low and making a well judged sprint. She kills a man with a crossbow at short range. Later, she rides a spirited horse considered unsuitable for a lady by the king’s horseman, without a lady saddle; she throws a kidnapper off the boat; she has the nous to put a scrap of her dress on a tree as a breadcrumb trail to her rescuers; she twirls on a bridge over an abyss, she leaps over a waterfall and swims in the rapids.

But in all those examples, Guinevere swaps from Grace Kelly in Rear Window – remaining feminine but active – to distressed damsel. I note a powerful man – not a generic enemy – is in her presence each time. When Lancelot first appears, she’s gasping and afraid as the Malagant minion holds her. In Malagant’s slate mine palace, she is silent and compliant, again shivering as he undresses her and pushes her across the bridge to the oubliette with the slightest arm touch. And when Malagant attacks at the end, she rushes to Arthur’s bedside and never takes up a sword. But in front of Arthur and the knights of the round table, she does stand up verbally to Malagant when he attends a council meeting.

Now I’m coming to explain one of my themes. I see two Marys in Guinevere – Magdalene and The Virgin. Guinevere’s virginity is never mentioned but is prized, and there’s care for her never to even kiss Lancelot while she’s engaged (meaning that Arthur has the first experience with her) and for only a kiss to happen at Lancelot’s leaving – novel tie-in author Elizabeth Chadwick points out that such a kiss was only stopped becoming an act of love by Arthur’s interruption. Arthur, like Jesus, sees adultery of the heart as an equal sin. I see two readings of this story as allegory – one of the future, the other, the past.

As a wise spiritual ruler with a specially picked band of men, Arthur can feel Christlike. Guinevere could be his Mary Magdalene, but his relationship with her is more like mother son (or father and daughter) – linking to the other Mary of the gospels. Mary Magdalene is the naughty Mary, but some understand her to be the Kingdom’s co-creator, the enlightened one, not just the reformed demoniac/prostitute of tradition. Mary Magdalene might be the other side of Guinevere, the side who is drawn to the nomad (which Jesus was) who unlike foxes and eagles, does not have anywhere to lay his head.

But she’s also the one the villagers turn to for succour after two attacks from evil – firstly on bended knee, calling her Lady; and secondly for physical comfort after the forces of good save them – thus her Mary the Mother analogy is heightened.

Malagant is a Lucifer – once the highest of the elect, who left after a quarrel about supremacy and now seeks to terrify all Arthur’s people – a row, like in the Bible, which is never explained. I would like to have seen the “tyrant” speech of Malagant developed. In a way calm, kind Arthur is a tyrant, as is the portrayal of many monotheist’s God. Love me, and I’ll love you – cross me and there’s public judgement and death. You can only come into my kingdom by invitation, as Lancelot finds out (a bit like Calvinist theology). Arthurian god has a tempter, and both he and Malagant speak of the Law as the ultimate justice; Malagant claims he is the law, while Arthur points to something greater than himself, which is also potentially manipulative. Serving God, a country, a family or band of brothers raises the stakes and makes heavier the responsibility. The brotherhood/leadership dichotomy is a topic for another time, but I note these politically leading knights are not elected, they’re all military, and there’s no ladies – and despite having no head or foot, the round table does accommodate not only a king but a first knight.

And Camelot is the Kingdom, the heavenly city, built from his father’s legacy, a place, says director Jerry Zucker that we all want to live. Thus this neo Jerusalem is a place to aspire to, and not get cast out of for bad behaviour, or else you’re in the subterranean has-been of Malagant’s world. But it’s not just Jesus who is building a kingdom – there’s a currently earthly realm, like Camelot, which is built on ideals and ideas. Like a church, it’s not the stones themselves, but the people and dream that lives on – good job, for this fortress proves to be as robust as the cheese stall in its likeness that we see on the run the gauntlet day. That place is America. So the Disney castle look of Camelot makes sense – if it is intended: the American romanticisation of a medieval mythological ideal, the appropriation of a history they don’t have. Note the French renaissance windows: this is a new birth.

And Arthur’s existence is unproven, and so imaginations can set to work, inventing architectural details and costumes (is it coincidence that Arthur’s knights wear Star Trek like garb?). Saxons didn’t build cities so the only walls and gates around would be ex Roman – again, a great empire imposing itself, sophisticated on one hand, brutal and rash on another. Much like Arthur. His trial of Guinevere and Lancelot says – my personal hurts are a matter of state. I humiliate these people and call it an act against the realm, and I’m telling you – mess with mine or be unfaithful, and you’ll die.

Who the faithful are is my final point: the triangle is not the shape I’d assumed. Arthur is in love, but not with Guinevere. He has fallen for Arthur in a courtly ideal of unconsummated deep love that I call man love – not exactly gay (it’s so feeble that Hollywood is still not good at dealing with that in its mainstream films – yes Brokeback Mountain but think of Troy!). They couldn’t have been lovers or it alters the offence of Arthur’s discovery the love of Guinevere and Lancelot, whose “innocence” (ie lack of physical love) is important.

Arthur waits patiently for his wife to answer him and to formally marry him, but he rushes Lancelot onto his council with wedding like vows, preceded by a night of prayer and purification. This is man marriage. The scene when Arthur slips into Lancelot’s chamber and touches his bare back holds back from homoeroticism but I think the point is implied. Why, when Arthur discovers the near affair, is Arthur aggressive to Lancelot but composed with Guinevere? Because his love for Lancelot is the greater. He twice speaks of loving Lancelot to his face – “I don’t love people in slices” and “I loved you, I trusted you!”

Note Lancelot’s lack of aggression or even justification; he defers to his love, offering to die for him. In another Jesus paraphrase, Arthur brings up the theme that to die for another is the highest love (which can also be manipulative, it’s how any leader has got men to go to war) – and now Lancelot will give his life to serve his master and the kingdom.

And in Arthur’s last scene, he needs to make up to his two loves as much as they need to placate his rent heart over the discovery that the triangle does indeed have three sides. To prove the third one is most powerful, contrast Arthur’s goodbye to Guinevere to his send off to Lancelot. Arthur asks for his sword – not a phallic symbol, but as a shiny almost magical object throughout the film, to bestow a highest honour on a beloved friend. They hold hands and Arthur not only implies his blessing on Lancelot and Guinevere, he gives Lancelot the greatest privileges he can – being First Knight isn’t just political and military (I hope he doesn’t reign Camelot with only sword skill, and not state craft), it’s saying, You are my main man, I love you.

Mark Adam’s synopsis in Movie Locations of Britain started me on this road when he describes the film as Guinevere coming between Arthur and Lancelot (p151). I think he’s correct as both US and UK film covers have the two men as large and Guinevere in the background in the middle; and on the British cover, the picture of Guinevere is inside the sword, dividing them. So the courtly love here is Arthur’s for his knight; the nation state with universally applicable ideas is America, and this is the tale of taming the wanderer to become part of society rewarded by romantic love, brotherhood and knighthood – but does Lancelot lose something in becoming part of Camelot?

I look forward to getting the region 1 DVD and seeing if the extras support this, or whether this is my reading; but I enjoyed the film far more since seeing all this in it.


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Kate Winslet 4 – does A Little Chaos continue her patterns?

Another Kate Winslet post as I got the nearest to actually seeing her – except, I was, in the words of U2, faraway so close. I attended a gala screening at her home country’s largest film festival, London’s 58th . “It’s so important to be here, I’ve been coming since I was 19” she said at the 57th LFF at the gala screening I missed. But this year’s red carpet contained only her co star and director, Alan Rickman; Kate sent a video message from Australia.

Disappointment aside – and it’s a big one, for I’d not only have seen her (and walked the same carpet) but heard her give a speech and quite possibly been able to ask her a question – I move to the film itself and how it fits in with my other observations about her career.

I’ve no idea if there’s an embargo but I am not doing any plot spoiling until the film is released in the UK and I’ll be sharing other reviews at that time.

So I have to be careful what I say on the mad or dead pattern, except that both are possibilities once again. There was a Titanic moment where she is submerged in water dramatically, though she’s less of the action heroine this time. Sabine De Barra is another woman who, like Adele in Labor Day, has something to reveal around motherhood which is affecting her life, and this is the opportunity for her to face that and move beyond it. Like Adele, Sabine is a woman who is not going out into the world as she might, and finds a portal in which to do so.

In Labor Day and Titanic, that portal is opened by someone else; in Hideous Kinky and Holy Smoke, she’s chosen the adventure, as she has in A Little Chaos – she’s made an application which could get her from her own garden into a far wider one, which is very daring given her background and the era. (In fact, that is a criticism of the film’s premise I have). As always, she doesn’t walk through the portal alone. Her companions here are twofold – the head gardener, Andre le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts from Rust and Bone which I talk about on here) and the King himself – Alan Rickman avec un wig.

Allow me a little chaos and divergence. Kate told Toronto Film Festival journalists last month that it was good to be English again, but I’m confused: yes it was filmed here and she’s talking in her normal accent, but it’s set in France. Alan Rickman was wrong at the premiere yesterday when he said it is all filmed here – Fontainebleau’s exterior is definitely a French chateau. Regarding the issues of the M25 [London’s ring road] and flight paths spoiling filming, I wanted to say to Alan – don’t be so Londocentric then! There’s plenty more of Britain! Neither Ham House nor Bleinham Palace are particularly French looking, and only Matthias Schoenaerts [too many double vowels] is French speaking (actually Belgian) out of the quite large cast, most of whom are British. This invites a Quills comparison – another French story with English speaking cast and accents, filmed close to London whilst Kate was pregnant. Kate’s not been in a European film for a decade, since Finding Neverland; she reminded me of her role as Sylvia when she played Sabine – perhaps it’s the blonde hairstyle and period setting and both characters’ genuine warmth. Kate also recalls Daenerys from Game Of Thrones, with very light hair and skin and dark eyebrows, and a sort of fairytale wench look (again invoking memory of Quills, though this is set over 100 years earlier, in 1680s).

As an ideas based historic drama with a central romance, A Little Chaos could be further compared with Quills, but whereas Quills’s content could shock, Chaos will have a lower cert and therefore wider audience. Chaos felt like the last time she worked with Alan Rickman – Sense and Sensibility – for the (I predict) crowd pleasing, anglophile loving audience who want to think, laugh, cry and gasp – the same recipe as James Cameron claimed to put into Titanic; but this is a peculiarly British offering of The King’s Speech et al mould, which has either royalty real life or aristocratic literature as its source.

Again, Kate’s relationship is focussed on a potential love interest, and like The Holiday, in a third older male figure who helps her free her strictures (that time it was Eli Good/Bad/Ugly Wallach, her Hollywood neighbour, helping her let go of her broken heart; this time, it’s the King, assisting in the same area). But she’s again lacking in female companionship. The LFF guide comments on the strength of women in A Little Chaos, but apart from her housekeeper and a bizarre scene with the underused Jennifer Ehle and the other courtly women (one of whom whips out her breasts) Sabine is surrounded by men. The only woman she might seriously have relationship with is a rival, almost enemy played by Helen McCrory: the wife of Andre.

Chaos as a theme in Kate’s films

Kate is nearly always involved in the bringing in of a new order and disturbing a pattern. Sometimes, as here, she is the instigator; often it’s that accomplice, such as Jack in Titanic, James Barrie in Finding Neverland, who begins something and she is a collaborator and instrument. Broken patterns include asylum running (Quills – she smuggles the writings of the person who causes it to be burned down and her own sensuality is a foil for the celibate Abbe in charge); she rocks the suitable marriage and a set out upper class life in Titanic; her stories and friendship bring disturbance to the expectations of her school and two families (and ultimately society) in Heavenly Creatures; as Marianne in Sense and Sensibility she does not behave as set out by society (though this is the one story she doesn’t break out of but conforms to the pattern, as I’ve written on here in more detail). She breaks patterns in Jude as the woman who won’t marry and thinks railway stations replace cathedrals as places to gather and be impressed; her going to India is about embracing a life that disturbs Sydney suburbia in Holy Smoke and then she ruins the de-programmer’s procedure. She’s also being chaotic in Hideous Kinky by going to another random by Western standards country on a whim with her children, without having secure work. As Adele in Labor Day she breaks with pattern when she becomes prison escapee Frank’s lover. Mildred Pierce is convention breaking for leaving her husband during the Depression and setting up her own business and supporting her play boy (and as a mother – she’s way off any expectation, for that or any time). In Enigma, she stirs up chaos at Bletchley Park by discovering a wartime official secret and going beyond her lowly duty to show what she is really capable of. Perhaps Enigma then is the closest precedent to A Little Chaos: a woman who fulfils her professional potential, ahead of her time in cahoots with an initially resistant man who is getting all the credit.

The antithesis would be Divergent where as Janine, Kate is busy creating and sustaining order after the chaos of revolution – and note this is her first baddie role. It is also true that Hanna in The Reader is someone who is obsessed by order, which replaces her ability to have a moral compass and relate compassionately: this was her least sympathetic, most morally challenged role to date (more on here on that film). The pattern of pattern breaking is also in Little Children (misfit mum has affair), Romance and Cigarettes (another affair and antithesis to S&S), Hamlet (for the affair and then her chaotic spiral into madness); and Iris and Eternal too are about someone who’s nonconformist; April’s busy breaking with convention to escape Revolutionary Road life, and strongly understood by a man with mental health problems who is seen as chaotic by society.

So there’s few films in the Winslet filmography where Kate plays someone who doesn’t fit my chaos theory.

But isn’t chaos part of a story’s tension, and therefore inevitable?

Look out for more of my reviews and analysis nearer the film’s UK release – links will be posted here.

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My first red carpet: is it the experience that counts?

There was an advert in cinemas with a Scots voice intoning – “Cinema, it’s the experience that counts”. Preaching to the converted, I thought, but it is the experience of seeing a film in a large room on a big screen with others which makes leaving the house (as opposed to ever easier home viewing) worthwhile.

So what about the experience of seeing a film in an extra special setting – that of film festival, or better still, a premiere?

This was not my first film festival or occasion when cast or crew took part in the programme, but it was my first red carpet at Britain’s biggest film festival in London’s Leicester Square, the traditional site of many of the nation’s first showings.

When I enquired at the box office what the procedure was for ticket holders to enter the screening, staff teased and said I had to use a secret tunnel! But I did reasonably wonder, with all the cattle railings and security and a wall of photographers, how I got in without disturbing the trail of stars. There’s nothing on the venue (Odeon) or BFI Film Festival’s websites. To others wondering: we came in behind the photographers between celebrity arrivals – and we did have to walk on the red carpet, albeit a shorter stretch than the special guests, and enter the same foyer and auditorium as they did, and show tickets MANY times.

Now I have to tell you how gutted I am: for as much as I was pleased to hear from director Alan Rickman, the biggest star in his new film A Little Chaos was in the continent furthest from the screening, and appeared only by a brief video, giving her filming location and newest child as her reason. I have followed Kate Winslet’s 20 year career for most of it, and made a special sacrifice (eating only bananas due to low budget and using sickness inducing buses) to attend – only to learn she wasn’t coming. Last year, I talked myself out of the £20-30 ticket because I didn’t expect her – only to see her on the carpet in a matching dress in the next day’s news. So this year, I felt it reasonable to assume her presence at the first gala screening of the LFF and British premiere, only to be gutted on arrival.

What then does a film festival atmosphere give to a film, beyond a brief chance to hold up a camera phone to a celebrity who is mostly hidden behind a screen (as any non ticket holder can do at the cinema entrance), and then hear them talk for up to half and hour? Is the introduction and Q&A alone enough: the chance for anyone to hold up a hand and ask a public question, the chance to interact with and see someone famous you likely admire in the same room?

This auditorium – Odeon West End 2 – was sold out, recalling the last Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet film I saw at the cinema, which was also sold out and on its opening weekend – Sense and Sensibility in 1996. And there is a comparison of a typically English period drama, with romance and sadness, but lots of distinctly national humour that will likely delight anglophiles around the world as well as British viewers.

Like my recent experience at Cambridge Film Festival, there were public laughs, but these came at sometimes inappropriate times. At a previous CFF, the explicit and disturbing scenes in Dog Days got a regular laugh until someone yelled back – it’s not funny. I thought it was, said the chastised guffawer. We should have the right to laugh as we are tickled, but it’s also exposing to reveal your humour, and can spoil a moment for others.

There were moments in A Little Chaos that I felt the audience expected to find funny, like the regularity of jokes in a sit com, rather than remembering that films often elicit many emotions and that pathos or shock can be just as possible. The gasps of the sudden throat cutting in Hidden/Cache, the squeals and jumps in The Woman in Black and then the young men in front apologising – that alone was worth the ticket price – are part of what makes cinema special. But often silence or a gesture – I covered my mouth with my hand during the scenes that Kate Winslet’s character is most troubled in A Little Chaos – is as powerful as the vocal response of amusement, which can feel canned and cued.

Of course, the experience can be negative because of talking, rustling, the stink of beer or smelly food, the late coming or re-entry of other customers, the use of phones. In this mostly respectful audience, still a couple of people left the auditorium – in the presence of the press and the film’s maker – and the couple beside me not only gave an unnecessary feature length commentary but talked through the Q&A and didn’t clap the various cast and crew asked to stand. That to me was utterly rude, as you’re here to appreciate their work, and it’s etiquette and respectful.

So was my £20 worth it – plus the now illegal booking fee and an hour lurking round the carpet and my 7 hours on buses? Not quite, and mostly for a missing Winslet. Odeon West End is less large than its black towered sister across the square, and the auditorium itself, although with an 814 capacity, has no special architecture: the early 20th C picture palaces (of which London has several) or the BFI’s own 1960s screen one at Southbank have a sense of occasion that is not present in this fairly usual mainstream subdivided chain cinema. As for the film itself, reviews will appear nearer the film’s UK release date, which is early 2015. More on this and other venues at my sister blog

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