God’s Own Country (dir. Francis Lee) 2017

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God’s own Country is a simple love story. A gritty, realistic, unsentimental love story. It is set in surroundings that are bleak and that sometimes seem hopeless. It is peopled with characters whose lives reflect that environment.

It is not an easy watch, Francis Lee, the director, has chosen not to airbrush the harsh realities of farm life on the Yorkshire moors, so there are scenes of birth, death, blood and gore. The characters, too, are depicted in a brutally honest way. They do not talk a great deal and when they do they are often spikey and abrasive. However, the occasional tenderness displayed seems highlighted because of this.

The four main actors are all great, both Josh O’Connor as Johnny and Alec Secareanu as Gheorghe appear to bare their soul for the camera and Gemma Jones is great as Nan. Ian Hart is outstanding, with a beautifully nuanced performance as Johnny’s Dad, Martin. He can be harsh and  blunt, but beneath it all what he wants is his son’s happiness.

This is a film that is defined by the place in which it is set. Not only is this a very British film, it is a northern film, in much the same way that the band, The Smiths, were, when they were at their best. Sometimes the diamond shines all the brighter for being in a rougher environment, and that is certainly the case here. It is a very simple love story made sweeter by being found in such a hopeless place.

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Blue Stockings, The Yard Theatre, London E9

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It is a shocking fact that women were not allowed to graduate from Cambridge University until 1948. This play is set 50 years earlier and concerns four ladies who attended Girton College, Cambridge at the end of the 19th Century. It is a well written and cogent drama about the beginnings of the women rights movement. it gives voice to all points of view at that time, ranging from those who believed that education would distract women from being good wives to those who thought that noisy demonstration calling for immediate emancipation was the only way forward.

The Yard is an interesting theatre space, the seats are close to the action, but the wide stage and high ceilings make it very open. I really like the apparent simplicity of the direction, schoolroom projectors set the scenes, blackboard writings mark us as being in a classroom, a pictures of an orchard or Van Gogh’s night sky move us outdoors. This is inventive and effective.

The quality of the acting is very high and there are nice performances even in the smaller parts. Mischa Jones is fabulous as Tess, she brings a nice balance of intelligence and innocence to her role. Laura Trosser has a great part as Miss Blake, resolutely playing the long game in the fight for equality and she plays it perfectly. I really liked Quinton Arigi as Will, whose position changes as the story develops.

Blue Stockings is part of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain’s East End season at The Yard Theatre. It is a sterling production of a very good play, in an engaging venue. I will be looking out for more Jessica Swale written plays. It has also made me look forward to seeing the next play in the season, “The Host” and their revival of “Zigger Zagger” at the Wilton Music Hall, next month.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening. Recommended.

Victim (dir. Basil Dearden) 1961

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Victim is a classic movie in so many different ways. It is a great representative of the black and white, crime thriller, genre of the early 1960s. The storyline is good, it is well told and the suspense will keep you interested right until the finale.  It is a fantastic British movie, made in the Pinewood studios with high production values. It has all the hallmarks of British film making at the time. The dialogue is clipped and the characters are bristling with repressed emotion.

It has a wonderful setting with splendid views of London just before the start of the swinging ’60s. St Martin’s Lane and Cecil Court are still recognisable, with Oliver! playing at what is now the Noel Coward Theatre. There are also nice shots of Millbank, Soho and the Thames. The pub scenes were filmed in a real pub, The Salisbury, on the corner of St Martins Lane, which was a gay pub until the 1980s. The pub is still there today and still has the Victorian fixtures and fittings seen in the film.

 

Victim has a courageous and dashing performance by Dirk Bogarde who risked his matinee idol status by taking on such a controversial role. He was a male romantic lead, so playing a man with homosexual tendencies, constrained though they may have been, would have put this career in jeopardy. He is excellent in the role and apparently he added the line “I wanted him!” which almost had the film banned. Sylvia Syms puts in a good performance as his unfulfilled wife, wavering between hurt and compassion. The whole cast is excellent and there are recognisable faces throughout the film.

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This was a shocking film when it came out in 1961 and it almost did not get past either the British or American censors at the time. It was the first film to use the word homosexual and it was the first mainstream movie to allude to it in a non negative manner.  It was this, that made it a danger to public morals and gave it the X rating that it received when it was released. Homosexuality is not the direct subject matter, but a blackmail ring that was targeting the frequenters of a gay pub. This was a common occurrence at the time as homosexual relations were an offence that could land one in jail and would certainly ruin a career.

While this film, itself, did not advocate gay rights, its sympathetic portrayal of some gay characters allowed the conversation to begin and this will have helped to bring about the change in the law six years later. Victim often appears in lists of all time greatest films, and it was certainly a brave and groundbreaking piece of film making.  Whether you are interested in the history of cinema, or the history of gay rights then you should see this movie. It is being shown currently at the BFI on the south bank as part of the gross indecency season, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, but it very often included in retrospective seasons of gay film, British film, or classic crime thrillers.

Of course, most importantly of all, it is a very enjoyable film to watch!

Weekend (dir. Andrew Haigh) 2011

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Weekend is a beautifully written and wonderfully acted film. It was made and set in 2011. Two guys hook up in a bar on a Friday night and the film is the story of their gradually developing relationship between then and Sunday evening. Although In many ways it is a universal love story, it is firmly rooted in the British urban bar scene of the time, both in the casual drug taking and in the way that they have sex first and then begin to get to know each other afterwards. Andrew Haigh, the director has gone for ultra realism in his film style and this almost feels like a documentary in places.

The two leads, Tom Cullen and Chris New, both put in great performances, as they need to for this realism to work. They are fully committed to their characters and you believe in them wholeheartedly, coming to care for them as they risk sharing their vulnerabilities with each other. It is a warm film, and we get to know them, as they get to know each other. They both appear well rounded and honest, even though our knowledge of them is limited, and we want their burgeoning trust in each other to be repaid.  However it is a cold world and they have known each other for a weekend…………

This is not just a gay movie, but Weekend is one of the best British Gay Films and deserves to be commemorated as such. It is currently showing at Picturehouse Central as part of the 50 years since decriminalisation series. It is also showing on the BFI player as part of their LGBT+ series, also commemorating 50 years since partial decriminalisation. Whatever platform you choose to see it on, it is certainly worth watching.

Angels In America, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Angels in America is operatic in its scale. It has huge universal themes, it takes on religion, politics and the future of the planet. At its core though, are three individual small stories that investigate the meaning of love and abandonment. It can be at times; grandiose, bombastic, histrionic and at others; tender, bitchy or warm. The show is set in 1985 New York at the start of the AIDS crisis, with Ronald Reagan just having been elected for his second term.

It is an awe inspiringly big production. The set is amazing. There are not many theatres in the world with stages large enough to contain the more expansive pieces, but there are also intimate scenes set in small a room or around a single hospital bed. I will be surprised if Ian MacNeil does not win an award for his set design. The direction is very clever, the angel is astonishingly large, when it arrives, yet the scene involving a small puppetry diorama is equally compelling.

The cast is astounding and their performances are excellent. Every single person in the production is at the top of their game, so it almost seems unfair to pick out favourites but…. Andrew Garfield is a revelation, I’d only seen him as Spider-Man before, and this is quite different! Nathan Stewart-Jarrett is fab-u-lous (three full syllables) as Belize, he is given some of the best lines in the show, and he delivers them well.  Nathan Lane plays Roy Cohn and manages to make him cruel, contemptible and charismatic.

This show is a marathon at over seven and a half hours for both parts, but it passes surprisingly quickly. I did not feel the time going at all. I commend its ambition, I admire its uncompromising stance and I revere its wonderful production values. Angels in America one-off theatrical experience.

Queer British Art, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1

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Queer British Art at the Tate is a fascinating exhibition, it is more of a history of homosexuality in Britain told through artistic pieces. Some of the exhibits aren’t very queer, until you know their story, and some of the exhibits wouldn’t be  artistic in themselves, until they are included in this exhibition.

Is the door of Oscar Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol art? Perhaps not, but it does fit well in this show. Is Gluck’s paining of a vase of lilac roses queer? Not unless you are aware it commemorates the beginning of her affair with the florist, Constance Spry. This is one of those shows where the notes accompanying the piece are often equally as important as the piece itself. There is a box containing 200 military buttons each of which represents an illegal sexual liaison with a man who was wearing it.

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There are many fabulous pieces here including four early Hockney’s and two Francis Bacon’s. There is a glorious photo of Quentin Crisp as a young man, he was really only famous in later life and this picture shows how beautiful he was. This exhibition is full of wonderful bits of British Queer history, some of which one will never have the opportunity to see again. It has the actual card that the Marquis of Queensbury left for Oscar Wilde calling him a “posing sodomite”. This led to the court case that had him incarcerated in Reading Gaol.

There are eight rooms here, packed with interesting items, so make sure that you leave yourself time to take it all in. It is rare that this tight man would go twice to a paid exhibition, but I  fully intend to return before it closes on the 1st of October.

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I think you should look upon this as a historical exhibition rather than an art exhibition, but either way, I recommend it highly.

HIR by Taylor Mac, Bush Theatre, London

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Hir is challenging and confrontational. In Paige Connor, Taylor Mac has created a 21st Century dramatic monster. Released from years of oppression and abuse by the happy accident of Arnold Connor’s stroke, she is using her new found freedom to wreak revenge on the world in general and her husband in particular. Ashley McGuire is exceptional as Paige, she exudes a logical, manic cruelty. Her youngest child is transgender and she uses the politics of gender fluidity like a weapon, which she swings to beat back the wrongs of a society that she believes kept her in thrall for the majority of her life.

Arthur Darvill is also good as Isaac, the eldest child. He is the foil, having come back from a war zone, he has tried the new world and wants things to be much as they were before he left. He tries to be the voice of reason but is left defending a damaged premise, this cannot end well…….

All four actors put in great, intense performances. The direction and the set are disordered, but this is by design and it suits the scattergun effect of the plays arguments, hitting out at any targets as they appear. There are many very funny, if bitter, exchanges. The dialogue is clever and angry. The subject matter captures the zeitgeist, it starkly points out challenges facing our changing society. The subtitle of the play is  “Make America Punk Again” and it really does have a punk ethos, enraged and shouting about the state of the world, without finding, or even looking for, any solutions.

It is uncomfortable to watch, but be in no doubt, this is a great play.