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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


British directors bring diverse work to screens in Canada

Gerald Schmitz


I, Daniel Blake (U.K./France/Belgium 2016)
A Quiet Passion (U.K./Belgium 2016)
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (U.S. 2017)
Alien: Covenant (U.S. 2017)

Does it make sense that the May 2016 English-language winner of the Cannes festival’s prestigious Palme d’or takes a year to arrive in select Canadian theatres? No, even if it carries somewhat unnecessary subtitles due to dialogue in the “Geordie” dialect of its northern England setting Newcastle upon Tyne. At any rate, I, Daniel Blake is a welcome relief from the film equivalent of fast food occupying most screens.

Having myself just reached the official senior mark of 65, I note that veteran director Ken Loach will be 81 this month and, working again with longtime screenwriting partner Paul Laverty, has lost none of his deeply humane critical touch. Dave Johns gives a remarkable moving performance as the Daniel Blake of the title, a 59-year-old carpenter and childless widow who has suffered a heart attack that makes him unable to work. When an uncaring official gets him cut off from his employment and support allowance, he is caught in a bureaucratic appeals process that seems designed to deny benefits. With no other source of income, Daniel is forced to apply for job seekers benefits, another bureaucratic ordeal demanding he apply for non-existent jobs he cannot take. Various forms have to be accessed and submitted online, a further frustration for Daniel, a manual worker who has never been near a computer.

During one office visit Daniel intervenes when Katie (Hayley Squires), a recently moved hard-up young single mother with two young children receives a rough rebuff. Daniel may have some gruff edges but he is the soul of kindness. Despite his own predicament he becomes a supportive friend to the family, including as a handyman in their tiny flat. But stresses mount when their situations grow more desperate. Katie skips meals and joins a long queue at a food bank. Eventually she resorts to something that makes her ashamed to face Daniel. For his part, he takes public his protest against an abusive system.

Daniel holds on to his self-respect and demands to be treated with respect. I’m a citizen, he declares, not a number in a heartless bureaucratic circle of hell (though one employee, a sympathetic middle-aged woman, tries to help him and gets reprimanded for it). What happens to Daniel affects Katie and goes to the heart.

This plain-spoken human story, an indictment of a corporate-capitalist welfare state that puts procedures and “sanctions” above people, joins the ranks of the finest British dramas.

Another veteran of the British screen is writer-director Terence Davies, now 71, whose A Quiet Passion about the life of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson arrives here a year-and-a half after its Berlin festival premiere. The film begins in 1848 when 18-year-old Emily (Emma Bell) shows early signs of a rebellious nature, returning from a Catholic female seminary suffering from “an acute case of evangelism.” She was the middle child of a well-to-do Amherst, Massachusetts, family, close to her older brother Austin (Benjamin Wainwright) and younger sister Lavinia known as Vinnie (Rose Williams). Her father, Edward (Keith Carradine), was a prominent lawyer and legislator; her mother, Emily (Joanna Bacon), a quiet helpmate. The headstrong Emily’s witty retorts scandalize a visiting fussy aunt. Although Edward can be a stern Christian patriarch, he also indulges her desire to write poetry during the quiet wee hours of the night. Despite Emily’s independence of spirit, she will never leave the family home.

There’s a striking sequence that moves the narrative forward into later life. While the camera slowly zooms in as family members pose for daguerreotype portraits, their facial features subtly age, in the children’s case into those of new actors — Emily (Cynthia Nixon), Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), and Austin (Duncan Duff) — all excellent in the roles. Davies’ rigorous craft is apparent as each image and mise-en-scène seems meticulously composed to fit the period and its subjects.

Emily delights in the companionship of sharp-tongued friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) and can be outspoken on the strictures endured by women. Besides Vinnie, who also never marries, Emily becomes close to Austin’s wife, Susan Gilbert (Jodhi May). Her relationship with Austin, who is refused paternal permission to serve in the Civil War, is estranged after she accuses him of infidelity. An attachment she forms to a married man of the cloth becomes another source of strain and disappointment. Always a homebody, she withdraws into melancholic bitterness, her outbursts sometimes provoking rows within the household.

Her poetry, ahead of its time, provided only partial private solace. Early on she had a few poems printed in The Springfield Republican. But she never gained an audience. Her fame was entirely posthumous as less than a dozen of her 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. The film captures their intimate tone, often on themes of longing and mortality, through Nixon’s off-screen recitation of verses at various points.

After her parents’ death Emily became increasingly reclusive until her death at age 55. She was also afflicted with chronic ailments — diagnosed as “nervous prostration” — that included what appear to be epileptic seizures. Notwithstanding this painful physical decline, A Quiet Passion pays tribute to the poetic inner voice that was her gift to world literature.

In total contrast at the noisy end of the spectrum is Guy Richie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, supposedly about the legendary sixth-century British monarch, which forsakes all authenticity for over-the-top action. It opens as Camelot is being assaulted by the traitorous Mordred’s hordes including giant computer-generated war elephants. King Uther (Eric Bana) prevails but is then done in by his treacherous brother Vortigern (Jude Law sporting a Caesar cut), who steals the crown. However, the boy Arthur is saved (Moses-like in a boat down a river) and raised in a brothel in Londinium. After growing up at a furious rock-video pace, the rest of the story is how the adult Arthur (a buff Charlie Hunnam, much better in The Lost City of Z) makes deals with Vikings, rallies the resistance, and reclaims his birthright.

The invincible sword, of course, is Excalibur, and Arthur outs himself when he pulls it from the stone. He’s then spared from execution by the evil tyrant Vortigern through the intercession of a young woman sorceress known as “the mage” (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey). The “lady of the lake” also makes an appearance, among other fantastical elements. Arthur vanquishes the usurper and assumes his royal destiny while knighting allies and constructing a round table. The end of this bombastic epic could not come soon enough — a waste of actors, time and money.

Moving from far-fetched ancient lore to futurist fantasy is Sir Ridley Scott’s directorial followup to his 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien and 2012’s Prometheus. In Alien: Covenant the Covenant is a 23rd-century spaceship carrying thousands of human colonists — adults and embryos — toward a habitable planet in another solar system. But first, in an expansive white room, we listen in on a conversation between the god-like inventor Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and his white-clad creation, the humanoid robot “David” (Michael Fassbender), who calls him “father.” David, however, holds a trump card over his creator — he’s not mortal.

Fast-forward to the voyage of the Covenant when an interstellar storm disrupts the ship’s electronics, waking up the crew from their suspension pods ahead of schedule and accidentally frying its captain (James Franco in a micro-cameo). Command falls to Oram (Billy Crudup) and, secondarily, the captain’s widow Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Other key crew members are the cowboy-hatted Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Lope (Demián Bichir). Also on board, the David-lookalike robot named Walter (Fassbender again) and an unseen control system referred to as “mother” (voiced by Lorelei King).

Picking up a signal from an earth-like planet much closer than Covenant’s intended destination, Oram decides to investigate over Daniels’ objections. It turns out to be a disastrous decision. As the landing party comes across evidence of an earlier lost mission, a lethal virus begins to infect members — one that “colonizes” humans as hosts in a gory spectacle of horrifying alien creatures bursting from the ravaged bodies. The diminishing crew also discover an immune sole survivor of that doomed mission — none other than David, who has constructed a laboratory of sorts. At first David appears helpful to the human arrivals and his robot “brother” Walter; another fateful mistake.

It seems David’s model was discontinued for being too human-like, and David (“I was not made to serve”) has learned to stay one step ahead of the creators he regards as a “dying species.” There’s bound to be a showdown with the more tightly programmed Walter. Will any of the humans survive the aliens to return to the mother ship, can they keep the aliens out, and even if they do, who’s really in charge?

Alien: Covenant relies on the trope of human-destroying monsters in outer space with a scheming robot subtext and a few horror twists thrown in. However fearful the state of today’s world, this Alien episode, like the May release Life, conjures worse dangers lurking in universes beyond.