A marathon today, three superb films, each in its own way brilliantly crafted and filmed. Their Finest, a film by Lone Scherfig (another female director) with a glittering cast of stars, when I say that Jeremy Irons had a near walk-on part that lasted all of seven minutes, you will get the picture. Gemma Arterton plays a female scriptwriter, paid two pounds a week, engaged by the Ministry of Information in World War II. This out-fit was run for the purposes of information dissemination: what to do in an air-raid, how to make your rations go further, walls have ears and that sort of thing; the really interesting thing about the set up was that the film was able to show some reels of actual propaganda film made, some of which was not shown at the time for reasons of low-morale or off-message scripts.
Bill Nighy plays an ageing thespian, rather full of himself and very “actorly”, a part which got a number of laughs, he was superb. The twist in the tale was that eventually the Ministry hire a full-time studio to make a feature film about the rescue from Dunkirk, the idea being that this would play out in America and bring them into the war.
It is clearly a comedy of manners, it tells a fairly accurate story about the horrors of the London Blitz as well as telling the story of the importance of the propaganda machine, information was dealt with by showing short films between the B-movie and the main film of the day, [This will mean nothing at all to anyone younger than 65!], the idea being that they would be a captive audience as they would not be leaving the cinema before the main film.
It has an under-lying message about the opportunities for women that arose while the men were at war, and also the discrepancy in pay between the sexes – what a surprise!
The second film, Brimstone, was very different. A tightly woven tale of a mute midwife living in a religiously-minded community of Dutch-folk who have emigrated to America. Another film with a very strong cast.
Part of the OFFICIAL COMPETITION section, this was a tense drama which started at the end and then reeled back to the beginning. Set into actual chapters with titles, Exodus, Genesis, Retribution etc, it covered the life of the mute midwife, played by Dakota Fanning, from where she was within a community who respected her, which turned vile when a birthing went wrong and worse still when a new pastor arrived in the village.
Guy Pearce gave a sterling performance as the menacing, maniacal, diabolic preacher-man. It was as much his story as the midwife’s. The Dutch director, Martin Koolhoven, manipulated his audience with a taut series of events that told a story about as horrific as it could possibly be; he did not shy away from any of the issues but gave us just as much information as we needed without actually spelling it out, which is not to say that there were no graphic moments. A nail-biting and frightening pall hung over the whole film.
I would say that this was a must see for anyone with strong nerves and if you like The Night of the Hunter, this is very much a film for you.
I have to say the Q&A after was a disaster! I have seldom, if ever, heard more stupid and mindless questions, one had to wonder which part of the film they did not understand? In my view he absolutely nailed it!
Finally, what must be one of the best foreign language films in the Festival. [Bearing in mind I only see about a tenth of the whole offering, nevertheless…].
Also set in the aftermath of World War II, and based on the diaries of a young, French Red Cross doctor working in Poland, The Innocents is a film of extreme emotional integrity and impact. Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laâge) is called out to a convent to save the life of a young novice, her assistance is requested by another Polish nun. (Agata Busek) At first, her request is ignored as they are extremely busy in the town’s makeshift hospital, but then in a break she sees the nun kneeling in the snow praying. Transfixed by this display of determination, Mathilde follows her secretly to the convent.
What she finds there is horrific and soul-destroying, especially for the nuns, and a tremendous challenge as the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) is set against her being allowed in at all to help. Marie, the nun who came to get her is punished for disobedience.
The director, Anne Fontaine, gave us no explicit images of what had happened, the evidence was plain. Everything in the film was chosen with care, both for the truth and for its impact and the actresses playing the Polish nuns were indeed Polish. Shot in Northern Poland in winter, filming must have been very challenging.
It reminded me in some way of Ida (also Polish, hardly surprising as the Mother Superior in that film was also played by Agata Kulesza) and a bit of Of God and Men. This is superb and I would strongly advise anyone to see it if they can.