Dorchester Film Society has been showing the best of world cinema since 1958. Each season we show a number of interesting and highly acclaimed contemporary films.
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Yes, it’s schmaltzy, very schmaltzy, but with strong performances by Toni Collette and Damian Lewis the odds are that you’ll love it. Six years ago I found myself gripped by the overwhelmingly li...
Yes, it’s schmaltzy, very schmaltzy, but with strong performances by Toni Collette and Damian Lewis the odds are that you’ll love it. Six years ago I found myself gripped by the overwhelmingly likable documentary Dark Horse, which told the amazing true story of Janet Vokes, a former whippet breeder and pigeon fancier from the depressed Welsh village of Cefn Fforest who organised a community syndicate to buy a racehorse. The drinkers at Jan’s local chipped in a weekly £10 sub and their horse, symbolically called Dream Alliance, wound up winning the Welsh Grand National, basically making it the Seabiscuit of the valleys. I predicted at the time that this would be remade as a fiction feature with Imelda Staunton as Jan and Jim Broadbent as her hangdog husband Brian. Well, actually it’s Toni Collette and Owen Teale, with Damian Lewis playing Howard Davies, the local tax accountant and breezy man-of-the-world whose dangerously addictive love of horseracing inspires Jan. The resulting movie may be a bit schmaltzy – actually, a lot schmaltzy – but I couldn’t help enjoying it: like Chariots of Fire, only with horses. That comparison, however, may be down to Chariots cast member Nicholas Farrell here playing the shrewd professional trainer Philip Hobbs. This movie gets a real gallop on, due to the sheer warmth of its performances. Collette, that perennially excellent actor who utterly inhabits every part, gives us a wonderfully approachable Jan: shy, yet tough and determined. Lewis is robust and yet very sympathetic as the rakish Howard who has come very close in the past to losing his shirt to the sport of kings. And it is a treat to see Joanna Page as Howard’s wife Angela and a cameo for Siân Phillips as Maureen, a local woman with a passion for Tunnock’s Tea Cakes. My only slight quibble is that the film’s title, Dream Horse, sounds like something chosen by an algorithm. Why not stick with Dark Horse? Well, no
I Never Cry is an endearingly spiky girl’s odyssey from Poland to Ireland, and back again. In a striking debut, Zofia Stafiej sets about repatriating her late father’s body from Dublin, and finding herself along the way. Right from the first few minutes, it is hard to not to feel immediately taken with Ola (Zofia Stafiej), the 17- year-old protagonist of Piotr Domalewski’s I Never Cry. In the middle of her third driving test, Ola makes a sudden swerve as she tries to avoid a dangerous turn from another driver, much to the displeasure of her examiner. She gets out of her vehicle and proceeds to stop the other car, kicking off its front number plate. This might sound bratty and annoying, but Stafiej, in her acting debut, portrays a kind of endearingly headstrong spirit that makes the scene play out like a very contemporary type of farce. As the film progresses, it becomes clear Ola is simply not someone who follows instructions. After receiving the news that her estranged father, a migrant worker in Dublin, has died in a work incident, she embarks on a lone odyssey from Poland to Ireland to retrieve his body and – more importantly – her share of whatever money the man has left. Throughout this journey, as Ola worms her way through bureaucracy and learns about who her father was, her edges are softened. Her coming-of-age feels full circle: the film might begin with a physical burst of frustration, but it ends with an emotional rupture that proves especially moving. Besides covering familiar terrain of family conflict – Ola is constantly bristling at her mother’s demands – the film also acutely captures the plight of migrant workers, questioning the supposed homogeneity of contemporary Europe. It is also refreshing to see a young woman behaving badly while remaining sympathetic, an onscreen privilege usually only granted to their male counterparts. This is an enjoyable
Hopkins gives a moving, Oscar-winning turn as a man with dementia in a film full of intelligent performances, disorienting time slips and powerful theatrical effects. “Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!” says King Lear, a plea which is overwhelmingly sad because it can never be heard by anyone with the power to grant it. Anthony Hopkins, who played Lear in Richard Eyre’s production for the BBC, now delivers another performance as an ailing patriarch with a favourite daughter and nowhere to stay, in a film directed by Florian Zeller, and adapted by Christopher Hampton from Zeller’s own award-winning stage play. There is unbearable heartbreak in this movie, for which Hopkins has become history’s oldest best actor Oscar-winner, and also genuine fear, like something you might experience watching Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. Hopkins is Anthony, a roguishly handsome and cantankerous old widower, a retired engineer who lives on his own in a spacious, wellappointed apartment in west London, receiving regular visits from his affectionate and exasperated daughter Anne, who is played at the highest pitch of intelligence and insight by Olivia Colman. But things are very wrong, because Anthony has dementia. He is subject to mood-swings and fits of temper connected with his sudden terror at not being able to work out what is going on. His behaviour has already caused his existing carer to quit, and now Anne tells him that he simply has to get on with the new one, Laura (Imogen Poots). This is because Anne, after the end of her marriage to Paul (Rufus Sewell) – to whom we will be introduced later – has now at last found a new partner and the opportunity for happiness that she deserves. She is going abroad with him, and can’t look after Anthony any more. What is deeply scary about The Father is that, without obvious first-person camera tricks, it puts us inside Anthony’s head. We see and don’t see what he sees and doesn’t see. We are cleverly invited to assume that certain passages of dialogue are happening in reality – and then shown that they aren’t. We experience with Anthony, step by step, what appears to be the incremental deterioration in his condition, the disorientating time slips and time loops. People morph into other people; situations get elided; the apartment’s furniture seems suddenly and bewilderingly to change; a scene which had appeared to follow the previous one sequentially turns out to have preceded it, or to be Anthony’s delusion or his memory of something else. And new people, people he doesn’t recognise (played by Mark Gatiss and Olivia Williams) keep appearing in his apartment and responding to him with that same sweet smile of patience when he asks what they are doing there. The universe is gaslighting Anthony with these people. Anthony is of course different from Lear in one particular: he doesn’t know what is happening to him, or has happened. Things are too far gone. But Hopkins shows how an awareness of his previous existence is still there at a deeper, almost physical level, sometimes resurfacing in his devastatingly contrite little apologies to Anne. And one scene with Paul in which Anthony becomes whimperingly afraid shows us that there are things that Anne doesn’t know about Anthony’s life. Hopkins’s final speech to Williams is the one that reduced me to a blubbering mess. But the most subtly poignant moments are those in which Anthony will laugh – a flash of his old, roguishly charming self – and Anne and his carer will supportively laugh along with him. To some degree, it is a nervous laugh because Anne knows just how easily his mood can turn, and it is also a professional carer’s laugh, and a strained tragicomic laugh, the laugh you do instead of crying. But it’s also a perfectly genuine kind of laugh and, in its way, an urgent, shared gesture of faith in the person that Anthony was and occasionally still is. The Father has something of Michael Haneke’s Amour in its one-apartment setting, and also something of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1985 stage-play Woman in Mind, in which the heroine retreats from reality. Its effects are essentially theatrical – but they are powerfully achieved, and the performances from Hopkins and Colman are superb. It is a film about grief and what it means to grieve for someone who is still alive.
Lee Isaac Chung’s Oscar-nominated tale of a Korean family putting down roots in 1980s Arkansas beautifully balances the feelgood and the gritty. The title of writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s enchanting film about a Korean family making a new start in rural 80s Arkansas refers to the tenacious edible plant that we see taking root and flourishing by a shady creek. “It’s a poetic plant,” Chung has said, not least because it “will grow very strongly in its second season, after it’s died and come back”. That theme of death and rebirth runs throughout Chung’s drama, inspired by his own family history (the minari used onscreen actually came from his father’s crop in Kansas City) and boosted by terrific performances, glowing visuals and a wonderful musical score. Steven Yeun and Yeri Han are Jacob and Monica Yi, an immigrant Korean couple who relocate from California to a large plot in the Ozarks with “the best dirt in America”. For Jacob, it’s his dream – the chance to escape the monotony of sexing chickens for a living and to make something of himself. Monica is more sceptical, appalled by the leaky mobile home into which this reckless venture has placed them. A farming novice, her husband must learn the ropes from scratch, aided only by their eccentric neighbour Paul (Will Patton), a Korean-war veteran and religious fanatic who speaks in tongues, performs makeshift exorcisms and spends his Sundays dragging a cross up the local highway. Adding to Monica’s anxieties is the fact that their young son, David (Alan S Kim), has a heart problem and has been told to avoid stress or exertion on pain of death. So Monica’s mother, Soonja (scene-stealing Korean screen veteran Yuh-jung Youn), comes to live with the family, greeted initially with disdain by David, who thinks she “smells like Korea”, but inevitably recognised as the catalyst for healing and redemption. From the moment Jacob turns his nose up at the services of a water diviner who has seen others try and fail to work this land, it’s clear that faith will be a central theme of Chung’s movie. Indeed, with its invocations of the Garden of Eden, biblical storms, prayers for miraculous healing, and even a Forrest Gump-inflected finale, Minari is littered with the kind of trial-by-fire tests and everyday spirituality beloved of Oscar best picture contenders. Yet what makes this more than just another formulaic feelgood film is the grit with which Chung evokes the hardscrabble lives of his characters, balancing the dreamier elements of the drama with a naturalism that keeps it rooted in reality. Early on, David learns what happens to the “discarded” male chicks at the poultry plant where his parents work, and is told the importance of making yourself “useful” – or else. Later, the toll that this American life has taken upon Jacob and Monica’s marriage is heartbreakingly tangible, with Han’s expressive face telegraphing bitter doubts and conflicts long before they are explicitly voiced. When Jacob plaintively reminds Monica that “life was so difficult in Korea”, I thought I heard echoes of Ozu’s Tokyo Story. By contrast, Youn is a ball of barely contained energy, rivalling Tsai Chin’s performance in Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma as the screen’s most lovably unlikely pensioner. Scenes between her and Kim crackle with an irresistible tragicomic spark that perfectly counterpoints the more down-to-earth travails of the central couple. Serving as an intermediary between the mundane and magical-realist elements, Emile Mosseri’s score blends woodwind, piano and guitar with synthesised theremin-style sounds and processed vocals to create a mood that is at once earthy and ethereal. Having elegantly scored The Last Black Man in San Francisco (and saved Miranda July’s Kajillionaire from terminal quirkiness), Mosseri provides the key to Minari’s universal appeal, conjuring a soundtrack that reminded me of Jack Nitzsche’s haunting musical-saw theme from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – an understated symphony of sentiment and
Kelly Reichardt gives us a terrifically tough and sinewy tale of the old west, shaped by the brutally implacable market forces of capitalism. She and her regular screenwriting collaborator Jonathan Raymond have adapted Raymond’s own 2004 novel The Half-Life, evidently pruning some of the epic adventures in the original and bringing it down to a tensely immediate situation. She and Raymond tell their story with force and skill and the movie is shot with beautiful simplicity. There’s a muscular authority in its plainness and its calm, unshowy evocation of the American landscape. A prelude in the present day shows a young woman discovering two human skeletons shallowly buried in Oregon woodland. What is the story here? Reichardt takes us back to the 1820s where “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) is a slippery adventurer who has been hired as a cook in a trapping party but has proved utterly incompetent – at least as far as his aggressive and hungry fellow trappers are concerned. So he splits from them and finds himself befriending an itinerant Chinese worker called King Lu (Orion Lee), and for a while, the pair seem no more than a couple of hobos, finding common cause in their own loneliness. They dream of getting rich as entrepreneurs - and they are not stupid or lazy. But of course any new business needs capital. And how to get it? Why, with that certain special something that is the invisible foundation stone of all great fortunes: a crime. Lu points out that a cow has arrived in the territory: the first cow, and as such the object of exotic fascination. It belongs to the chief factor, an effete and absurd Englishman (Toby Jones), and the pair hatch a bold plan: to creep into the factor’s meadow at the dead of night, milk this cow and use the precious liquid to make “oily cakes”. These are rich and delicious buttermilk scones that instantly become a huge and lucrative success at the local market, especially with the idiotic factor himself who greedily buys and gobbles these treats and can’t believe something so tasty exists outside London. (As Lu shrewdly says: “Some people can’t imagine themselves being stolen from.”) But then the factor invites the pair to provide a super-special cake for a tea-party he is hosting for a visiting army officer (Scott Shepherd). It is a tale of danger and hubris, but without hubris, no great fortune can be made. The ruling class from whose naivety the pair hope to scavenge their riches are arrogant and high-handed with both the immigrant labour and the native Americans with whom the factor has a supercilious conversation about hunting beavers. Like Lu and Figowitz, this man is concerned with market forces. When the officer tells him he has had to give a beating of 20 strokes of the belt to a mutineer, the factor says that is too lenient, and when the officer says that more strokes would render him unfit for work, the factor counters that this would be offset by the increased work rate from the other (terrified) men. (In a similar spirit, Lu and Figowitz finely calculate their prices for their cakes.) But they are always liable to be robbed or informed upon or arrested and our two heroes must also calculate the moment at which they will cut and run. It is a tremendously engaging story that does something very few movies do: mention specific sums of money, so we realise exactly what risks are being taken. Something very palpable is at stake, the jeopardy is real and it’s a question of survival.
What can we ever really know about each other? The mystery of other people’s lives, the unbridgeable gulf between us all – even, or especially, between married couples – is the subject of this outstanding drama from first-time film-maker Aleem Khan. It is a gulf as dour as the Channel. And though not really about Brexit, this film does feature the White Cliffs of Dover. Over it is hovering a miasma of dread, rather than bluebirds. Joanna Scanlan gives a superb lead performance, the best of her career so far. She is Mary, a woman who converted to Islam on marrying her husband, Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). The couple live in Dover and he is a ferry captain, often away overnight or days at a time doing the cross-Channel run. Mary is placidly content with her life, her gently loving marriage and the meticulous practice of her Muslim faith. When Ahmed dies of a heart attack, Mary is almost unbearably dignified in her whiteclad widowhood; but, on going through Ahmed’s wallet, a French ID card falls out, showing the photo of a rather elegant blond woman called Genevieve, together with her address in Calais. So Mary makes the terrible cross-Channel ferry journey to see this woman for herself. And do what? Confront her? When Mary arrives, Genevieve (Nathalie Richard) breezily assumes that Mary is the new cleaner, tells her to come in and gives her a cleaner’s tabard to wear. And Scanlan subtly shows how Mary is partly too dumbstruck by the situation to tell Genevieve the truth, but also partly aware that such a revelation would cause Genevieve to shut down, and Mary would never get the truth out of her. So Mary willingly becomes their cleaner and domestic intimate, helpful, hard-working and biddable, getting to know all about Genevieve and her relationship with Ahmed. After Love has the agony of a domestic tragedy and the tension of a Hitchcock thriller. Mary herself is the suspense; she is the ticking bomb who could explode at any time. Scanlan shows how she has suffered a triple mortification. Ahmed is dead. So is the Ahmed she knew. And so, perhaps, is Mary herself. She is humiliated and horrified by what she is uncovering on a moment-by-moment basis. So Mary’s hidden ordeal begins, involving a lacerating self-examination. Because who is Mary now? What was her commitment to Islam all about, now that she knows that her husband was cheating on her with someone outside the faith? The scene in which she scrutinises her near-naked body in the mirror is all but unbearable. Something else is going on, too. Mary is also rather elevated by her covert martyrdom, the exquisitely painful moral high ground she occupies, in this demeaning position as servant to her husband’s mistress (not that this old-fashioned word is ever used). And Mary is now perhaps slightly awed by her possession of something rarely given to anyone: a dazzling, unanswerable insight into the hidden reality of someone else’s life. We all have secrets, we all perform our own theatre of selfhood, in public for our friends, in private for our loved ones. Hardly anyone ever gets to look backstage. But that is what Mary is doing, and she is wretched but also strangely electrified by what she sees. The title only becomes more sombre as the movie progresses. We all think that love is the endpoint, or in some wan Larkinian sense it is what will survive of us. But perhaps there is an “after” love, something that
This astonishing, immersive environmental documentary began life as a nature conservation video about one of Europe’s last wild-beekeepers. The scene is an abandoned village in North Macedonia where Hatidze, a woman in her mid-50s, harvests honey sustainably the traditional way from wild hives. “Half for them, half for me,” she chants, leaving enough for the bees. Serendipitously for directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov (though not for Hatidze), the family from hell moves in next door mid-shoot, and this small-scale film takes on epic proportions, transforming into a parable about exploiting natural resources, or perhaps a microcosm of humans’ suicidal destruction of the environment. Hatidze first appears on a dangerous cliff edge wearing no protective mask, a cloud of bees swarming as she removes honeycomb from a hive in rocks. She is an incredible woman, a natural optimist living in poverty – she and her frail elderly mother are the last inhabitants of their village, with no electricity or running water. Her life might not be the one she would have chosen, but Hatidze lives it with gusto, licking the plate clean. Animals and small children trust her instinctively. When an itinerant cow herder pitches up with his wife and seven rowdy children, Hatidze seems glad of the company. She even teaches Hussein beekeeping. Just don’t take too much honey, she cautions. Her warnings go unheeded with terrible consequences. But Hussein isn’t a villain; he’s a man with debts and a family to feed. And what a family – a five-year-old hammering at rusty nails with a chunk of rock, the toddler tottering into frame as a bull rampages through the cow herd. Honeyland really is a miraculous feat, shot over three years as if by invisible camera – not a single furtive glance is directed towards the film-makers. As for Hatidze, you could watch her for hours. In a heart-tugging scene with one of Hussein’s sons, a favourite of hers, he asks why she didn’t leave the village. “If I had a son like you, it would be different,” she answers. They both look off wistfully, dreaming of another life, a world of