Blade Runner 2049: a Multi-million Dollar Upgrade Inside a Dead-eyed Replicant.


Precious photos and mythical memories. Deckard Whisky glass by Arnolfo di Cambio.

The fashion for all things 80s reached its most ambitious last year with a sequel to one of the most influential pieces of pop culture ever made. Rapturous reviews were penned by middle-aged male critics, the kind of sycophantic fervour that gets whipped up by the juggernaut of press junket momentum reserved for tent pole films. The vanguard was led by representatives of a demographic already in thrall to the original (guilty!). It was as though their favorite punk band had been reformed by a Silicon Valley advertising agency and was inviting them to re-live their youth with slick VIP packages and all-access backstage passes. They emerged out of the theatres in a delirium of misplaced nostalgia and saw it as the second coming, the saviour of artistic Sci-Fi. Barely a voice of dissension was heard among their ranks. All of them were eager to endorse the mainstream re-imagining of a film that had been denied the same commercial clout as the Star Wars franchise. A film that had its box office thunder stolen from it by, er… E.T. Each review was as myopic as the last, willfully ignoring the pitfalls and flaws of something slavishly harking back to an original work. Blade Runner 2049 has been accorded so much critical acclaim by the mainstream press that some have suggested it may have surpassed the original. For that to be true we should consider the enduring cult of Blade Runner against the easy hyperbole of film journalism and compare and contrast the two works. And look at Blade Runner 2049 within the context of today’s cinema and television.

In recent years, Ridley Scott has sought to mine the origins of the first Alien film, forensically examining every ambiguity and mystery until we have a kind of We Can Remember it for you Wholesale approach of painful explication that sullies the original “less is more” school of narrative, leaving us with dull answers to tantalizing questions. Budgetary restrictions provide wonderful opportunities for the narratives of both Alien and Blade Runner, whether these come in the form of unexplained vignettes open to audience interpretation or off-screen action told through characters’ dialogue. Scott was always able to make a virtue of the limited resources at his disposal, thus whole swathes of the ever evolving Dangerous Days script were rendered unfilmable and future-noir, rain-soaked, neon-lit darkness became a necessity since production only had one street set up, whose artifice wouldn’t have stood up to daylight scrutiny. Analogue technology that was pushed beyond its usual limitations. Tensions were high on set and there were threats of litigation to oust Scott and producer Michael Deeley, a pair of arrogant limeys in Tinseltown who refused to be dissuaded from their uncompromising vision. Upon its release, Blade Runner was a commercial failure that went on to become the most impactful Sci-Fi movie since 2001. It was a hard-won victory that straddled the line between art and commerce. Scott and Deeley fought tooth and nail to realise their vision, at constant loggerheads with Bud Yorkin and Jerry Perenchio, two producers of light entertainment who just didn’t “get it.” Its influence cannot be overstated and was so pervasive that, decades later, the Cyberpunk aesthetic that it came to define was still being referenced in pop promos, commercials, fashion and films.

With Blade Runner 2049, Michael Green, who scripted Alien Covenant (one of the most blatant examples of the prequel/origin hybrid) teams up here with Hampton Fancher to riff on all the original ideas that made Blade Runner so groundbreaking in the first place and provide us with a similar “greatest hits” package. Franchises, sequels and, to a lesser extent, remakes are for the most part director-proof. Any artistic signature that a team of creatives possess is superseded by an existing template that cannot be deviated from, unless the remit is to transcend the original. BR49 is a classic example of this edict and the principle team seems to have been employed under these constraints, where no one is able to bring anything fresh or groundbreaking to the table. Ridley Scott is The Man That Cannot Step Into The Same River Twice, so instead he sends in Denis Villeneuve to recreate lightning in a bottle, except he is unable throw away the blueprint from 1982. The core influence of Blade Runner’s art department, conceptualised by Syd Mead, was Gene Giraud ‘Moebius’ work in the Métal Hurlant magazine, artwork that influenced William Gibson’s Neuromancer and in turn created Cyberpunk. Blade Runner was the first cinematic manifestation of that genre. It is as central to Blade Runner as HR Giger is to Alien (Moebius also had a hand in designing the spacesuits for Alien). In BR2049, only hereeveryone is working to a formula — and it doesn’t end with the production design. The post-punk replicant gang who made the original so compelling are given their Blade Runner archetypal roles: Sylvia Hoeks is there to channel her fellow Dutch compatriot Rutgar Haur, but without the William Blake quotes and sense of playful menace, Makenzie Davies is an obvious nod to Daryl Hanna’s Pris — 35 years on — and the Hazel O’Conner look is still in vogue for Basic Pleasure models. Meanwhile, Jared Leto plays a Tyrell-type character and even delivers his lines in such a way as to become indistinguishable from Joe Turkel’s robotic cue card delivery, where the Tyrell corporation’s motto of “More Human Than Human” becomes “More Turkel than Turkel.” Lennie James makes an appearance (bringing with him all that unfortunate straight-to-video post-apocalyptic baggage from The Walking Dead) as the overseer of an orphanage, swapping his ice hockey armor for pseudo Victorian garb in a kind of Oliver Twist Beyond Thunderdome. This is the kind of cynical Comic Con casting that leaves me shaking my head. Roger Deakins avoids creating an homage to Jordan Crononweth’s photography as the Blade Runner universe is delivered from the darkness of German Expressionism and Film Noir and into sleeker vistas of light and space. The Blade Runner visual aesthetic forever changed the look of science fiction. It came from an evolution of work that goes back some two thousand commercials that Scott directed and where he honed his so-called signature style over content. They were full of the obsessive attention to detail and dreamy cinematography that would characterise his later work. Directors of Photography like Frank Tidy, Hugh Johnson and Derek Vanlint all cut their teeth photographying these commercials with Scott and took the bucolic yesteryear of Hovis ads to the autumnal hues of the Napoleonic France of The Duelists and eventually through to the greasy computers of blue collar space freight in Alien. These films had little psychological depth and were thin on characterisation, but conveyed meaning through stunning visuals. Roger Deakins was Villeneuve’s closest ally here, and there are certain similarities to the aerial cityscapes of their previous work on Scicario. It came as no surprise to learn that the favelas of Mexico city provided a lot of the inspiration for the production. Some of the more interesting visual concepts of BR2049 are the forays into a ruinous sand swept La Vegas (another Syd Mead vision) which are a welcome distraction from the more sterile and dehumanised technological spaces. These scenes are where the film comes into its own. There’s nothing radical though, or as iconic as the Gordon Willis chiaroscuro renaissance of The Godfather or the 18th-century Hogarthian canvases of John Alcot’s work on Barry Lyndon, nothing that’s about to break the mould and redefine the look of Science Fiction. Whilst dazzling as a technical achievement, it’s mostly servicing a lifeless script that doesn’t ever seem to be referencing a whole lot on a cultural level that hasn’t been done to death before under the dystopian umbrella of grunge tech. I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that most of BR2049 looks indistinguishable from any Tom Cruise or Will Smith vehicle, the kind of generic Sci-Fi that’s become the default setting for the IT help-desk. In fact, none of the creatives has anything to strongly key off of, probably due in part to Villeneuve’s director-by-proxy role, but mostly because said script doesn’t demand it. By the time the shelved Kubrick/Brian Aldiss project was being made, Speiberg’s AI was still going for the Blade Runner look in the cityscapes, albeit in a more sanitised version made more palatable for an audience who prefer a less subversive and less avant-garde view of the future. It’s that imagery which is evoked for the populated spaces in this movie, with its hundred foot holographic advertisements heavily influenced by the Ghost in the Shell reboot, plus liberal doses of Minority Report for some of the bleaker aspects. Similarly, the Hans Zimmer score is decidedly low-key and, like everything else, all it can do is to hark back to the original source and re-use Vangellis’ seminal work. Think of the subtle evocation of 40’s noir existentialism in the Ink-Spots inspired One More Kiss Dear featuring on Blade Runner’s original soundtrack that has saxophones and synths colliding and interweaving with Demis Roussos’ Arabesque vocals to underscore the disparate cultures of retro-futurist, hard-boiled Americana and the encroachment of far east corporatism. No such intertextual relationship exists in BR2049. Instead, would-be blockbusters, however thoughtful, demand more commercially reliable returns on their investments and so Sinatra, Monroe and Elvis are all referenced for immediate brand recognition. The iconic triumvirate of American stardom are all holographic ghosts, forever trapped in a decaying Vegas — a sad remnant of Western capitalism. The problem here is that their undisputed status is so inviolable that they overshadow and further undermine the film’s credibility as a stand-alone original work. It’s all the more amusing in the context of Ridley Scott’s comments a while back on certain sets on Forbidden Planet mirroring Fifties fashion and looking like Frank Sinatra’s living room — whereas here we have Ol’ Blue Eyes’ Vegas, in all of its moth-eaten Rat-Pack glory.

BEBD7AAA-BAD4-4867-95D9-660E63942958The conundrum faced with creating a Blade Runner coda is that the emotional core of the original film was never in the protagonist. Through expressionist lighting and production design, the film itself was imbued with a sense of longing and lachrymose nostalgia for the mutability of time and the theme of mortality. Ruination and decay were juxtaposed with high technology that was shown to do little to improve people’s lives. In the documentary On The Edge of Blade Runner, Rutger Haur’s summation of Deckard is “A Guy who gets a gun put to his head and f***s the dishwasher — and then he falls in love with her… He’s introduced as this detective hero, but he’s not the hero, he’s the bad guy.” This problem was off-set by making the replicants sympathetic and more engaging than the hero. With their attachment to photographs, memory implants and dreams of unicorns, a sense of emotion and mystery is implied, but the audience is never told what to think. The guy who gets a gun to his head and f***s the dishwasher is the legacy that BR2049 seeks to augment. Here we get Ryan Gosling playing a replicant living with the dishwasher. His holographic companion (a theme more effectively explored in Spike Jonze’ Her) never strays far from the most basic of Sci-Fi narrative devices and feels like something that could have been dealt with far more originally in a single episode of Black Mirror. Denis Villeneuve’s intellectually driven blockbuster was meant to be a game changer for mainstream cinema, but what was meditative and elegiac under a comparatively lean running time in the original Blade Runner now comes across as excessive and tedious. The first hour is particularly dull as it sets up its quasi-religious exposition. The central conceit of replicants being able to reproduce and having Deckard and Rachel’s union producing something thematic to the immaculate conception and messiah child is ridiculously portentous and bears all the hallmarks of Scott’s more recent grandiose Promethean fixations. There are, however, a few moments of cold cinematic brilliance, namely the Martian-tinged Vegas scenes and a Spinner chase resulting in a crash landing in a reservoir — even if it does have the female villain dispatched like a Glenn Close bunny boiler. Embryonic ideas that were rejected first time around are dusted off in a bid to authenticate the film: in wresting the cinematic potential from Philip K Dick’s novel, Hampton Fancher vividly describes a scene from an early draft for the original Blade Runner as a fevered state of farming and boiling soup amidst the setting of an arid wasteland. Now, 35 years later, this same scene provides the opening of BR2049 pretty much frame by frame. You can see why it wouldn’t have worked in the original because it would have interfered with the urban claustrophobia, but, in the upgraded version, it provides the springboard for something more grandiose and ambitious, yet it falls flat compared to the opening of the Hades landscape from the original. It also communicates the idea to the Blade Runner diehard that a writer who once drove himself to nervous exhaustion in adapting Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? can see a rejected idea finally realised, unfettered from studio interference in a more enlightened age that is less likely to turn a deaf ear to an artistic voice.

In the age of box set TV series and novelistic storytelling, risk-averse filmmaking and narrow demographics are being increasingly threatened by cable television. Blade Runner 2049 wants to indulge in the longueurs of HBO’s Westworld with a meandering narrative that allows its characters to wander off-piste and explore their terrain, except BR2049 results in a fan boy flick with all the sensibility and scope of a video game. Whilst Westworld has its synthetic humans developing self-awareness in accordance with the Sci-Fi tropes of artificial intelligence, its key theme is female emancipation in a kind of Calamity Jane Stepford Wives mashup, a show that bears many surface similarities to Netflix’s more ersatz feminist Godless. Despite its AI uprising ambitions, Blade Runner 2049 becomes the inverse of the feminine-centric television of today. There isn’t anything remotely feminist about it. It willfully screws its eyes shut and hopes that, by casting Robin Wright, it will somehow invoke the spirit of Clare Underwood — except her character in 2049 very much orbits around her male subordinate, as does every female character in the film. Never mind Voight Kamphf, 2049 doesn’t go anywhere near the Bechdel Test. Sean Young is allowed back into the fold as a necrophiliac CGI’d version of her younger self whilst her male co-star is allowed to grow old gracefully. The film has the uncomfortable air of being a throwback to an increasingly outmoded patriarchal and dynastic Hollywood system, which is odd considering a past work of Ripleys, Thelma & Louises and GI Janes on the Scott Free CV, and odder still when you think about how big a role maternity features in Villeneuve’s Arrival. The problem is that in the intervening 35 years, the Blade Runner legacy has caught up with itself. All that’s left is a misplaced tribute and Hampton Fancher’s reheated soup.

The relative commercial failure of 2049 suggests the Blade Runner phenomenon is still about cult rather than mass appeal because its principal themes are bleakly dystopian and existential. Anti-Hollywood endings and divorcing science fiction from the action film genre was never going to bode well for box office returns. To turn it into something resembling the Alien franchise, Blade Runner would need to be handed back over to the suits and subject to the laws of diminishing returns and diminished responsibility. But Blade Runner never needed an upgrade in the first place. Instead, it should be preserved in amber and curated as a museum piece in all of its revised forms: Director’s Cut, Workprint, Theatrical release, etc, like anything with an historical significance.
Instead of mining the original novel for ideas that weren’t used first time round, they sought to use big themes and broad strokes for an independent story that has no legs, but the crux of the matter is that whilst Blade Runner was freely adapted from solid source material and ignited the postmodern Cyberpunk zeitgeist, its successor seeks to furrow its own path and completely remove all Philip K Dick characteristics. Without a sense of prescience beyond the here and now, all it can ultimately be is a thin simulacra of the original. It might be interesting to see what Denis Villeneuve does with the proposed Dune remake (another crack at an 80s Sci-Fi commercial disaster and something else that dared to stray from the more anodyne shootout in a toy store Spielberg/Lucas commercial powerhouse.) Blade Runner 2049 wants to “Reverse the Polarity” of Lucasfilm Industrial Light and Magic influence and redefine blockbuster Sci-Fi with Tarkovsky-like meditations, but it cannot escape the long shadow of an established classic. The only way this would be achievable would be to create something wholly original that isn’t so indebted to the past, something that doesn’t perpetuate the specious notion (often propagated by the baby boomers) that the 21st century is artistically dead. The maverick social commentary and intellectualism of seventies cinema is finding its voice on increasingly large HD home screens, whilst pseudo intellectual fare such as Inception and now Blade Runner 2049 are being peddled to the multiplexes. The disparity is growing and cinema is losing ground to the streaming services of Netflix, HBO Amazon and Hulu. At its most poetic, the big screen can offer a transcendent experience that other mediums can’t, create unforgettable and iconic moments, or what Kubrick called non-submersible units. Under a consumer model that has no sign of slowing down its exponential growth, all of these streamed moments will be increasingly lost in time, like tears in rain. Guillermo del Toro describes Blade Runner — a film that, changed his life — as “pure cinema.” Pure cinema has an immersive and oneiric quality that television is still unable to compete with. Enduring non-submersible units lose their potency on made-for-TV. Television, no matter how well cinematically crafted, always leaves less of a lasting impression. Netflix’s latest offering: the self-reflexive Altered Carbon, (a show resembling Blade Runner more than BR2049 does) has a super-intelligent production design crowding every available space with vertiginous Blade Runner detail. It references everything from the futuristic museology of Louvre-like spaces for the rich above the clouds to street-level overpopulation, neon-drenched gutters and Chandleresque femmes fatales. Full of gorgeous set design and beautiful photography, with direction and editing reminiscent of the look and feel of American Horror Story, Cyberpunk has come full circle and now looks like a Ridley Scott commercial. Altered Carbon is also purposely trashy, neatly packaged for the consumerist, appealing both to goldfish-bowl attention spanners and to the more discerning viewer. The action sequences have an exploitative edge and have that Canon Group, Golan-Globus 80s-era sleaze about them. The show reads like televised segments of a blockbuster sequel beamed in from an alternate universe. The difference between Blade Runner 2049 and Altered Carbon is that critics have been calling Altered Carbon out for what it is, probably because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. But there is a Trojan Horse in there somewhere that threatens a life beyond the Blade Runner of 2049. Against such parvenus, Blade Runner as cinema looks set to be once more overshadowed in the populist stakes because of the near-impossible demands of how films have become judged by the blockbuster definitions of their opening weekends. In any case, the trying conditions under which Blade Runner was made back in 1982 and the aggressive atmosphere of short-sighted mistrust from the money men who opposed its completion is a direct contrast to Sony’s corporate indulgences and the kind of open check budget lavished on its sequel. All of this will doubtless prove in time that foresight and assured cult status cannot be bought.

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Moonlight review

I know a musician who grew up on a Chicago housing project during the Reagan era. He watched as most of his contemporaries were lost to gang culture, resulting in the inevitable end game of either death or incarceration. As a sensitive and artistic young black man, two of his role models were Bowie and Prince, musicians whose sensuous androgyny provided an alternative to the pressurised black culture of hyper masculinity. I have no idea what kinds of tribulations he faced surviving his environment but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find him strongly identifying with Moonlight’s protagonist Chiron.

Whilst the binary politics centered around race and gender rages on, Moonlight is a quietly powerful statement simply because it avoids making any overt messages, a social realist film that doesn’t stamp its foot or wag its pious finger. Jenkins eschews faux documentary style and there is none of the super 8 style grittiness so closely associated with independent film. Instead, Moonlight dares to be as cinematic as possible: the three different film stocks of Fuji, Kodak and Agfa were digitally simulated in a kind of respective triumvirate resurrection of ghostly nostalgia, representing each successive chapter in Chiron’s life. There are anamorphic wide screen vistas where the Miami sun shines down on crackheads, housing projects, beaches and schools, all in the saturated tropical colours and lustrous skin tones of a waking nightmare. Jenkins’ film literacy in World Cinema takes the film on a divergent path from American tropes, with references and hommages to Wong Kar Wai aplenty. Jenkins doesn’t just forsake the white hegemony of Speilbergian commercialism, there aren’t any traces of John Singleton or Spike Lee either; the framing, minimalism and meditative stillnesses are instead those of european art house cinema. It came as no surprise to learn that his biggest influence is Claire Denis and Moonlight certainly has all the space and light of something like Beau Travail, another film about masculinity under a beating sun. It’s as though a Parisian film crew had breezed into town and set up shop, having never seen an episode of Miami Vice. Equally, the soundtrack is as imaginative and eclectic and in interviews Jenkins seems to possess all the musical sensibilities of a true crate digger. There is an original chamber orchestral score, finding the perfect collaborator in the composer Nicolas Britell, 70s blaxploitation and hip hop, with everything being put through a remixing technique known as Chopped and Screwed, a kind of Pimp My Ride custom shop for music that slows down and skips beats, manipulating and sculpting the music to fit the mood of the scene.


Refreshingly, there is no clear delination between good and bad: drug dealers have back stories, they can be as mercantile as any hedge funder, yet they take the time to mentor like new age youth councilors. The moral conundrum of selling crack cocaine to a boy’s mother and then giving him swimming lessons is an outright subversion of every portrayal of the black street corner dealer. As a young boy Chiron learns to let go and trust the freedom of the ocean and then later has his first sexual awakening on its sands with another youth. The freedom of nature versus the constraints of society are warring themes. Chiron eventually winds up another version of his mentor, inheriting his throne and literally his crown. In overcoming his childhood persecutors he chooses violence, a path that leads to juvenal hall and a system that spits him out as a muscular and hardened criminal with all sense of vulnerability masked by a streetwise wariness and sense of latent danger. The truer self, — one of sensitive introspection and curiosity — is conveyed in the eyes of all three actors. Chiron becomes the stereotypical version of manhood that ghetto culture narrows him down to, something that ultimately he isn’t. He masquerades as the alpha male and the strong silent type because that is what society and racial profiling expect from him. Naomi Harris is the Brit who turns in a star performance as the mother, a transformation from a ‘Posh English girl’ (Jenkin’s description of her) to a Miami drug addict having a complex relationship with her son. It’s incredible to think she knocked this out in just over a few days during some down time for the press junket for Spectre.

Barry Jenkins has neither the provocation of Spike Lee, nor the bleeding heart of Ken Loach. He marries personal experience with erudite film literacy under the umbrella of social realism and the result is artistic, complex and immediate. There is no sense of unique black perspective, Moonlight‘s themes are universal to the human condition. Not everyone is convinced, though: The Times‘ Camilla Long has had the liberal lynch mob baying for blood, predictably calling her out on her perceived racism for criticising the film. Apparently as a straight, white, middle class woman, she found it hard to relate to. By that rationale maybe she isn’t fit to review anything but Downtown Abbey and The Crown. I have no interest in Rugby and I’ve never been a Yorkshire coal miner but that’s never stopped me from appreciating This Sporting Life as a great film. Jenkins is a huge fan of Lynn Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. What on earth did a young black film student from Miami see in the lives of working class Glaswegians that he found so interesting? I bet he needed subtitles as much as he does for those Criterion Wong Kar Wai films though.

Trouble on the Moor: Happy Valley review

Somewhere between the ’70’s retro, conspiracy-laden Red Riding trilogy and the comedic horror of The League of Gentlemen’s Royston Vasey is yet another twisted Pennine locale called Happy Valley. Nevison Gallagher is a local industrialist and self-made millionaire, the proprietor of an imposing 19th-century factory in an impoverished town, a character and setting that wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ealing comedy. Steve Pemberton, seconded from Royston Vasey, is the embittered accountant (Kevin Weatherill) who plots to kidnap his boss’s daughter in order to fund his own daughter’s private education with the ransom. Julia Ford, the traumatised victim from Red Riding, plays his crippled wife. Sarah Lancashire is a straight talking police sergeant in her late-forties, haunted by her daughter’s suicide. In her off-duty guise we see her at the grave of her daughter, with her grandson, a stone’s throw away from Sylvia Plath’s own resting place, in Heptonstall, West Riding. This is an implicit suggestion within the context of an otherwise heavy-handed feminist show. Feminists and Plath devotees have long targeted Ted Hughes as being responsible for Plath’s suicide in the past, as much as our protagonist blames the psychotic misogynist Tommy Lee Royce for the rape and suicide of her daughter. It’s a comparison that is deliberately set up and cannot be ignored. The woman-as-victim agenda is given a final twist after we learn that Nevison’s wife has been diagnosed with liver cancer, a revelation that turns the hardened tycoon into an altruistic benefactor when he decides to fund Weatherill’s daughter’s education after initially turning him down. But the wheels have already been set in motion and fate has finally provided a vehicle for Cawood’s thirst for revenge. As Ann Nevison’s Mini is followed by the kidnappers onto the moors – the car wending its way through Bronte country – the literary theme continues as she sings along to Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, a karaoke lament, yearning for her Heathcliff, the Yorkshire Lascar who isn’t adverse to a little domestic violence and kidnapping himself. By the time the actual abduction is initialised, the Kate Bush Greatest Hits CD is blaring the empowering Babooska, but it’s too late: white van man from hell has already been summoned; rapist Tommy Lee Royce has just been released from prison and according to Ashley Cowgill, the local drugs baron (Joe Armstrong) – a dead-ringer for his father, Alun in his Get Carter days – ‘hasn’t had his leg over in eight years’, so we can assume, kidnapping will be the least of her ordeals. Sally Wainwright sets up a kind of middle-aged, feminist revenge fantasy and there is a whiff of vicarious wish fulfillment in her creation of the unglamorous everywoman/police sergeant, long-suffering in her responsibilities. The message that women suffer in life and shoulder all the responsibility makes its point, not only in the plot device of the kidnapping and a young woman’s exploitatively tortuous and protracted nightmare, but also with the fact that Cawood is burdened with raising a grandson who is the result of her daughter’s rape. This mini nemesis is the proverbial rotten apple. Having not fallen far from the patriarchal tree, his increasingly recalcitrant behaviour becomes a problem for earnest female school teachers who are forever hauling his grandmother in to address his unwieldy behaviour. The main problem with Happy Valley is that with no redeemable male characters, the misandry quickly becomes distasteful. There has to be a death in there somewhere and for that we get a young WPC as the sacrificial lamb, Kirsten McCaskill (Sophie Rundle) interestingly juxtaposed against Ann Nevison, a representation of the idle Daddy’s girl, swanning about with nothing to show for an expensive education. The stalwart and plucky WPC dies in the line of duty by getting crushed under Ann’s Mini, an expensive looking toy and symbol of youthful independence for the middle classes, used as a weapon by Royce. There is a woefully misguided and ultra-conservative Daily Mail social commentary that inexplicably singles out cannabis as the blight and ruination of this Calder Valley town, a kind of pre-war Reefer Madness time-warp that ignores the British binge drinking culture and looks ridiculous against Cawood’s sister’s recovering heroin addiction.


Rescuing Sarah Lancashire from the mediocrity of years spent on Coronation Street as a jobbing soap opera actress, pulling pints at The Rover’s Return (or whatever else she was doing there) and giving her such a plum role is, of course, laudable and just as long as she doesn’t become just a token example then long may it continue with other, older actresses rescued from the demographic ‘scrap heap’. The first episode at least was a tightly plotted piece of television that wasted no time is setting up the characters and converging narrative threads. It had a chance of being offbeat, surprising and as dark as the aforementioned Red Riding. Unfortunately Wainwright opted for a fairly standardised and safe drama and everything after the first episode adhered to the law of diminishing returns that betrayed its ambitions. The finale degenerates into the usual pedestrian sensationalism which risked sending Sarah Lancashire back to Coronation Street rather than a Last Tango in Halifax. Maybe it was the over reliance on one authorial voice as opposed to a having a team of writers employed on a show. The same mistake that led to the partnership of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis to oversee some interesting modern renovations to the Conan Doyle Estate in Sherlock, before gradually turning it into a fully-fledged wrecking ball (by season three). As flagship dramas go, the BBC really could do better.

Venus Noire: A 19th century tale of modern exploitation

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Last year’s Palme d’Or winner was La Vie d’Adèle (Blue Is The Warmest Colour), Abtellatif Kechiche’s adaptation from the graphic novel by Julie Maroh. The celebratory feel of the win, with the unprecedented decision of the two female leads sharing the award with it’s director, was soured by a storm of controversy and it wasn’t long before those sunny Côte d’Azur smiles turned to stormy anger: Kechiche had a mutiny on his hands, not only from his two actresses, who levelled accusations of abusive behaviour on set, but also stories surfaced on how members of the crew had revolted against the violation of labour laws and tyrannical working conditions, leading to many of them quitting. Before Kechiche was the darling of the Cannes tapis rouge, he had made a previous film, which wasn’t quite as acclaimed. In fact it didn’t even make international distribution and had sunk without a trace. Venus Noire, the story of Sarah (Saartje) Baartman, an African tribeswoman who, in the early nineteenth century, was taken from her homeland and exhibited in various freak shows across Europe as the Hottentot Venus. She was later examined and studied by French anatomists as an anthropological curio before being discarded and dying ignobly in poverty in Paris.

As a film extra for Venus Noire a few years ago, I found myself corralled with a motley troupe of assorted types; our only remit as ‘background artistes’ was that in order to authenticate our early nineteenth-century selves, personal grooming was out. This meant no shaving, no hair washing, or salon visits for a month. Daniel Day Lewis method preparation for what is, in the world of the film extra, essentially human props. Think Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, with all the scope of a broom cupboard. Once assembled at Gare de Lyon, would-be scullery maids with birds nest, straw hair, well-to-do/shabby-genteel bourgeoisie mingling with dodgy Hogarthian types and down-at-heel tradesmen with ratty beards were transported by train and shuttled by minibuses to a drizzly bucolic location outside Paris. The film crew had set up camp in an old fortress dating back to the 18th century. The yard had been converted into a Regency period Piccadilly street scene. The art direction paid off: at night braziers burned and the sooty street was filled with carnivalesque performers of acrobats, fire-eaters and jugglers entertaining the crowd and competing for their attention. Our unkempt appearance fitted well with the period costumes. A kind of primitive, pre-industrial revolution Elephant Man vibe pervaded the set: Candelabra Prog Rock to Lynch’s Steampunk vision. In a decaying makeshift theatre with tallowed walls, we were a braying London mob, whilst the Venus Hottentot was forced to go through her tired onstage routine for the edification of the crowd. To counter the boredom of continuous takes we began assuming and then fleshing out our Regency period personas. It became an actors’ workshop of improvisation. Riffing on the premise that we were unenlightened colonial racists on a good night out, we warmed to the chance of re-visiting a guilty ancestral past with gusto. Thus, the portly and effusive English opera singer became a buffoonish Pumblechook character, bouncing up and down in his seat, the Liverpudlian carpenter and ex-Legionnaire became grizzled and murderous looking, lurking in the shadows and the tall, Irish-Bostonian interior designer became a swarthy Alex Durbeyfield coxcomb with red mutton chop sideburns. A harried looking assistant director climbed up on stage and gave a lecture between takes about language authenticity and the avoidance of anything remotely 21st century sounding, amidst the enthusiastic catcalling. To be fair, I had heard quite a bit of glaringly inauthentic terms and patois tossed about that would have made even Tim Westwood cringe. Someone kept calling out ‘Bitch’, a word which, she claimed wasn’t around at the time, (really?) and even if it was, she continued hastily, this kind of word had no place in the type of film that Kechiche was making. Did this mean that this was going to be a film about slavery suitable for family viewing? That had me scratching my unwashed head. On the morning train to the location, the French extras were fomenting revolution, like a group of migrant labourers in boxcar transit preaching dissension against an unscrupulous gang master. Our 90-euro-per-day shooting schedules were getting longer for no extra pay and none of us were getting back home until the early hours of the morning. The French word for strike (grève) was being bandied about. Were the wimpy Anglo-Saxons going to get with the program, unite with our militant brothers and storm the Bastille, after all, it wasn’t as though we weren’t dressed for it? The puppet master Kechiche typically presided over everything from a tent, eyes fixed firmly on a monitor. What struck me about him, compared to other directors I’d had experience with, was his detachment from his particular Wellsian train set. There was very little engagement with anyone, apart from the principle cast. Everything was delegated, with lines of communication being relayed back and forth by various minions. To him we were the invisible, bottom-of-the-food-chain plankton to his village pond Moby Dick. Instead, he relied on others to come to us hat in hand and ask if we could see our way into staying a few more hours. Terms were discussed in the swirling drizzle; bored coach drivers waiting to take us back to Paris turned off their idling engines and drank tepid coffee from thermoses. A deal was hammered out for another twenty euros.

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I had spent most of my final day’s shooting being pulled up and down a muddy street in a horse and carriage. My companion inside the carriage’s musty confines was a French woman who had given up her corporate life for the theatre. Amidst the cracked leather and mothball aroma, she kept lamenting about the waste of resources that had gone into the set design from our lofty view from the carriage window and how much better it could have been employed for the stage. She had recently returned from the Côte d’Ivoire, from which she had brought back a black paramour (half her age) and was confounding the conventions of middle-aged sex tourism by battling to get him legal residency in France. True love against all odds, or, given the context of the film, a method preparation too far?

The French film industry, we are told, is able to function because of the loose labour conditions that enable the ninety-per-cent of the independent productions to be made. We hear of film crews taking a fifty-per-cent cut in their wages and working overtime without pay. The very survival of French independent cinema is dependent on the abstraction of these grey labour laws. Directors such as Francois Ozon have warned that a proposed repeal of these regulations under the Hollande administration would be a disastrous blow to the independents.

It would seem that Mr Kechiche’s autocratic behaviour is borne out of the specious auteur theory, a theory that the director is the sole author of the work. If so, then the next time you terrorise your typically naked female leads, Mr Kechiche, or expect your crew to work overtime without pay, then please remember the travelling circus might not be quite so eager to set up camp and help you realise your next exploitative and misogynist ‘vision’. No one else should be held accountable, though, for how truly dreadful Venus Noire turned out, so that’s one for the auteurs.

At the end of La Vie d’Adèle a character says he gave up acting to become a real estate agent because he, quote: ‘Had enough of working with ball-busting directors’. Did Kechiche have anyone in mind when he penned that line, perchance, or was it simply a soupçon of cinéma vérité?