Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 9, 2011

There will always be an England

Filed under: Britain,Film — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

Notwithstanding the fact that two of the films under review here are directed by an Algerian who grew up in France and a Swede, and the third stars an American actress as Margaret Thatcher, all three are explorations of the post-hegemonic sensibilities of both the rulers and the ruled in England but succeeding in only two of the three cases.

The biggest success is “London River”, despite its modest ambitions and budget. Director Rachid Bouchareb’s debut film was “Days of Glory” , a stirring celebration of the heroism of North African soldiers fighting for the French during WWII who had to fend off both Nazi bullets and their commanding officers’ racism. Less successful, at least from my viewpoint, was his next film “Outside the Law“, a revisionist take on the Algerian war of independence that adopted “a plague on both your houses” pacifism reminiscent of Camus’s.

“London River” is essentially a two character drama that brings together a sixtyish British widow who lost her naval officer husband in the war over the Malvinas and an even older French-speaking African man (whose country is never identified) working as a forest ranger in France. A few days after the July 2005 bombings in London, neither her daughter nor his son can be reached by phone so they travel there to track them down, hoping for the best but being prepared for the worst.

Eventually their paths cross since it turns out that their college-age children were lovers, something that Elisabeth, the widow, has trouble accepting. When she discovers that the daughter was studying Arabic at a local Islamic center, her first reaction is disbelief—as if learning that she was studying witchcraft. This is understandable but not really forgiveable given the widespread Islamophobia in Britain at the time. You begin to wonder—as do the parents—whether the children were suicide bombers.

The boy’s father is Ousmane, played by Sotigui Kouyaté, born in Mali but who grew up in Burkina Faso. He died at the age of 74 shortly after the film was finished. A one-time player on the Burkina Faso national football team, he launched an acting career in 1966 and eventually hooked up with the legendary Peter Brook on film and theater projects. His Ousmane is a quiet and pensive character. Tall, lanky and with chiseled features, he looks like a cross between African tribal art and a Giacometti sculpture.

As I watched Elisabeth interact with Ousmane in her tentative and guarded manner, working hard to overcome her initial distrust, I had a sense of déjà vu. She reminded me very much of the kind of plucky female character found in Mike Leigh movies who when confronted with a terrible situation put on a brave face or a stiff upper lip in keeping with British traditions admittedly under assault from all fronts in recent years.

It turns out that she is played by Brenda Blethyn, who starred in Leigh’s masterpiece “Secrets and Lies” as the working class mother whose brief affair with a Black Briton resulted in an unwanted pregnancy. When their child, who had been put up for adoption, grows up she contacts her mother out of the blue in the hopes of binding with her, but is rebuffed  for more or less the same reasons that Elisabeth holds Ousmane at arm’s length. As is the case with Mike Leigh’s drama, director Rachid Bouchareb finds a way to reconcile his lead characters. If you like Mike Leigh films—and who doesn’t—you will like “London River”.

Scheduled for general theatrical release sometime in December (I reviewed a screener submitted by a publicist for the 2011 NYFCO awards meeting), “The Iron Lady” has all the trappings of your typical fawning biopic of the rich and the powerful in line with “The King’s Speech”. Indeed, in one scene her consultants advise her in her first run for Prime Minister that she has to work on her voice–it is not authoritative enough. She then goes to speech lessons in a scene definitely evoking “The King’s Speech”. With Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher, I had additional trepidations since I expected a performance in line with her stilted portrayal of Julia Child.

What a pleasant surprise it was to discover that the film is a venomous attack on the “iron lady”. Admittedly, the politics are a bit unfocused—this after all is not a documentary—but the general impression you are left with is that the financial disaster of today is very much related to the policies that she and her fellow monster Ronald Reagan pushed through.

In one key scene, Thatcher is meeting with her cabinet to discuss a new tax that will be seen as favoring the rich. When her Tory advisers warn her that it will undermine her legitimacy, she scolds them as lacking backbone. The film is replete with archival footage of Britons fighting the cops during the period, leaving no question as to her legacy.

The film also has an almost sadistic streak as it shows Thatcher as entering the early stages of Alzheimer’s, with symptoms fairly obvious during the last year or so when she was in office, just as was the case with Reagan.

From foreign policy, especially the war for control of the Malvinas, to domestic policy with her determination to destroy trade unions and the social legislation won by their party, Thatcher is seen in the light of the “one percenters” of today. In some ways, the film is vaguely reminiscent of “Citizen Kane” with Thatcher becoming more and more malevolent and deranged the more power she attains.

Finally, Streep is terrific. As indicated above, I am not one of her biggest fans but her characterization of Thatcher is not just based on imitating her speaking voice and hairdo. She really got inside her head and figured out what made her tick. It is not very pretty.

Finally, despite my admiration for Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s last film “Let the Right One In”, I don’t think he did justice to John Le Carre’s novel. The screenplay for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” was written by Peter Straughan who also wrote “The Debt”, another film about spies—in that case Mossad agents who fabricated the killing of a Mengele type war criminal who had escaped custody in order to avoid being shamed. He also wrote the screenplay for “Men who Stare at Goats”, a genial satire based on the experiments conducted by military intelligence to apply ESP to warfare. So apparently he is the man to go to when you want to make an spy movie with anti-heroes rather than James Bond types.

The NY Times is positively rapturous over the film, stating about John Hurt’s performance as Control, the MI5 chief determined to root out a Soviet mole (Le Carre’s novel is based on the Kim Philby incident):

That face, a crevassed landscape that suggests sorrow and history, has the granitic grandeur of W. H. Auden in his later life. In tandem with Mr. Hurt’s sonorously melancholic voice (and its useful undertones of hysteria), it is a face that, when used by a filmmaker like Mr. Alfredson, speaks volumes about a character who would otherwise take reams of written dialogue to discover.

Well, that’s not true at all. All of Straughan’s characters are decidedly opaque, lacking the revelatory character that only Le Carre’s prose, that in many ways is about as close to Dickens as we have in our epoch, can endow. For example, this exchange is from the novel. George Smiley, a senior spy who lost his job when a kidnapping attempt in Budapest runs afoul, is talking to Rickie Tarr, a field agent who was the first to discover that there was a mole who alerted the Soviets to the kidnapping plot and other MI5 initiatives over the decades.

“I didn’t know you spoke Russian,” said Smiley—a comment lost to everyone but Tarr, who at once grinned.

“Ah, now, a man needs a qualification in this profession, Mr. Smiley,” he explained as he separated the pages. “I may not have been too great at law but a further language can be decisive. You know what the papers say, I expect?” He looked up from his labours and his grin widened. “‘To possess another language is to possess another soul.’ A great king wrong that, sir, Charles the Fifth. My father never forgot a quotation, I’ll say that for him, though the funny thing is he couldn’t speak a damn thing but English. I’ll read the diary aloud to you, if you don’t mind.”

By comparison, the Tarr character in the film is a one-dimensional figure of interest only for his being at the right time and the right place to discover that there was a mole. Speaking for myself (and who else matters?), I care less about his derring-do as a spy than I do for his musings on language.

It is understandable why Alfredson was selected to direct this film. His teen vampire movie “Let the Right One In” was brilliantly filmed, taking advantage of Sweden’s gloomy winter scenes and the downbeat look of the nondescript and slightly seedy look of the suburb it was filmed in. It was much more like Paramus, New Jersey than Transylvania. So he does get that part of Le Carre’s novel right. He evokes the downscale look of the declining British Empire–apartments filled with dusty furniture and MI5 offices that look more like the Bureau of Internal Revenue than anything James Bond ever visited.

What is missing in the film, however, is the slightly off-kilter character of Le Carre’s prose that is revealed through Tarr’s witty observation above and in numerous other places. You can get a much more faithful version of the novel in the British television movie from the 70s that starred Alec Guinness as Smiley (Gary Oldman is mainly content to do a Guinness impersonation). This opening scene borders on Monty Python, for which there is no equivalent in the terminally gloomy Alfredson version:

Finally, a word must be said about a certain failing in the source material itself. Missing entirely in the novel is any insight into the Kim Philby character’s motivation, who in Le Carre’s view became a serious agent only after the Suez Crisis, when he decided that Britain was no longer a world power and only a tool of American foreign policy.

In the introduction to the latest edition of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, Le Carre writes:

I never knew [George] Blake [another Soviet spy] or Philby, but I always had a quite particular dislike for Philby, and an unnatural sympathy for Blake. The reasons, I fear, have much to do with the inverted snobbery of my class and generation. I disliked Philby because he had so many of my attributes. He was public-school educated, the son of a wayward and dictatorial father—the explorer and adventurer, St. John Philby—he drew people easily to him and he was adept at holding his feelings, in particular, his seething distaste for the bigotries and prejudices of the English ruling classes.

Now my admiration for John Le Carre is unbound but my reaction to this is to really wonder whether he should have bothered to write a novel with a Philby-like villain (of course in his novels, the heroes and villains are pretty much reflections of each other) with such a built-in bias. Frankly, I would have found the story far more riveting if Le Carre had made the mole a key character and a sympathetic one at that. But then again, that’s what you might expect from the unrepentant Marxist.

1 Comment »

  1. The late 1970s miniseries of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is one of the best things ever made for television. And, you are right to emphasize the importance of the extensive interrogations and conversations through which Smiley discovers the corruption of Philby, and, by extension, almost everyone around him. The ensemble performances were brilliant, delightful character actor efforts by Bernard Hepton and Terrence Rigby, among others. I particularly remember a scene where Smiley walks through a park with Roy Bland and discuss the “pigs and clover” society.

    For my review of the television series, and the possibility of interpreting it as a story of capitalist alienation, go here: http://amleft.blogspot.com/2008_08_01_archive.html#3941647168182304085

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 10, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

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