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

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

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…

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

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.

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

Blake's 7 4.12: Warlord

The penultimate episode, and Chris Boucher seems to have suddenly remembered that the original premise for the series was a crew of rebels fighting against a totalitarian regime. The detour from this, or at least the haphazard servicing of it, during seasons Three and Four has brought many of my favourite moments in the series. So it comes as a bit of a jolt to suddenly find Avon making Blake-like advances towards the leaders of planets to unite in opposition against the Federation. 

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.