Picturehouse Q&A with Viceroy’s House director Gurinder Chadha

TWENTY five years ago, Gurinder Chadha became the first Asian woman to make a feature film in Britain with Bhaji on the Beach. Fourteen years ago she then directed Bend it Like Beckham, a film that launched the career of a certain Keira Knightley and was a box office success story.

Unbelievably, as Chadha’s latest film, Viceroy’s House, is released in cinemas later this week, she remains the only female British-Asian filmmaker making a living in her profession. Her lone presence is a shocking indictment that extends to all facets of the industry: studios, financiers and audiences.

Even with the dearth of British-Asian voices behind the camera and faces in-front of the camera, it is still shocking that ‘Viceroy’s House’ is the first British film to deal directly with the Partition of India since Ghandi – released 35 years ago.

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Speaking at a Picturehouse Central question and answer session in London after a preview of the film, 57-year-old Chadha, who grew up in Southall, West London, explained her decision to make a ‘populist’ film about a tragic time in India’s history.

She said: ‘I did not want to make a film for experts and academics who already knew about the subject [She has produced a BBC documentary on Partition later this year for that particular audience]. I came from the premise that a lot of people do not know where India and Pakistan are on the map.

‘In our schools a lot of our children do not know Britain had an Empire because it is not taught on the curriculum anymore. I wanted to make it accessible to people who knew nothing about the history, but also my children and their friends who would be able to learn about the past.’

Indeed, Chadha’s film takes a number of noticeable steps to appeal to a mass audience, including a more simplistic approach to the political discourse and a less graphic approach of the horrific violence. She also uses Lord Mountbatten and the major political forces involved as a Trojan horse to focus on how ordinary people were affected by the chaotic dividing of a nation.

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Chadha explained: ‘I wanted to make sure that history did not just to belong to the important men and the important leaders, but we saw also the effects of the decisions on ordinary people.’

The ripple effects of Partition on ordinary people were extraordinary – and immeasurably sad. More than 14 million people were uprooted from their homes in the largest mass migration in human history.

As explained in the closing credits, Chadha’s aunt was one of more a million causalities of that traumatic event. The director admitted that growing up in London she still ‘lived under shadow of Partition’ after her family home was lost in the creation of Pakistan.

It is a shadow that Chadha confronted when she made her first visit to Pakistan in 2006 for the BBC show Who Do You Think You Are.  The ‘overwhelming’ and warm greeting she received from the locals – and thoughts of her aunt’s cruel death – inspired her decision to subvert the historical period drama genre in Viceroy’s House by placing emphasis on ordinary people.

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Even still, the Bend It Like Beckham writer-director is under no illusions that her film may divide opinion in Pakistan and India when it is released there later this year. For Pakistani’s, Partition marks the birth of their nation and a cause for celebration. The same joy is not shared among Indian’s, who largely view the event as a shameful disaster.

Chadha also spoke of the ‘suspicious’ relationship that still exists between these young and inward-looking nations.  A mistrust that has resulted in further conflict since Partition, and permeates through every possible power structure. In fact, Chadha was recently denied a visa to shoot her documentary in Pakistan due an on-going dispute between the two nation’s film industry’s.

Chadha hopes that her different perspective as a British-Asian woman can help overcome the historical challenge of presenting a balanced picture of Partition. She said:  ‘I could have made a movie where I pointed fingers, where I villainised one group over another. But I didn’t think in this day and age that was a befitting film for me to make about divide and rule. It was more befitting for me to present information. Present what everyone’s position was, what everyone’s agenda was and then let people point fingers or make their minds up.’

Like many films, the current political climate has given another layer of significance and relevance to the harsh history told in Viceroy’s House. In one scene, Mountbatten assures a servant that ‘Muslims will never be treated as second-class citizens’ – a notion that will register with many currently trying to pass through the Trumpian border control into America.

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Chadha’s sees her film as an apt warning to those who support Trump’s stance on Muslims.  She said: ‘The film is a timely reminder of what happens when politicians use divisive tactics and do use the race card to divide us. It is easier to divide us and rule us and easier to scapegoat people than to actually govern issues of employment, health and education.’

Ultimately, Chandha wants her film to bring people closer, whether they are Indian, Pakistani, British or even American.

She finished the Q&A with this powerful message of hope: ‘It is a healing film because being a mother I have to do that. I have to feel like there is something in the human spirit that can rise above the atrocities that we do to each other as humans in order for us to create a society that is good for us, our children and their children.’

This country needs more Gurinder Chadhas. Our film industry needs more Gurinder Chadhas.

A day at Curzon Mayfair – Fences and Moonlight (Film Review)

A day at Curzon Mayfair is normally a cause for celebration. But with two Oscar nominated films lined up the occasion felt more like a special birthday or Christmas.

First up, the long awaited big-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s play Fences. It has been close to 30 years since Paramount bought the movie rights to Wilson’s domestic drama play, which takes an honest look at the black experience in 1950’s Pittsburgh.

Denzel Washington, director and the driving force behind the film’s eventual production, stars as Troy Maxson, an ageing garbage man whose dreams of playing Major League Baseball were denied because of his race.

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Troy works hard to support his dedicated wife, Rose (Viola Davis), and youngest son, Corey (Jovan Adepo), before returning home to shoot the breeze and drink in the backyard with his colleague Jim (Stephen Henderson).

It soon becomes apparent that Troy’s life is not as stable and principled as it appears on the surface. His festering – and justified – bitterness at his unfulfilled sporting career leads him to actively undermine and deny Corey’s college football opportunities, despite Rose’s pleas that ‘times have changed’.

Troy’s manhood is undermined by the knowledge that his house has been paid for by the compensation given to his brother for an injury suffered in the Second World War. Meanwhile, his marriage is silently failing and his solution is to seek solace in the arms of another lady.

Fences is littered with metaphors – as you would expect from an adapted play – but many of them feel uncomfortably overstated. The timely lit crucifix on the bedroom wall, the old baseball-on-a-string in the backyard and – of course – the fence.  Worst of all is the painfully transparent and prolonged final scene which leaves the viewer bewildered and frustrated.

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Fences’ metaphors extend to its use of claustrophobic settings (we rarely see Troy outside of his home, backyard or work), reflecting Troy’s personal stagnation and – by design – leaving the film static.

Again, it is delivery rather than concept that dulls the film.

Beyond Washington’s typically authoritative presence and Davis’ magnificently heart-wrenching delivery, there is not enough of substance to adequately fill the 139 minute runtime, especially with a stripped back style and minimalised soundtrack.

Expect Xavier Dolan’s upcoming adaptation of It’s Only The End Of The World to show how a play can be stylised for the big-screen.

After an hour of reflection in the lobby (I watched the 50 Shades Darker trailer countless times on the Curzon television and remain convinced it’s a ghost story), I took my seat in screen one for a viewing of Moonlight.

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Director Barry Jenkins’ film takes a City Of God (2002) structure, documenting three stages of a young man’s life growing up in a drug infested Miami neighbourhood.

The story begins with Chiron – nicknamed ‘Little’ – as an introverted adolescent, neglected by his addiction afflicted mother (Naomie Harris) and shunned by his classmates for being ‘weird’.

He forms an unlikely friendship with local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who feeds, shelters and, in one particularly moving scene, teaches him how to swim – creating a lasting affinity with the ocean.

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Chiron also finds refuge in the company of an understanding classmate named Kevin. Their relationship is complex and confusing but deeply liberating.

Moonlight’s soul-piercing score and dazzlingly poetic cinematography underpin this powerful and memorable search for identity. Apart from the clichéd high school drama in the second act, it is hard not to get swept away by the film’s perfect meld of stunning aesthetics and terrific performances.

I left the Curzon Mayfair feeling romanced by my cinema experience.

Moonlight had vanquished my disappointing start to the day, leaving an imprint of enduring images and Nicholas Britell’s magnificent score reverberating through my head.

Now it is your turn. Get off the fence, stop by your local cinema and fall in love with one of the best films of this year. As for Fences, stay away. 

Fences – 3/5 

Dir: Denzel Washington 

Scr: August Wilson

Cast: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby

DOP: Charlotte Bruus Christensen

Music: Marcelo Zarvos

Year: 2016

Runtime: 2hr 19

 

Moonlight – 4/5 

Dir: Barry Jenkins

Scr: Barry Jenkins

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Duan Sanderson, Alex R Hibbert, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, Edson Jean, Patrick Decile, Jharrel Jerome, Trevante Rhodes, Stephen Bron, Andre Holland

DOP: James Laxton

Music: Nicholas Britell

Year: 2016

Runtime: 1hr 51

In Second Heaven with Sarah Jane Morris (Live Music Review)

BY her own frank admission, Sarah Jane Morris is menopausal, causing her to break out into hot sweats on stage.

But the flushes and the occasional waving of  a cooling red paper fan have done nothing to dampen her mercurial stage presence and her ability to mesmerise an audience.

As evidenced by her recent 102-minute set at Brassiere Zedel, a stone’s throw from London’s Piccadilly Circus, 57 year old Morris is very much in sparkling form. Not one of the 12 songs she performed failed to hit the right note with the evening finishing far too early with a rousing rendition of ‘I Shall be Released’ which had the sell-out crowd screaming for more (she would have obliged if it was not for the fact that the room had to be turned around quickly for La Voix and her pianist).

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The ex-lead singer of 1980s band The Republic delivered a performance that displayed the full range of her talent. She was superbly accompanied on stage by guitarists Tony Remy and Tim Cansfield (wonderful on vocals in Morris’s version of ‘Piece of My Heart’ where he adds’ I wish Trump would go away’).

Her love of some of the musical greats was evidenced by nerve tingling versions of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and Billy Paul’s ‘Me and Mrs Jones’ (a track which Morris, with delight, tells the audience she originally cut in 1989 only for it to be banned by the BBC for its lesbian bent).

Her voice reached depths so low on ‘Wild Flowers‘ (a tribute to her mother) it reminded everyone why she was so key to the success of the Communards in the late 1980s as a counterpoint to the falsetto voice of Jimmy Somerville.

And of course, a Sarah Jane Morris concert would not be complete without her vehement support of the dispossessed, the oppressed, refugees and love over war. As she implores at the end of her version of Imagine:  ‘peace in my name’, ‘love in my name’, ‘no war in my name’.

Although Morris’s latest album (Compared to What, performed with Antonio Forcione) did not get an airing, tracks on the brilliant Bloody Rain (2014) were played including ‘On my Way to You’ and ‘Deeper Well’ where Remy’s exemplary guitar work comes to the fore.

Morris is an extraordinary singer, as comfortable in the cramped confines of Brassiere Zedel (Crazy Coqs) as she is at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club or the vastness of the Union Chapel in London’s Islington. Her voice is captivating.

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She has a canny skill of building a quick rapport with her audience by being slightly self-deprecating and refreshingly honest about her personal life (the love of her late mother, her errant father and husband Mark Pulsford who she married in a humanist wedding at Chelsea’s legendary Jazz club 606). And of course, her menopause. By the way, she also thanked the audience for selling out Crazy Coqs on a Tuesday night (a nice touch).

Her songs are heartfelt and occasionally her voice will hit a nerve ending which will send you into ecstasy. A better experience than any drug or glass of Picpoul will give you.

With a string of concerts scheduled in the coming months (everywhere from Birmingham, Colchester to Royal Tunbridge Wells and London) she is well worth searching out.

Don’t worry about who she will be on stage with (Antonio Forcione or Remy and Cansfield).

Menopause or no menopause, it will be a treat. I promise you. A musician at the top of her profession, impassioned and passionate.

http://www.sarahjanemorris.co.uk/concerts

http://www.606club.co.uk

www.ronniescotts.co.uk

http://www.unionchapel.org.uk

“I just burst into tears” – Q&A with Manchester By The Sea director Kenneth Lonergan

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I WAS recently tempted into seeing Oscar nominated Manchester By The Sea for a second time.

I do not often give such emotionally weighty – and magnificent – films a second viewing so soon after my first (yes, I’ve seen the delightful La La Land four times already). But the opportunity to participate in a live Q&A with writer-director Kenneth Lonergan was something no true cinephile would dream of passing up.

Packed into screen one of the Curzon Soho in London’s West End, my appreciation for Lesley Barber’s impeccable score and the film’s immense performances reached even loftier heights. But one thing did take me by surprise that I had not noticed in my first screening – the film’s acknowledgement of laughter and fun.

Speaking to acclaimed film critic Danny Leigh afterwards, Lonergan explained his use of comedy. He said: “I always try to put humour into everything I do because I find it everywhere I go. There are certainly humour-free zones in life and it is very unpleasant to be in them. But most of the time, if something terrible is happening something funny is bound to happen soon after.”

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Indeed, the balance that Lonergan finds in Manchester By The Sea is strikingly human, and one which prevents the film from slipping into a pit of perpetual sombreness. That was a concern for the director who admitted he questioned his own right to bring humour to a film based on such an awful and tragic tragedy.

The original concept for Manchester By The Sea had been brought to Lonergan by Matt Damon and John Krasinski. Damon was earmarked to direct – and star in – the film before his Hollywood megastar schedule ruled him out, leaving Lonergan to direct and Casey Affleck to step into the film’s lead role.

It is a ‘Plan B’ combination that could easily be collecting Oscars on February 26. Lonergan spoke fondly of his collaboration with Affleck, including one story that highlighted the intricacies and emotional burden of their work.

He recalled: “I got really upset one day. Casey and I had a 20 minute discussion about whether he should pat Lucas (Hedges) on the shoulder when he walks through the kitchen or not. It was the kind of discussion we had every day and I really enjoyed them.”

FACTFILE: Kenneth Lonergan
  • Born October 16, 1962 in New York City, New York
  • Wrote screenplay for Analyze This (1999)
  • First Oscar Nomination for You Can Count On Me (2000) 
  • Wrote screenplay for Gangs Of New York (2002) with Jay Cocks and Steven Zaillian
  • Wrote and directed Margaret (2011)

 

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But after shooting one of the film’s most affecting scenes Lonergan admitted to breaking down.  “We were in the middle of this discussion and he was really digging in. We both had our reasons and eventually I just burst into tears.”

Manchester By The Sea also gave Lonergan the chance to work with Michelle Williams, whom he admitted to being a long-time admirer of.

He said:  “Michelle was just someone who came to mind right away when we were starting to cast the other parts. I’d seen her in a Mike Leigh play in New York when she was 19. A Broadway production called Smelling a Rat, which she was just amazing in, and I’ve followed her career with great interest since.”

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Williams and Affleck’s ‘amazing’ chemistry is one of Manchester By The Sea’s key cornerstones, with many of the film’s memorable and poignant scenes involving the two. Lonergan gave insight into one particular scene – one with the baby stroller, discussing the amount of planning behind it.

He said: “They both have to know when the last time they spoke was and agree on the common history, as that scene is so dependent on their common history. The specific relation that people have to each other in their lives is something we have to establish and have a mutual foundation to proceed from. There is also my version. It is something to offer the actors as a starting point.”

The preparations certainly pay off as Lonergan produces one of the most perfectly executed scenes you will witness in cinema. It is typical of his brave, thoughtful, small-scale masterpiece that deserves acclaim and accolades at this month’s big award ceremonies.

Read my review of 20th Century Women & check out my In Focus look at Spring Breakers. 

‘LOVE AT THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY’ – SHE LOVES ME (THEATRE REVIEW)

IF you are fortunate – or wise – enough to have purchased a ticket for She Loves Me, you are in for a right royal treat. A feel good musical that will leave you wearing a smile stretching to Timbuktu and beyond.

The show, at the marvellous Menier Chocolate Factory – a stone’s throw from London Bridge – continues a rich vein of form for this ‘fringe’ theatre.

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Travesties, the Tom Stoppard play starring Tom Hollander, was a great Autumnal hit and has since transferred to the Apollo where it continues to receive rave reviews (it runs until April 29).

Next up is Terence Rattigan’s Love in Idleness, directed by none other than Trevor Nunn. If it is half as good as last year’s production of The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre (starring Helen McCrory) we are in for a treat.

She Loves Me, written in 1963 and set in 1930’s Budapest, is based on the shenanigans that take place among the staff of a bustling parfumerie, bursting with perfumes and creams, designed to make the good women of Budapest feel younger and more attractive.

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The shop is owned by Mr Maraczek (Les Dennis) who may be lucky in business but not in love. His marriage is on the rocks (nothing new there for Les) and although we never see his wife, it soon becomes obvious she is having an affair with one of the staff.

Mr Maraczek has his suspicions. He believes it is shop assistant Georg (the ridiculously  handsome Mark Umbers) who is doing the dirty on him. So begins Mr Maraczek’s campaign to drive Georg out of his shop.

But he is wrong. Georg is forming a relationship by letter (1930’s version of social media) with a woman, Amalia (Scarlett Strallen), whom he has never met. When she then turns up at the parfumerie pleading for a job, the couple are oblivious to the fact that it is them who are having the love letter affair.

More testosterone is thrown on stage by the flakey relationship between shop assistants Steven Kodaly (Dominic Tighe) and Ilona Ritter (Katherine Kingsley).

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It is all wonderful fare with various twists and turns but Katherine Kingsley steals the show. Wearing high heels that thrust her into the stratosphere and a dress that highlights all her curves, she thrills with her every move and word  – whether it is cutting a length of ribbon as Mr Kodaly (a cad and a half) flirts with a customer (suggesting Mr Kodaly may be in for some drastic life-changing surgery if he is not careful) or ranting away in her cockney accent. A Hungarian cockney in 1930’s Budapest? She makes it believable.

The evening is an absolute joy from start to finish. The music and singing are both excellent, a credit to the long standing brilliance of lyricist Sheldon Harnick (still going strong at 92 and a visitor to the show on its Press Night) and composer Jerry Bock who gave birth to She Loves Me 54 years ago.

She Loves Me runs until March 4. It’s sold out but you might strike lucky and get a return. It deserves to do a Travesties so it might transfer to the West End.

I hope it does. In these Brexit-laced days, we all need a bit of cheer to keep our spirits up. She Loves Me delivers in spades and bottles of perfume.

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Subversive casting: Introducing Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers

“GENTLY PROFOUND” – 20th CENTURY WOMEN (FILM REVIEW)

5 STARS

It is no wonder Mike Mills’ latest film, 20th Century Women, has been nominated for best screenplay at this month’s Oscars. The writer-director has an incredible talent for crafting highly quotable, gently profound and introspective scenes that ooze with irresistible charm. He delivers in spades.

One of the most telling scenes occurs when Dorothea, played by Annette Bening (American Beauty), gathers around the television with her dinner guests to watch Jimmy Carter’s famous ‘crisis of confidence’ speech. The two juxtaposing responses provoked by Carter’s words underpin the conflicting sense of angst and optimism that pervaded America in the late 1970’s, a time when the flickering flames of American liberalism were on the cusp of being extinguished by the rising tide of Reaganite conservatism.

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The story itself, based on Mills’ own upbringing in Santa Barbara, is a personable one. Dorothea, an unbending 55-year-old single mother, is trying to raise her 15-year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) and believes she can do so without the help of a man. After admitting to knowing him “less each day” and hindered by a generational gap that is too wide reconcile, she enlists the help of two women in Jamie’s life, Julie (Elle Fanning) and Abbie (Greta Gerwig).

Julie, a close friend of Jamie’s since kindergarten, seeks refuge from her psychiatrist mother by sneaking into his bedroom at night to – ironically – unpack their lives. After excelling in last year’s Neon Demon, Fanning does an excellent job of conveying Julie’s unwilling vulnerability which takes form in the cliché statements of youthful rebellion – smoking and sex.

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It is Dorothea’s lodger, Abbie, who takes a more motherly approach to Jamie, sharing with him her passion for photography, punk music and feminist books. In amusing fashion, Jamie’s liking for the books leads to him being beaten up by one teen for questioning his sexual prowess. Perhaps it is a sign of things to come in the impending machismo-driven decade.

That is the real triumph of 20th Century Women. The film is able to tie these wider themes to a very human story. A lot of that is owed to its tremendous cast.

Of course, Bening has rightfully been receiving heaps of acclaim for her ground-breaking performance. Her delivery through cigarette-pursed lips is phenomenal but Gerwig and Fanning bring an energy, life and authenticity to the film that should not be understated. A winning combination.

4/5

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Dir: Mike Mills

Scr: Mike Mills

Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann, Billy Crudup

DOP: Sean Porter

Music: Roger Neill

Year: 2017

Runtime: 119 mins