Friday, 3 March 2017

Film Festival viewing: memories, masks and true stories

 One of the pleasures of watching films at a film festival is how you come to notice common themes. Both Jackie and Lion, which I took in as a double bill yesterday at Malvern, are based on true stories, and true stories are there again in Denial and in The Viceroy’s House, also in the Borderlines programme. In Lion, the story of how an Indian child was lost, adopted, grew up and retrieved his memories and his original home and biological mother becomes a semi-miraculous tale of survival and healing. The first half of the film, showing Saroo as a child blessed with resilience and luck, accrues incredible power from its undeniable documentary dimension. It was heartbreaking to watch the child unknowingly swept away, negotiating a place to sleep with other street children in Calcutta, and at the mercy of a range of adult strangers. Dev Patel as the adult Saroo has less to do in the second half, but the passages where he begins to remember through a Proustian encounter with the food he yearned for as a child, and as he eventually journeys back, back, along the alleys of his old home village, are archetypal. It’s a deeply satisfying film about regaining our childhood pasts.

If a true-life story can authenticate the untold experience of a street child, though (and offer a rare happy ending), a film like Jackie has a different task. The project here is surely to offer a new twist to one of the most familiar events of the twentieth century, and clearly the focus on Jackie Kennedy was always going to be about the tensions between her public role and her private emotion. Those images of her in the blood-stained pink suit, her dramatic black veil as she walked behind the coffin at the funeral, have always been memorable, and they are right at the centre of the film, a disconcerting combination of anguish and control. I was rather distracted, though, by the fairly extensive sections about Jackie’s ambitious ideals for the White House while she was First Lady. This was a different story, about the abrupt indignities of losing both status and home, immediately after undergoing the violent traumas of the assassination.

We see rather a lot of close-ups of Jackie as she ‘unwinds’ in private, which seems to amount to rather repetitive instances of staring into a mirror and of smoking. Natalie Portman gives a mannered performance of someone who was also a mannered performer for much of the time. In the end, the brittle persona of the young woman in the midst of immense loss (we are also reminded that she lost two babies) remains a bit of a mystery.

So, what about some common themes? In Saroo’s memories and dreams in Lion there was some consonance with the manipulation of Lee’s flashbacks and suppressed memories in Manchester by the Sea – both directors give us a fresh take on a conventional technique. In terms of the camera’s love affair with the human face, the scrutiny of a woman’s mask in Jackie was fascinating to compare with Asta Nielsen in the 1921 Hamlet, screened last Sunday at Hereford Courtyard. This by the way was a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a hugely complex performance – and it was a treat to enjoy the live piano accompaniment by Lillian Henley. Worth it just to appreciate the music and the skill.

Finally, houses, homes and bigwigs. I’m not sure that I can face The Viceroy’s House, with Hugh Bonneville playing another toff (why doesn’t he make more of the comedic abilities he displayed in 2012?) but there’s clearly a current preoccupation with the symbolism of bricks and mortar – the White House, Lutyen’s imperial buildings of Delhi - representing both state and family. Let’s hope that budding screenwriters are not seduced into thinking that this one has legs. I couldn’t bear a story about the pain of giving up No. 10.

Catherine Neale

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