Exhibitions Tell Stories Too: ‘Power of Stories’, Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich

This week I visited the latest exhibition on show at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. ‘Power of Stories’ is a collaborative endeavour and melds the loan of three of the Oscar-winning costumes from the Disney/Marvel film ‘Black Panther’ with historical pieces already held by the Ipswich Museum. Together with a team of Community Curators made up of local people, the exhibition also tells the story of how and why the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) was formed during the 1970s.

From the left: Costumes for T’Challa, Okoye and Shuri from the Disney/Marvel film ‘Black Panther’.

It is not a new idea that human beings express their lived experiences and histories in narrative forms. Storytelling is and has been an essential part of human existence and as the anthropologists inform us it is present in one form or another in every community and culture across the world.

Queen Hatshepsut (1507-1458 BCE)

To begin with there was the storyteller and the story listener, but each time humankind discovered or invented a new medium for expression then a song, a cave-painting, a stone carving, a stained-glass window, a book, a photograph, a play, a film, a computer game or even an exhibition told a story.

Children’s history book. Circa 1950 (My note – an outdated yet ‘interesting’ storytelling of English history.)

As you enter ‘Power of Stories’ there is a large block of text written on the wall introducing the exhibition. It states:

A world of stories.

Sharing stories is something all people have in common. The more stories we know, hear and share, the wider our view of the world becomes.

Museums have historically presented a European view of history, which has excluded many voices and ways of knowing.

As Community Curators, we have woven our perspectives into this display, recognising that everyone has valuable stories to share. This is part of a developing collaboration around history, community and belonging.

The exhibition begins with a series of cabinets containing objects from the Ipswich Museum collection including puppets, metalwork sculptures, books and comics.

Puppets are part of a long and worldwide storytelling tradition. Punch from Europe and traditional Indonesian Wayang Golek (translates as theatre rod puppet).
Exhibit note – Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – John Foxe wrote this book of people who were killed for their faith by Queen Mary I between 1555 and 1558. Foxe, a Protestant, hoped to convince people that Catholicism was bloodthirsty and dangerous. (My note – the text and imagery persuasive storytelling or obvious propaganda?)
Exhibit note – Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám translated by Edward Fitzgerald. By translating ancient Persian poetry into English, Edward Fitzgerald encouraged fellow Victorians to think beyond their Christian mindset. (My note – this text placed next to Foxe’s Martyrs is perhaps the storytelling of the exhibition in action broadening the visitors outlook despite this being a Victorian English translation.)

There couldn’t be an exhibition about stories that didn’t include comics. Naturally this exhibition includes some of the most iconic Marvel issues, including copies of editions from ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, ‘X-Men’ and ‘Iron Man’ series. And, of course with the main draw for the exhibition ‘Power of Stories’ being the three costumes designed for characters from the Marvel film, ‘Black Panther’, there’s versions of the earliest Black Panther comic book appearances.

Exhibit note – All of the comic books in the exhibition have been kindly loaned by Matthew C Applegate. These comic books are part of a collection of over 40,000 Marvel comic books which is believed to be one of the largest and most complete collections in the UK. (My note – Iron Man first appearing in 1963 a troubled, wealthy, individualistic superhero played in the films by Robert Downey Jr an equally troubled, wealthy, individualistic Hollywood star!)

I have not seen the film, ‘Black Panther’ but I know it was critically acclaimed and heralded for its mostly black cast especially for the lead actors’ strong performances and, notably, an all-female army.

Okoye’s Final Battle Scene Costume. Exhibit note – Marvel Studios’ Black Panther (2018). Worn by Danai Gurira. Okoye is the head of Wakandan armed forces and General of the Dora Milaje, an elite group of all-female soldiers. She represents heritage, tradition and loyalty.

Predictably from a film franchise based on comics that revel in the mythic superhero, Thor/Loki, Iron Man, X-Men, Spider Man amongst others, and, with only 12 percent of the superhero comics having female protagonists, it is not surprising that ‘Black Panther’ is about a king, T’Challa, and his kingdom of Wakander. Despite two of the three costumes on display being those for the female characters, Shuri and Okoye, the story is not primarily their story, but the king’s.

Shuri’s Final Battle Scene Costume. Exhibit note – Marvel Studios’ Black Panther (2018). Worn by Letitia Wright. Shuri harnesses the powerful fictional metal Vibranium to create Wakanda’s technology.

The film costumes for fictional characters are, no doubt, the crowd-drawing, eye-catching spectacle and next to them the real life, local story of how and why the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) came into being feels quiet in the telling.

The ISCRE Story – Portraits by Loleitha Evelyn and Cartoon Strip by Dan Malone

However, there’s no doubt though that the loan of the ‘Black Panther’ costumes has offered an exciting opportunity for the wider community of Ipswich to be engaged with the presentation of the town’s heritage, identity and culture. And, this sentiment was expressed by Carole Jones of Ipswich Borough Council when she said:

“The exhibition is a thrilling collaboration between museums and Ipswich’s community. We did not want to tell people how to get the most out of Power of Stories – we wanted them to inspire each other and visitors with their stories and, hopefully, to bring new audiences to the mansion.”

Carole Jones, Ipswich Borough Council (portfolio holder for planning and museums).

The exhibition as a whole is offering a variety of stories to coax the visitor to consider how storytelling can either unite or divide peoples. However, one of these stories more in focus than the others is the predictable ‘individualistic hero’, particularly as told through the hereditary king. In the 21st century perhaps we need dramatic tales of collaborative governance and democracy as surely this is the way forward for a united and peaceful planet regardless of gender or race. We are, after all, all members of one storytelling species.

From the left: T’Challa (king), Okoye (general of elite force), Shuri (princess) Exhibit note – Costumes are one of the many tools a film director uses to tell a story. Ruth E. Carter understood each character deeply before creating clothes which brought them to life on screen. Her research drew on many traditions and features of life for different people across Africa. She won many accolades for her work on these costumes, including the 2019 Oscar for Best Costume Design and the 2020 Gold Derby Costume Design of the Decade award.

Look Away Now

If you’ve not already seen the film ‘The Dig’ (currently available on Netflix) and would like to come to it fresh and with an open mind, then don’t read on.

Views of the River Alde were used in the film although the actual ship burial was overlooking the River Deben.

Where to begin? The disciplines of archaeology and history are concerned with the substance and interpretation of the past, but interpretation of our past is not the preserve of the academic. This stuff, this substance of the past, provides material for the work of writers, artists and filmmakers to make their own reinterpretations as they create offerings that enrich our lives and entertain us.

However, there is a confidence bordering on audaciousness in taking past events, particularly people’s lives, and re-presenting them in a manner that distinctly departs from the factual, historical record. The question is how far does an interpreter go with invention to bring a history to life? Does it really matter if a film, that in no way suggests itself as documentary, changes the maturity and physicality of a central character. This is the primary difficulty for me with the film, ‘The Dig’. It is a film that retells the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial by Basil Brown and his working relationship with the landowner, Edith Pretty, who commissioned his excavations.

Portrait of Mrs Pretty painted in 1939 and newspaper clipping showing Mr Brown in 1939.

‘The Dig’ has made no claims for historical accuracy and itself is a film drama based on a historical novel (‘The Dig’, John Preston, 2007) which itself is a dramatised retelling of the actual events of the discovery of the ship burial in 1939. For example, in the novel a fictionalised RAF officer, Rory Lomax, photographs the dig replacing the original amateur photographers Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack, who were two visiting school teachers on holiday in the Woodbridge area during the excavations of September 1939.

Literary licence is sanctioned in historical fiction to bring a story to life and when a book is made into a film that licence is often expanded to accommodate other constraints such as, let’s say, a film’s marketability. The long held view from the film industry seems to be that for commercial success well-known stars are required. The brilliant casting of Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown (with the best Suffolk accent I’ve ever heard from a screen actor) is met with the odd casting of Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.

Portrait of Edith Pretty painted in 1939. Still shot of Carey Mulligan playing Edith Pretty in ‘The Dig’, 2021.

My response to the whole film is coloured by this choice. Casting Carey Mulligan (35 years old) as Edith Pretty (56 years old and unwell at the time of the excavations) was possibly a choice for marketability at the expense of any vague nod to the lives of the real people in this historical drama. The sidelining of twenty years of a woman’s life and experience is seemingly of no consequence. In fact this woman, Edith Pretty, had had an unusual life for her class and times; she had travelled extensively, married late at 43 years old and had her only son, Robert, at 47 years old. However, this (dialogue below) is how her full and colourful backstory is summarised in the film. Using one scene Mrs Lyons (the housekeeper and cook), describes Mrs Pretty’s life for the benefit of Mr Brown:

She’s only been here 12 year. Came down from Cheshire. Then she married the Colonel. He first met with Edith when she was still at school. And then on her 17th birthday he asked her to marry him. She turn him down. She say she can’t possibly leave her father. She care for her father another 13 year, until he died. She finally accepted the Colonel’s proposal. He’d been asking every year on her birthday. Just after they had Robert her husband went and died too. Imagine that.

Mrs Lyons, Cook & Housekeeper. Film ‘The Dig’, 2021.

During the course of the film there were also a couple of scenes where Edith Pretty experiences episodes of illness and a trip to a London physician for her to receive a diagnosis of serious heart disease. The film gave no indication of her previous adventurous life at all and sadly, all the melancholic staring across the Suffolk landscape together with make-up to both age and make Ms Mulligan look poorly, still did not make her interpretation a believable Edith Pretty. Perhaps actors such as Saskia Reeves (59), Helen McCrory (52) or Tamsin Greig (54) could have brought some depth and drive to the role of Edith. This was after all a woman who had visited excavations in the Nile Valley, served with the French Red Cross at Vitry le Francois in 1917, became one of the first women magistrates and turned down a marriage proposal over 25 times.

Modern times and the River Deben not far from the Sutton Hoo ship burial site.

If filmmakers are going to paint a watercolour of a central character rather than give us the oil painting and thus alter the dynamics at the centre of a story why not just make a different film. This film is based on the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial where the word ‘based’ is doing the heavy lifting, particularly where the female characters are concerned.

Still from ‘The Dig’ showing Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown watching Thames Barge Cygnet from Snape on the marshy waterways of the River Alde.

The best part of the film was the gorgeous shots of Suffolk’s coastal waterways. The most surprising and unexpectedly disappointing aspect of the film was there was no grand reveal at the very end showing the treasure found on the Anglo-Saxon boat which is now on display at the British Museum thanks to the generous gift of Edith Pretty.

Spotted amongst the Dunkirk Little Ships

Thistle-dockedIf you have been to see or are going to see the latest Christopher Nolan film ‘Dunkirk’ then you will have seen or be seeing ‘Xylonite’, an old Thames Barge. The film ‘Dunkirk’ is a dramatisation of the evacuation of over 330,00 Allied troops from the sandy beaches of Dunkerque in northern France. These shocking events took place between 27th May and 4th June in the summer of 1940 during World War Two.

Thames Sailing Barge Xylonite. Still from Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Dunkirk’.

Please excuse my ignorance, but I didn’t have any prior knowledge about the role played by any Thames barges during the Dunkirk evacuation, but as I watched the film I spotted a type of boat I thought I recognised. And, yes, I did. It was one of the old Thames barges. Currently (as I write) several very similar sister barges are moored at the Ipswich Waterfront one of which is ‘Thistle’ (top photo) recently arrived joining ‘Victor’ (featured in a previous post), ‘Thalatta’ and ‘Centaur’.

In real life, in 1940, thirty Thames barges took part in the evacuation, but only a handful of these vessels have survived into the 21st century. ‘Greta’, ‘Ena’ and ‘Pudge’ are still sailing and ‘Tollesbury’ is currently being restored whilst ‘Beatrice Maud’ is used as a houseboat.


Last month several other barges visited the Ipswich port and moored at the Neptune Quay amongst the visitors was the beautiful old, Dunkirk survivor ‘Pudge’ .

This historic sailing craft has quite a story to tell  and the quote below (taken from her website) relates her WW 2 exploits.

Her working life as a cargo carrier was interrupted in spectacular fashion by the Second World War when she was requisitioned in May 1940 whilst in Tilbury, drafted to Dover and thence to Dunkirk to aid the evacuation. Three barges including Pudge were taken in tow by a tug and crossed the Channel under cover of darkness. As they reached the beaches at Dunkirk an explosion lifted Pudge out of the water and, in the words of her skipper, “she came down the right way up”. She took onboard survivors and set off for England, picking up a tow from a tug on the way, to arrive safely back at  Ramsgate.  Pudge is one of only four of the Dunkirk Spritsail  Barges that survive. Pudge is a member of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships and is entitled to fly the flag of St. George.

Pudge in full sail. Photo from Barge Trust http://www.bargetrust.org/dunkirk

And, what of the film star ‘Xylonite’, well, she has recently been put up for sale and is yours for a cool £425,000 fully restored!


Just a thought, but I wondered why none of the original Dunkirk barges ‘Pudge’ , ‘Greta’ or ‘Ena’ were chosen for the film. Perhaps it is because they all have black hulls and it is easier to see and film the khaki uniformed soldiers against the pale bluey grey hull of ‘Xylonite’. And, maybe an aesthetic choice too as naturally the whole film has its own restricted palette of muted blues, greys and sandy colours into which ‘Xylonite’ neatly fits.

Mutter, mutter, mutter – La La Land

Let’s start with a point that I am sure we’d all agree with, a movie is not real life, and, however much we suspend our disbelief when watching a film, deep down we know we are watching a fiction. Now let’s consider musicals. Loosely, that is films where, at the drop of a hat, characters move from speaking to singing and dancing to tell the story. Now, here, we are in no doubt that we are watching a fiction. Some folk like musicals, some do not. Oddly, for some time there has been this strange situation that ‘the Hollywood musical’ has been viewed as passé and naff yet musical theatre in the West End (London), on Broadway and around the world, has been extremely popular. Apparently, if you believe all the hype, change is coming. The latest Hollywood musical ‘La La Land’ is going to make screen musicals popular again.

Written and directed by the youthful, Damien Chazelle, ‘La La Land’ presents a 21st century musical version of the Hollywood dream scenario. It opens with an energetic, fast-paced, one-take, song and dance routine in the midst of an LA traffic jam. Then the focus tightens and we are introduced to Seb and Mia, played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (two major Hollywood stars), who will then sing, dance, play the piano and act out their tale for us.


A musical is fiction in capitals. Now, with that in mind, and taking into account that there are sequences of true flights of fantasy in this film, was it too much to ask that the two leads could actually sing and dance! I am a huge fan of Ryan Gosling, but honestly he can’t sing. It is really impressive that he learnt to play the featured piano pieces for the film but this ‘jazz’ playing must have had true jazz aficionados stuffing their fingers in their ears. I understand that Damien Chazelle is passionate about the old musicals (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg as well as the big Hollywood hits, Singing in the Rain, et al) so why wouldn’t he celebrate the essence of ‘the musical’ which is the music, the singing and the dancing. I’ve heard well-known film critics explain that using stars that aren’t tiptop song and dance people gives an authentic feel to their performances. Mmmm, really? – I just feel so sad for all the young, talented musical theatre trained performers, wannabe film stars, grinding their teeth as they watch this.

However, I admit, I seem to be in a very small minority on this one. I was not impressed. All the knowing, clever, referential ‘homage to the great musical’ fell rather flat for me when the film’s leads turned out to be musical lightweights. What is the point of a musical if the stars can’t carry it (or a tune!)? I’ve heard and read plenty of reviews of this movie and cannot for the life of me understand what’s going on. Is this a postmodern and then post-ironic musical? One reviewer went as far as noting that there is ‘the charm of amateur singers’!!


I think we are living in unnerving and challenging times at the moment and people are looking for ‘warm glow’ escapism. I went to a Monday afternoon, big screen showing with a fair sized audience and there was a palpable feeling of disappointment at the end of this film.




I wrote the above on Monday evening and originally concluded my mutterings with “Something just didn’t feel right about it for me.”

Since then I’ve read these two, interesting and powerful, slightly less mainstream articles . . .

‘The Unbearable Whiteness of La La Land’ by Geoff Nelson


‘La La Land’s White Jazz Narrative’ by Ira Madison III


Steve Jobs – the biopic, and the slippery nature of biography

The other evening I was lucky enough to attend a UK preview of the biopic ‘Steve Jobs’. It was a marketing event preview and the cinema was absolutely full. As the film ended the final shots were accompanied by the dramatic yet plaintive Maccabees’ song ‘Grew Up At Midnight’ and there was a palpable stillness about the audience as the credits began to roll. It was strange as the film ended at what is considered a successful point in Steve Jobs’ life and long before he died. Of course, it is possible that many in the audience were sitting there recalling those painful photos and video footage showing the terminally ill, emaciated Steve Jobs. It is also possible they were surprised by such a negative portrayal of Jobs, or they were just plain confused (if they knew anything about Jobs) by the audacious inventiveness of the script.

Perhaps four years after his death is too soon for a considered, truly insightful biography let alone a Hollywood biopic as most of the protagonists are still living and Jobs’ life was most definitely controversial. This film is based (rather loosely) on the Walter Isaacson biography which I read in the summer. The biography was not popular with the fans, but it was the ‘official’ one written at Jobs’ behest with a fair amount of access to some of the key players. However, as with any biography there is never a full picture. How can there be? No human beings have complete recall and as psychologists have shown we readily rewrite our memories to suit our own story. I think Steve Jobs knew more than most about contemporary myth-making. Isaacson tells us that Steve Jobs’ colleagues at Apple often referred to Jobs’ “reality distortion field”. It is as if by sheer force of will he projected his reality and attempted to pull everyone into it.

Isaacson’s book has over 600 pages to get to grips with his complex, mercurial subject, but the Danny Boyle/Aaron Sorkin film has only a couple of hours to take a pinch of Jobs and grind it into a spicy biopic. What are we looking for? A drama that distils the essence of such a life. A tall order to achieve when that somebody was at the centre of so much technological excitement, yet shots of fingers at keyboards and beige plastic boxes isn’t that interesting. So, as with real life, it’s the people, the business and personal relationships that are the drama. You may love your phone, but it’s still just an iPod, a phone and an Internet communication device! A means of connecting with other humans. It’s the human interaction that matters.


The film gives us an interpretation of one facet of Steve Jobs by focussing on the behind the scenes, backstage preparations for three different famous product launches. Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay, didn’t just read Isaacson, but also interviewed and re-interviewed some of the major players. We are shown taut often confrontational adult interactions between Jobs and his colleagues whilst a continuous family thread relates Jobs’ difficult and awkward dealings with his eldest daughter, Lisa. There are plenty of ‘walk and talk’ scenes, frequent opening and closing of doors and shots of long corridors. One sequence shows a corridor as if it was a screen showing video footage. Perhaps these are all visual signifiers for opportunities taken or not taken and the long, long hard road to success. The film gives us a one-sided, less than pleasant Steve Jobs provoking fear and confrontation in colleagues, but sadly does not give us any hint of an inspired, passionate, creative dreamer. Remember this is a dramatised retelling of a controversial life and apparently many of the scenes are less about biography and more about dramatic film-making. And, this is the major problem for biopics the sacrifice of authenticity in order to make a watchable movie.

Altogether, I think it’s worth seeing, but I think something is missing. I can’t explain why, but perhaps it is something to do with that driven quality that true game-changers have which, even when played by a star like Michael Fassbender, can’t be captured. Persistent, energetic, awkward, obsessive, determined, supremely secure in one’s own judgment and ability may not make for the most charming individual, but appear to be essential to the mix for those who wish to make an impression on history. There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the real Steve Jobs from about 1980 onwards. Each one is his version of himself for that moment. Who are we, the watching public, to know or understand his life simply by owning an Apple product? Nobodies. We read biographies and watch biopics to find out more, but we should remember not all the players contributed and those that did may not agree with any subsequent reinterpretation of their memories by authors, directors or screenwriters – biography is a very, very slippery affair. Final thought . . . not really possible to do justice to such a life in just two hours.

Outstanding British film – probably a period piece

I’m sure I’m not the only person to see the BAFTA nominations for the award ‘Outstanding British film’ and wonder why there isn’t a single film that tells a contemporary story played out in a contemporary setting. Of course, ‘Under the skin’ was filmed in the ‘real’ streets of 21st century Glasgow with some of the shots attempting to catch unscripted interactions with hidden cameras, but the film is essentially a science fiction film.

The nearest to contemporary is the family film ‘Paddington’ which gives us a deliberately sugar-coated London of an ill-defined time period. In the film there are plenty of visual signifiers for the 21st century, but it is purposely unreal, a fairy tale version of London – it is after all a family film.

The other four films are all period pieces and no doubt all worthy of their nomination in the category ‘Outstanding British film’. Of course, the production of culture, and that obviously includes film-making, always tells us something about the time in which it is created and a ‘period’ film is no different. It just disheartens me as a film fan that the best British film this year will probably be one that, whatever its outstanding contribution, compounds the idea of Britain being the heritage isles forever looking backwards through mostly rose-tinted glasses.

Günther Bachmann – A 21st-century Smiley?

It is difficult to compare a film of just over two hours with a TV series luxuriating in a five and a half hours viewing experience, but more than ever we come back to the primary question of why people want to make books into films.


One of the Sunday newspaper film critics compared the latest John le Carré to be translated to the big screen, ‘A Most Wanted Man’, to the 2011 film version of le Carré’s famous ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ noting that both films were very ‘brown’. As I have just finished watching the 1979 TV version of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ made late 1970s about a story set in the 1970s, I guess you could forgive the 21st-century film makers their shorthand ‘brownness’ to signify the murky world of spies. However, a captivating film, especially an espionage thriller needs more than just atmosphere and beautiful shots, it also needs a gripping plot and compelling characters too.


The central role of ‘A Most Wanted Man’ is Günther Bachmann played superbly by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film needed somebody of Hoffman’s ability to have any chance of holding your attention, but with little back story or personal relationships it is hard to engage with Günther despite Hoffman’s undoubted talent. The generally remote, detached feel of this film doesn’t help either and so whereas you really care about Smiley, played by Alec Guinness in the TV series, it’s all a bit ‘ho hum’ for Günther. I haven’t yet read ‘A Most Wanted Man’, so this ‘nobody really cares about Günther’ feel could be the quality that le Carré wanted, an almost invisible, background grand master type. Trouble is what can work on the page doesn’t always transfer to film. And, don’t even get me started on the bizarre need for German characters to speak English with a German accent when they are supposed to be talking in German to one another. Or, is the spying world nowadays like the world of civil aviation where English is the lingua franca?

A film is not a book. A film of a book is a film, a stand alone work. If you really love any book chances are you won’t like the film, TV or even theatrical version of the original text, perhaps best not to bother with them then. However, good plots and great characters can have another life away from their original incarnation and it is the business of the film people, script writers, directors, actors . . . to make it work. Hoffman’s performance and the excellent casting of Willem Dafoe and Rachel McAdams fail to overcome the fact you just couldn’t careless about any of them in this lightly plotted, passionless affair.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Books the Whimsy Suite

Grand Budapest HotelWhen I saw the trailers for The Grand Budapest Hotel my attention was immediately grabbed by the image of the pink hotel facade. As I’ve mentioned before I love to really look all round the screen when I’m watching a movie so Wes Anderson’s latest offering was one I couldn’t miss. The deep rich colours and the delightful, just slightly over-the-top performance by Ralph Fiennes made it an enjoyable diversion. The interior details, the visual fun and the knowing, cartoon performances worked during the colourful parts of the film, but once it moved into the grey of the prison and the whites of a snowy landscape my attention drifted off. I suppose overall it was neither amusing enough nor clever enough and without the captivating visuals became grey candy floss.

Wes Anderson style whimsy
Auditioning for a Wes Anderson film at the V&A
A bit of whimsy?

‘Her’ – an insidious romcom

her-spike-jonze-1Not really sure how the suits categorise films nor how they arrive at release dates, but ‘Her’ was released in the UK on Valentine’s Day and billed as a romcom starring Joaquin Phoenix. Set in the near future the film is more of a science fiction dystopia and actually falls far more naturally into a category that Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) calls ‘speculative fiction’. But, romcom? – I must be living on another planet. The film is amusing in parts, but overall the content is deeply depressing concerning itself with the inability of individuals to make lasting and meaningful relationships. ‘Her’ is more of an antidote to Valentine’s Day. However, it is quite beautiful to look at. For once, the ‘urban’ future is not grey, dingy and underlit. If anything, the outside shots have a bleached quality and the interiors are creams, fawns and browns punctuated with orange accents.


Perhaps this warm palette (even Phoenix’s usually dark brown hair has been softened to a lighter, ginger brown) was chosen to contrast with or heighten the desperate and bleak story. The urban vistas of the near future (apparently mostly contemporary Shanghai) look shimmering and fascinating, but the lives of the people in the film were introverted and self-obsessed. The characters are only interested in themselves to such an extent it is hardly surprising that Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is unable to sustain a relationship with a real woman and instead finds love with a computer ‘operating system’, who names herself Samantha.


The story is a bit like Pygmalion, but instead of the sculptor falling in love with his own crafted work, Samantha is an evolving computer program who moulds herself to Theodore’s needs. This is the point where I think – ‘what would this film be like if the lead were a female and a male OS adapted to suit her?’ Although, visually the total opposite to ‘Blade Runner’ (dark and very wet), ‘Her’ is on that continuum of films touching on the relationship between artificial intelligence and what it is to be human. Watching these creepy characters suggests humanity doesn’t have a rosy future.

I don’t want to give away the ending and, of course, a dramatic creation is working on several levels, but as the film progresses we see Theodore’s colourful clothing gradually change. If you’ve seen the main film poster it is red – almost totally red – with Theodore wearing a red shirt. During the course of the film he is shown wearing red, then oranges and tans, then pale orange and soft peach and finally at the end a white shirt. Maybe, I’ve read this all wrong, but Spike Jonze (writer and director) looks like he has experienced a few female bloodsuckers in the past!

Inside Llewyn Davis and The Shoals of Herring

Inside-Llewyn-DavisWhy go to the cinema? Why make the physical effort to go somewhere else when it’s all available (eventually) at home? Why get hassled with winter weather, parking and queuing? Well, for most of us we go to be entertained. A word of warning here, I loved ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, but it’s not an easy, gentle type of entertainment. The Coen Bros are renowned for making films they want to make in the way they want to make them. Here, with ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, they don’t attempt to soften the overall relentless, low-level dreariness of existence. They have chosen the early 1960s US folk scene as the medium for their commentary on the nature of a creative life. If you want to go to the movies to see a film pushing an optimistic, ‘we can all achieve our dreams’ theme, concluding with the obligatory Hollywood happy ending, then this movie is not for you. For me this film is a superb antidote to our contemporary celebrity obsessed culture.

Absolutely beautifully shot – worth seeing on a big screen just for the visuals. Sometimes I get annoyed with productions that are underlit and grey, but here the muted palette worked to enhance the bleakness. Also it contrasted well with harsh lighting of the night scene at the motorway services. The film draws you along Llewyn Davis’s (Oscar Isaac) life, not into his life, but closely observing his dwindling energy from the sidelines. There have been many films about creative people (fictional or biopics), individuals struggling for recognition, enduring setbacks, but ultimately ending with them standing in the spotlight of success. Parts of this film are funny, just how funny depends on your own appreciation of black humour, but overall it’s a film more about the nature of reality than the glories of fame.

Several professional reviewers have commented that it is not an accurate portrayal of the 1960s New York folk scene, but it isn’t a docudrama. Perhaps the Coen Bros chose that period as folk was having a resurgence in general and because folk songs are traditionally the songs of ordinary people. I am too young to remember the 1960s ‘folk scene’ at all. Folk has really passed me by, but this harsh yet melancholic film has been a revelatory introduction for me. Once again the globe contracted that little bit more as I heard mention of the Norfolk seaside town of Great Yarmouth when Llewyn Davis sang:

O, it was a fine and a pleasant day
Out of Yarmouth harbour I was faring
As a cabin boy on a sailing lugger
For to go and hunt the shoals of herring

This is the opening verse to Ewan MacColl’s folk song about the collapse of the herring fishing industry off the east coast of England (where I live). A song of everyday folk losing their livelihoods, not to mention the near annihilation of the herring.

herring boats
Herring boats at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, UK
At one point in the early 20th century there were over 1000 boats out of Yarmouth.
Photo: Time & Tide Museum, Norfolk

I appreciate a film if it makes me stop and think and look again at my assumptions, particularly if the film is subtle and engaging. We all know that a movie is a fiction, and if you were to record even a couple of hours of real everyday life you might get a few minutes of compelling material, hopefully more interesting than watching paint dry. I think on one level this film has captured the futility present in most peoples’ lives. Through Llewyn Davis the Coen brothers have shown us a personification of the bitter pill. Not every film has to be plot driven, fast paced and packed with special effects – they have their place, but so does a film attempting to reflect how it is – grey.

American Hustle – Now and then, them and us

american-hustleStating the obvious a film is a creation. It is an imaginative construction as much as any piece of art although it is usually a collaboration too. I have just listened to an interview with the director of ’12 Years a Slave’, Steve McQueen (also the artist who won the 1999 Turner Prize), and he said that if art is poetry then film is the novel. So with ‘American Hustle’ we have a film which is entertainment, a diversion and a piece of work that makes us engage with a story from recent history seen through someone else’s eyes, the eyes of David O. Russell, the film’s director.

There has been some buzz around ‘American Hustle’ not least various award nominations for the film and some of its stars (so far seven Golden Globe nominations). Critics have talked about possible Oscar winning performances. It is intriguing to see Christian Bale so thin in Werner Herzog’s ‘Rescue Dawn’ and virtually skeletal in Brad Anderson’s ‘The Machinist’ physically transform himself to appear unfit and genuinely overweight so much so even his hands looked bloated with excess. It is fascinating how he still commands the screen even when trying to suppress his energy and star quality by shuffling and stooping. There was also an electric cameo performance by Robert de Niro in a similar vein.

‘American Hustle’ is a film that is steeped in period detail circa 1978 and the well-informed are even praising the shots, angles and cut rate of the film as similar to those of films from the late 1970s. I’ve not been to film school so I’m not versed in the minutiae or technicalities of film making, but I really do look at films. I love to look all round the big screen which is one of the reasons why I don’t like 3D because often the background is so out of focus you can’t see the detail. The selection of period elements for a film depicting a time that many people can remember is tricky. Of course, there are big gesture signifiers like the types of cars, the lengths of women’s skirts/men’s hair or even the overall palette selected for the clothes and interiors, but it is in the details that the film’s visual authenticity is achieved or not.

plunging neckline
Original 1970s plunging neckline dress in lilac by Mary McFadden. 1stdibs
I am a couple years younger than David O. Russell, but I clearly remember the seventies and 1978 in particular as it was the year I left school, took a gap year and started my first job. I know any film is artificial, but the essence of ‘American Hustle’ doesn’t capture my version of 1978 in England – we had lots of colour. It may of course be that New York and New Jersey were a bit grim then and are appropriately evoked and feel right to an American audience. There was a pantomime quality to the film, a larger than life aspect to the acting and the styling, after all it is entertainment. We did have soft jersey dresses and plunging necklines, but the versions of the plunging neckline in this film owe more to 21st century ‘red carpet’ interpretations of this fashion than 1970s dresses.

stan herman pattern
From 1978 a Stan Herman design for Vogue Patterns.
I made the short version in purple jersey.

Looking back to 1978 there were obviously huge differences either side of the pond between Europe and North America that now we hardly notice as so many constituents of modern living such as clothing, technology, food even coffee are global brands. Difference and diversity should be cherished and it would be a pity if multiple versions of the 1970s get swamped by a standardised, received, Hollywood rendering.

Overall the film was enjoyable even if the pacing was a bit slow and it was about 20 minutes too long. It is just a shame that it’s another addition to the one view, visual myth of the 1970s that includes a lot of brown, a layer of greasy grime all highlighted with a few flashes of grotesque glitz.

A couple of family photos from 1978. That’s it.

A&J-1978Colourful 1978 AA