FILM OF THE WEEK
In the summer of 1949, as he lay in bed in the bleak sanatorium at Cranham, Gloucestershire, George Orwell had something on his mind other than terminal TB. He was worried that Animal Farm, his recent “fairy tale” about a group of animals who rebel against their farmer, only to have their revolution stolen by a cabal of pigs, was being presented in America as an all-out attack on socialism, whereas he had intended it only as a warning against the perversion of the doctrine in Soviet Russia.
He was moved to hospital in London shortly afterwards, and died the following January. His widow, Sonia Brownwell, whom he had married on his deathbed, was approached by newsreel producer Louis de Rochemont, who wanted to make a film of the book. He was backed by mysterious Americans, who did not disclose that they were from the Office of Policy Coordination, part of the CIA. De Rochemont hired husband-and-wife animators John Halas & Joy Batchelor, and supplied them with a CIA-approved script in which Orwell’s bleak ending was replaced by a piece of wishful thinking: the inhabitants of Animal Farm rise up against the tyrannical pigs and overthrow them.
Animal Farm (1954) was the first commercial British animated feature. It took three years to make at Halas & Batchelor’s studios in Cairncross, Stroud, where they hired 80 animators, creating the biggest animation company in Western Europe. All the animals were voiced by one man, Maurice Denham, although the story-telling is mostly carried by the narration of Gordon Heath, sticking close to Orwell’s words. The film was not intended for children, and it is still bleakly powerful.
It was a commercial flop, taking 15 years to recover its budget, but was immediately taken up by schools. Indeed, the film, with its blunt anti-Soviet message, is sometimes said to be the reason for the book’s swift incorporation into the canon, especially in the US. What would Orwell have thought of that? Animal Farm is on Sunday (16/5) at 13:10 on Film4 (also on Wednesday at 11:00).
Tomorrow (15/5) at 17:25, Sony Action has A Bullet for the General (1967). In the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, a group of revolutionary gun-runners hire an American mercenary, unaware that he is out to kill their general. With Klaus Kinski. At 18:35, Talking Pictures has Is Paris Burning? (1966), René Clément’s star-studded epic about rival Resistance factions struggling to liberate the city at the end of World War II.
On Tuesday (18/5) at 02:10, Film4 has Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), which we showed in 2015/16. A novice nun in Poland, on the brink of taking her vows, has to speak to her last relative, Aunt Wanda, who gives her some unwelcome news about the family’s past. Resonant and beautifully shot.
On Wednesday (19/5) at 23:10, Paramount has Fearless (2006), a celebrated martial-arts feature, featuring lots of Jet Li action, wrapped around a biography of the early 20th century Chinese master Huo Yuanjia.
On Thursday (20/5) at 23:15, Film4 has Wim Wenders’s masterful Paris, Texas (1984), with Harry Dean Stanton as a drifter who emerges from the desert after four years to reconnect with his abandoned child and seek his lost wife. Undeniably slow, but deeply affecting and stunningly photographed.
Tomorrow (15/5) at 23:10, Film4 has Drag Me to Hell (2009). Horror legend Sam Raimi returns to the genre with a tale of a bank worker who is cursed by a gypsy after refusing to extend her home loan. It will make you jump.
On Monday (17/5) at 23:10, ITV4 has Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Kathryn Bigelow’s authorised version of the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain plays the dedicated agent who spends years exploring his network, using all her skills and more than a touch of torture.
On Thursday (20/5) at 01:10, Film4 has The House of Mirth (2000), Terence Davies’s intense and acclaimed Hollywood costume drama, based on the Edith Wharton novel of 1905. British auteur Davies, until then known for his autobiographical Liverpool trilogy, barely knew who Gillian Anderson was when he cast her as his lead, having never seen The X Files.
On Friday (21/5) at 23:20, BBC2 has Testament of Youth (2014). Alicia Vikander made her breakthrough in this handsome adaptation of Vera Brittain’s timeless autobiographical account of love and loss during World War I. Some will recall the BBC’s classic 1979 TV version, starring Cheryl Campbell.
Other modern films of interest
On Sunday (16/5) at 00:15, BBC1 has X+Y (2014). Asa Butterfield plays a young maths genius with autism who wants to go to the International Mathematics Olympiad in China. Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall are his parents. Loosely based on a real story. At 00:45, BBC2 has Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me (2018), a documentary about the 1970s soul singer and his comeback after a car crash that left him tetraplegic. At 19:30, ITV has Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), J.K. Rowling’s Potter spinoff, starring Eddie Redmayne. At 21:00, in the Arena slot, BBC4 has Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes (2020). This sounds rather fascinating. Caroline Catz stars as the Radiophonic music pioneer, in a a biographical feature she also wrote and directed. With music assembled from Derbyshire’s posthumously discovered “attic tapes” by Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle fame.
On Monday (17/5) at 22:00, Film4 has Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). Ethan Hunt and his chums on the trail of stolen nuclear material. Another day in the office for Tom Cruise.
On Tuesday (18/5) at 21:00, Film4 has American Woman (2018). In an acclaimed performance in this television premiere, Sienna Miller plays a blue-collar single mom who has to raise her young grandson after her daughter goes missing.
On Friday (21/5) at 23:30, Sky Arts has If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd (2018). Biographical documentary about the US rock band, whose career was badly interrupted when their chartered plane crashed, killing singer Ronnie Van Zant among others. They reunited in 1987, led by the singer’s brother Johnny.
On Sunday (16/5) at 16:10, BBC2 has Tea With Mussolini (1999), Franco Zeffirelli’s semi-autobiographical piece about a boy growing up in fascist Italy among British and American tea-drinking ladies. Scripted by John Mortimer, with a dream cast including Joan Plowright, Maggie Smith, Cher, Judi Dench and Lily Tomlin. (Also on Thursday on BBC4 at 22:05.)
On Tuesday (18/5) at 13:00, Sony Action has The Big Sky (1952), a Howard Hawks frontier Western with Kirk Douglas, ferrying a Blackfoot princess (Elizabeth Threatt, half-Cherokee in real life) west along the Missouri River as a favour to the tribe he hopes to trade with. Of course, nothing is that simple.
Cheltenham International Film Festival
Take a look at the programme for the 2021 Cheltenham International Film Festival, which is online again this time. It starts on 24 May with a preview of The Father, for which Anthony Hopkins became the oldest actor to win the Best Actor statuette at this year’s Oscars. In total, the festival runs to 34 films, including 14 UK premieres and 11 previews. There will also be a major interview to honour distinguished British director Stephen Frears and a competition for best film by an emerging director.
Note that you can pay to see The Father now, but you won’t be able to watch it until 24 May. Because of demand from the big cinema chains, it will only be on sale for two days after that. Once you have bought it, as with all the films, you have 28 days to start watching it: but remember, once you press Play, you only get 48 hours of access. The other films have longer buying windows. Sorry it’s all so confusing: it’s because of the film distributors wanting to protect their assets.
For details of CIFF, go to https://cheltfilm.com. If you are a Cheltenham Film Society member, you are entitled to a 25 per cent discount, using that the code that you should have received by email. If you haven’t received that, contact our membership secretary at email@example.com. Please note that we have a new domain name.