Friday, January 27, 2012

Tinker, Tamper, Dawdle, Sigh

From the few John le Carre novels I’ve read – and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not one of them – I’d say his books are as much about spying as they are about being British.

So I found it interesting that a Scandinavian director will try, and be allowed, to “capture” this quintessentially English writer’s work. Le Carre is one of the executive producers (and features in the party scene, according to the credits), so he obviously gave the director his blessing.

It didn’t take long before I was bored, though. Not having read the book, like most viewers, I only had the film in front of me and a lot of it didn’t make much sense.

For starters, there were a lot of pointless scenes at the beginning that supposedly served to show the endless routine of a civil servant’s life. But they went on in a manner that had more to do with making Magritte-like compositions than reflecting the very ritualistic nature of such a life.

British restraint is one thing, but without what Harold Pinter called the weasel under the cocktail cabinet it falls flat. So here we have a European film, then, and it’s somewhat indulgent. No wonder the English don’t want to join the eurozone.

Gary Oldman, of course, does an excellent job as an ex-spy who comes out of semi-retirement to find the mole in MI6. Most of the time he just has to be pointedly blank, but his George Smiley does eventually reveal himself to an extent and it’s a fine study in minimalism.

However, there are four characters under suspicion at the “Circus”, according to Control (John Hurt, who cunningly looks like an older version of Oldman), and he has stuck small photographs of them on chess pieces.

Now, I have played more chess games than read Le Carre novels and the former have certainly been tenser than the film, no matter how many people appear uninvited in Smiley’s house. After a while you can start discerning your online opponent’s personality through his or her style, but we get to know absolutely zip about our four suspects.

There are no concrete clues, just long visual teases. When the mole is finally outed and we think, well, obviously it had to be him, it’s got more to do with the actor than what the script gave him and therefore us.

Moreover, Swedish director Thomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) sees no point in giving Smiley’s wife a face, let alone a personality, even though she is a source of great – but virtually unseen – pain to Smiley.

The result is a film that looks good but feels like someone rather loosely moving a bunch of chess pieces around on a board. I don’t think Le Carre intended to draw Smiley - playing black - in quite that way.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Heart of Darkness, and Light

The ending of every story is its full stop and its value indicator. The way you conclude your story is loaded with what you want it to mean, even if you want it to mean nothing.

Most stories end happily because most of us are optimists (or deluded) or, as Joseph Campbell might have it, by telling a story and ending it happily we are reaffirming our triumph over the innate tragedy of existence.

So if Viva Riva! were to end in quite a few other ways it wouldn’t have half the impact it does, but its protagonist (this is a definite plot spoiler) dies. Yes, it’s a very defiant, Iago-like death, but this swaggering penis, full of African machismo, ends up being not much better than his porn-watching rival.

Remember, we are watching a film set in a place Joseph Conrad called the heart of darkness – a view the news doesn’t do much to dispel over a century later. Think of soldiers raping and pillaging at random in the eastern parts of the country and you get the picture.

But then you just have to look at what the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, looks like in this film. Most of the city is in darkness at night, most of the roads are rutted and littered with refuse, most of the buildings seem on the brink of collapse. It’s a vibrancy only the most well-meaning humanitarian would appreciate. Corruption is rife. The film’s tagline, Kinshasa is Calling, veritably drips with irony.

Director Djo Munga might revel in this darkness and even mock Conrad’s dictum in a scene where Riva (Patsha Bay) fornicates with two prostitutes, bodies painted white with clay, wearing masks and clearly in a trance, but then there’s the ending. There’s also plenty of other, varied sex reminiscent of a rap video.

The lack of petrol and the domination of the US dollar permeate the film, as does Manie Malone’s beautiful moll and Hoji Fortuna’s Angolan dealer and vicious gangster, Cesar, surely one of the oddest and most chilling thugs seen on screen lately.

Contrary to what a lot of critics say, the film is not well made. In fact, it is decidedly clumsy. The editing is sometimes jarring, the music is occasionally downright weird, people are shot without us seeing what happens to them so that they can later virtually resurrect themselves – and a killing in a church might get a more vociferous response in other parts of the continent, like Rwanda, than elsewhere. It doesn’t have a patch on other gangster-going-down films like, say, Brian da Palma’s Scarface.

But Munga knows what he’s saying and should be applauded for it. He agrees with the white-suited Cesar and Conrad: the DRC is rotten to the core.

The First Grader is marketed as the story of a sweet old African who wants to learn how to read. This is clearly meant to appeal to those who have mushy feelings about Africa – as long as they’re as far away from it as possible.

Based on the latest primary reason for seeing a film, a true story, it’s also about an ex-Mau Mau fighter who lost his wife and child and then, come uhuru, was typically forgotten. Until now. The government has decreed (we learn via a DJ, about whom more later on) that the portals of education will be open to all.

According to the film, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (the perfectly cast Oliver Litondo) never remarried after his wife and child were killed by the colonial forces back in the Fifties. According to Wikipedia, he had 30 grandchildren, which sounds about right. So the “based on” part seems to be very, very loose.

All of the above, however, is quibbling. The image of a limping old man determined to practise his new right is unbearably moving, and that’s only the beginning of the movie. By the end you feel like you want to insist on this film being shown to every African and impoverished child across the world, as an inspiration to them and a warning to every stupid little bureaucrat that you cannot mess with eager minds, not even an 84-year-olds’.

Set in the Rift Valley of Kenya and directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), any sense of romance is instantly dispelled by the modern wind turbines on the hills and the plastic bags stuck in those beautiful thorn trees. South African-born writer Ann Peacock’s script is shot through with an absolutely essential and delicious, home-grown sense of humour, and Naomie Harris’s compassionate teacher, Jane Obinchu, is a marvel.

DJ Masha, the ironically named Dan "Churchill" Ndambuki, reminds us that Africa is primarily a vocal culture. Without him and the old farts' club drinking on the liquor store's pavement, The First Grader would be so much the poorer.

See this film. Buy this film. Listen to this film. Watch it once a year to remind yourself that all is not darkness and desperation in Africa. Quite the contrary.

Neil Sonnekus

Monday, January 9, 2012

Stuck in the Provinces

The only famous name in Anton Chekhov’s The Duel is in the title and I’m sure the good doctor/writer would have been quite amused. Whether he would have been entertained by this handsomely shot, set and costumed interpretation of his work is another matter.

Though I haven’t read the novella upon which the film is based, most of the themes of the great plays like The Seagull and Three Sisters are there.

Firstly, there is the provincial boor living out his meaningless life in the Caucasus: broke, idle, full of passion and useless pursuits like drinking and gambling - and ungrateful for the beautiful live-in mistress he has. In fact, he almost despises her as much as he does himself.

Andrew Scott does a fine job as Laevsky, or rather, as good as his screenwriter, Mary Bing, and director Dover Koshashvili allow him. A local critic called his character “a prick” and said it was therefore difficult to identify with him. Not that one has to, but the whole point of Chekhov’s characters is that they and their bursts of suppressed passion are funny. We cannot but help laughing at them for the simple reason that they mirror our own middle class foibles. When this doesn’t happen the work is in big trouble.

A modern equivalent of Laevsky would be Frasier who, along with his utterly pretentious brother, is a cad of note. But do we hate them? Never. They are two of the most lovable douche bags ever created. Their hearts might be in the right place, it’s just that the minds are completely screwed up.

Fiona Glascott as the beautiful Nadia has even less with which to work. The only time she longs for Moscow, like one of the three sisters, is when she’s in a bit of a fever. Surely this should be a much more prominent part of her psychological make-up for being stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a handsome wastrel and an ever-diminishing, small-town reputation?

If the man of reason and science is ably represented by Tobias Mentzies as the equally absurd Von Koren, the background to Chekhov’s era is missing completely. Always lurking in the distance is the possibility of revolutionary change, of peasant revolt, which is why Chekhov worked so well in Afrikaans in the South Africa of the Seventies and Eighties. The laughter was both smug with class identification and nervous with the recognition that apartheid and its attendant bourgeois comforts would end as surely as day precedes night.

Without that double edge the titular duel is not going to work (a bungled suicide in one of the other works springs to mind) and the film, like a stuffed seagull, cannot take off.

Neil Sonnekus