Skip to main content

When it's dry they offer you no end of umbrellas; as soon as it starts raining they want them back.


White Mischief
(1987)

There is surely a great film to be made from the incident that precipitated the demise of Kenya’s “Happy Valley” set, but White Mischief misses the boat. Here is a murder mystery amidst against a backdrop of supreme aristocratic decadence, so why is all so tame and respectful?

Michael Radford has to take the lion’s share of the blame as director and co-author of the screenplay. He injects the film with all the vigour of a TV movie (apologies to DP Roger Deakins), with only the occasional spillage of bare breasts or murmur of discreet outrage to indicate otherwise. That and the presence of Greta Scacchi, contractually obliged to disrobe for every role at this point.

The film is based on events surrounding the murder of the Earl of Erroll, Josslyn Hay (Charles Dance), in 1941. The consummate cavalier ladies man, Joss is fully immersed in the wife-swapping, drug-fuelled debauchery of his peer group. He begins an affair with the newly arrived Lady Diana Broughton (Scacchi). Her husband Sir John “Jock” Broughton (Joss Ackland) is resigned to the relationship but objects to the very public manner in which it is conducted. However, he and Diana appears to end their relationship in a conciliatory fashion and wishes the couple well. Soon after, Joss is shot dead in his car. Jock comes under immediate suspicion, leading to a murder trial.

Since the trial does not form the climax to the film, and as it’s a matter of historical record, it’s not spoiling things too much to reveal that Jock was acquitted. This in itself caused something of an outrage as he was regarded as clearly responsible (the evidence was insubstantial, although there have been revelations recently that appear to confirm his culpability). Radford points suspicion but demurs from putting Jock clearly at the scene (he also alters his fate for dramatic effect).  But the director pulls his punches throughout, so that shouldn’t be too surprising. Perversely, his approach reflects the closed-ranks attitudes of the group he presumably wants to dissect; it’s not even that he is seduced by their debauchery (Radford is far too reserved). He’s just unable to muster the fire to say anything about them beyond fingering them as a terribly naughty bunch, don’t you know.

I thought a number of times watching this again (I’d last seen the film more than 20 years ago) how much better suited to the material someone like Nic Roeg would have been. Although, I tend to think that most movies could be improved by Roeg’s involvement. Eureka came to mind particularly, with its wealthy husband cuckolded by a younger man (the not un-Charles Dance-like Rutger Hauer). Or how about someone who would revel gleefully in their filthy lifestyles; Paul Verhoeven, perhaps?

There’s a scene where Sarah Miles’ character Alice (who was Joss’ lover until Diana came along) smears her vaginal secretions over the face of her ex’s corpse. It’s as daring as Radford gets, and even then there’s an air of very English reserve present. Earlier we see her syringe, but there’s no graphic mainlining. A transvestite party proves to be distressingly formal. Trevor Howard engages in a spot of voyeurism, but it’s nothing to get worked up about. And the sordid wife-swapping amounts to little more than a naked Jacqueline Pearce offering herself to any takers. The dampened spirit of Fellini seems to come over Radford during a graveside party climax but he’s not wholehearted enough about it.

The director also seems to have little interest in encouraging his audience to empathise with these characters, which is surely necessary on some level. As a result it’s left to the actors to do most of the heavy-lifting. Ackland and Dance are as dependable as you’d expect, while Scacchi proves surprisingly strong as the centre of attention (I say this only as she seems so much more sure of herself here than in Defence of the Realm, only two years earlier). Miles has probably the most relishable part, and makes the most of it, while John Hurt is amusingly curt as the gone-native Gilbert Colvile (the end credits inform us of what he did next).

If Radford doesn’t appear quite sure of how to present the natural Kenyan population, who appear invariably in a menial capacity, that’s an understandable consequence of the artificial, detached lifestyle of his characters. Occasionally there’s a touch that says it all; a shot fired too close for the comfort of a servant replacing a pineapple for target practice, who just seems resigned to that kind of thing. But the problem is a broader one in that Radford hasn’t sufficiently defined the bubble that this rich white enclave lives within; by the time Hurt is asked to provide some reference points it is too late.

***

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

The past is a statement. The future is a question.

Justified Season Six
(SPOILERS) There have been more than enough damp squib or so-so show finales of late to have greeted the demise of Justified with some trepidation. Thankfully it avoids almost every pitfall it might have succumbed to and gives us a satisfying send-off that feels fitting for its characters. This is a series that, even at its weakest (the previous season) is leagues ahead of most fare in an increasingly saturated sphere, so it’s a relief – even if there was never much doubt on past form – that it doesn’t drop the ball.

And of those character fates? In a show that often pulls back from giving Raylan Givens the great hero moments (despite his maintaining a veneer of ultra-cool, and getting “supporting hero” moments as he does in the finale, 6.13 The Promise), it feels appropriate that his entire (stated) motivation for the season should be undermined. He doesn’t get to take down Boyd Crowder, except in an incarcerating sense, but as always he is sanguine about it. After…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

You’re only seeing what’s in front of you. You’re not seeing what’s above you.

Mr. Robot Season 2
(SPOILERS) I suspect my problem with Mr. Robot may be that I want it to be something it isn’t, which would entail it being a much better show than it is. And that’s its own fault, really, or rather creator and writer-director of umpteen episodes Sam Esmail’s, who has intentionally and provocatively lured his audience into thinking this really is an up-to-the-minute, pertinent, relevant, zeitgeisty show, one that not only has a huge amount to say about the illusory nature of our socio-economic system, and consequently the bedrock of our collective paradigm, but also the thorny subject of reality itself, both of which have been variably enticing dramatic fodder since the Wachowski siblings and David Fincher released a one-two punch at the end of the previous millennium.

In that sense, Mr. Robot’s thematic conceit is very much of a piece with its narrative form; it’s a conjuring act, a series of sleights of hand designed to dazzle the viewer into going with the flow, rath…

It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
(SPOILERS) In retrospect, 1973 looks like a banner year for the changing face of the horror movie. The writing was on the wall for Hammer, which had ruled the roost in Britain for so long, and in the US the release of The Exorcist completed a transformation of the genre that had begun with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; the realistic horror film, where the terror was to be found in the everyday (the home, the family). Then there was Don’t Look Now, which refracted horror tropes through a typically Nic Roeg eye, fracturing time and vision in a meditative exploration of death and grief. The Wicker Man, meanwhile, would gather its reputation over the passing years. It stands as a kind of anti-horror movie, eschewing standard scares and shock tactics for a dawning realisation of the starkness of opposing belief systems and the fragility of faith.

In comparison to this trio, The Legend of Hell House is something of a throwback; its slightly stagey tone, and cobweb…