There is something wonderful about Ken Loach winning the Palme d’Or. British cinema’s Laureate of the Left has made seven previous trips to Cannes. Almost every time, with every film, he has riled the British press. Dustups between him and the late critic Alexander Walker, leader of the opposition, were an event at press conferences, something like a madman’s version of Prime Minister’s question time. Now, turning 70, Loach can hold up a golden frond and exclaim, “Ya boo” (though he wouldn’t say anything so indelicate), “world cinema likes me.”
None of this makes The Wind That Shakes the Barley his best film. Or even close. Never mind the charge of “unpatriotic” levelled by the loony right, by tabloids or broadsheets that think they are batting for Britain. Patriotism is no measuring device for art. And why should a director’s nationality bar him from criticising his nation’s history?
The film’s weakness is that half of it – the second half – is a marvel of drama and debate while the other half is dead-letter agitprop. In early scenes we know the vocabulary of indignation too well (especially from Loach): we feel pushed towards a pantomimic response every time the British Black and Tans march into view (Hiss!); we get fed up with seeing the same rural cottage and its family, friends to the Irish-nationalist protagonist Cillian Murphy, being done over, reel after reel.
Meanwhile the token Anglo-Irish landed squire (Roger Allam) is scripted for boo-able epigrams about Ireland (“priest-infested backwater”) before being bloodlessly executed on a hill. I was very suspicious about that lack of blood when he is shot. Did Loach not want to get the IRA’s hands too dirty, even when he showed it brutally offing an enemy?
Yet once the Irish Free State agreement is signed and brother turns against brother – literally here, with Murphy continuing the fight while his sibling (Pádraic Delaney), formerly a passionate Republican, supports peace with compromise – the film wakes up. A fresh war begins: not a telegraphic set-to between heroes and heavies but an involving, agonised schism where each faction has reason, passion and idealism on its side.
The film’s main debating scene is as good as that in Loach’s Land and Freedom. (Since the two films had different screenwriters, Jim Allen for Land, Paul Laverty for Barley, the catalyst to acclaim is clearly the director.) Loach is peerless at setting ideas alight in an oxygen of real or seeming spontaneity. Only when he sidelines that freshness for the pre-sets of propaganda, for another bout of pushbutton station-hopping on Radio Anti-colonialism, does life die and art with it.
Raymond Depardon’s 10th District Court is like TV’s Judge Judy redone by a Frenchman and a human being. Those two concepts are, of course, synonymous. The history of cinema has been as follows: the French keep it intelligent and sentient for 100 years while other countries take turns to be artistic yobs and barbarians.
Depardon, a documentarist with a difference (Flagrant Delights, The Captive of the Heart), has no interest in the courtroom as theatre, only as close-ups of individual lives.
Here are forensic portraits of the lost or doomed – fierce and fascinating – from the prattling woman artist in denial over her drink-driving to the immigrant faces scarred with statelessness and sombre with guilts of petty crime or violence. “The camera doesn’t lie” is now official. There is no eyelash-flicker that fails to tell a story. “Each man is an island” is also official, though receiving an upgrade. By barely once showing two people in the same shot, Depardon establishes each human being as a virtual separate planet. Only society, civil systems and the law – and, God love them, art and culture – allow us to communicate with each other at all.
Elsewhere, cinema is taking its annual holiday from communication. This is the season of armchair sport and filmgoers are paying for it. Kamikazi-style, movies nosedive out of a clear sky saying, “We have no hope in June. Let us die in a blaze of bravura inconsequence”.
For romantics needing a crash-and-burn tearjerker there is The Lake House. Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, 12 years after being trapped in a space-velocity continuum in Speed, play time-warped lovers who cannot meet. She lives in 2006, he in 2004. Is it confusing, or is it, with an Argentinian director at the helm (Alejandro Agresti), magic realism?
It is confusing. There is a spooky mailbox, with its own life and mind, in which they leave messages at a lakeside house. There are meetings-that-almost-are but invariably, poignantly, tiresomely aren’t. And there is that ever-ominous cast credit, “and Christopher Plummer”. Poor Plummer. We knew him well; he was a fellow of infinite talent. Now he is a nightmare recurrence in modern cinema. He is wheeled on, nearly every month, as a duty daemon ex machina. This time he plays Reeves’ coldblooded architect dad, for whom form is more important than content. What would he say of this maudlin, invertebrate weepie, which boasts neither?
Demi Moore takes the Joan Crawford route to extended mortality in the horror thriller Half-Light. She gaunts up her cheekbones and practises her gurning. When her child is drowned in a canal at the bottom of her north London garden the American novelist Rachel Carlson (Moore) – presumably in England to escape name-plagiarism charges while writing thrillers such as Deafening Summer or Screaming Autumn – goes to Scotland to live in a lonely coastal cottage. Guess what. Everything you can think of comes to terrorise her. Deceased lighthouse keepers, dead sons, village psychics. It couldn’t, could it, be a case of scribbling rivalry, as established in early scenes? Sssh, say no more. Just enjoy. Or not.
Pretty Persuasion – no relation to the Jane Austen novel which becomes an important McGuffin in Half-Light – begins promisingly. Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is in regal form as the bitchy prom queen who puts her schoolmates in place, that place usually being an execution block on which to lay their lovely, vulnerable necks. While enemies get the chop, friends get the well-meaning speeches with non-PC barbs. (To a new Muslim girl, sweetly: “In the short time I’ve known you, you haven’t tried to bomb anyone and you smell all right.”) But it all goes awry. The script runs out of jokes; James Woods (as the heroine’s bigoted dad) runs off the rails; the audience’s thoughts run, increasingly, towards the warm green glow of the exit sign.
In Fearless (15, Ronny Wu, ★☆☆☆☆) Jet Li is a streetfighter-folkhero in the early years of the last century. For 100 minutes everyone wallops everyone else amid digitised recreations of old Shanghai. Loving historical fidelity in the scenery; numbskulled chop-socky in the action.
But have patience. Keep the faith. As soon as the World Cup is over we’ll get some good films.