Categories
Action/Adventure British Mystery/Noir

Defence of the Realm

David Drury’s thriller Defence of the Realm is a taut British conspiracy tale set on Fleet Street. This 1986 film embodies the left-wing paranoia of the Thatcher years, with its deep scepticism of nuclear weapons, the US-British alliance, and grey men in dark suits secretly controlling society from their Whitehall back offices and private gentleman’s clubs (It’s of a piece with A Very British Coup and Edge of Darkness in all those respects).

The story begins somewhat obliquely, with two juvenile delinquents fleeing the police until they come to a British airbase used by the American military (Presumably RAF Lakenheath, hint hint). One of them clambers over the fence, triggering an unexplained event that leads to an evacuation. An investigation is announced by Dennis Markham, MP, who is played by Ian Bannen (An actor I praise here, and here and here). But before Markham can pursue his enquiry, he is forced to resign over a Profumo-esque sex scandal. Coincidence? Brash young investigative journalist Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) begins to pull at the threads of the story, despite the warnings of his shrewd, if crapulous, senior colleague (Denholm Elliott). Pretty soon, Nick becomes aware that powerful forces do not want the truth to come out and will do anything to keep it quiet.

The movie’s perspective is pretty bleak and in that sense one could consider it a British cousin of another of my recommendations, The Parallax View. Byrne, with his dark looks and demeanor, is almost a physical expression of the film’s outlook, which is only further enhanced by the moody cinematography and music.

In addition to its suspenseful and exciting moments, this film has two towering virtues. The first is the performance of Elliott, who steals the movie as a wiser, sadder journalist with a core of integrity. It’s as good as anything this fine actor has carried off in his impressive career. The movie’s other principal pleasure is its evocation of a now-vanished Fleet Street culture, with heavy drinking at lunch, late nights at the office, and some peculiar and charming traditions (e.g., the scene where an ink-stained wretch’s retirement is marked by the sound of pounding printing blocks).

This isn’t a perfect movie. Greta Scacchi, in the sort of role that seemed intended to have critics say “See she’s not just a sex symbol, she can really act!”, is in fact pretty flat as Markham’s assistant and there is zero chemistry between her and Byrne. Also, some viewers may find the film too confusing or downbeat at least some of the time.

That said, Defence of the Realm is a worthy entry into the political paranoia genre that improves with repeated viewing. It will not make you trust your government more, but it will command your attention and keep you on the edge of your seat.

A final trivial note on the film: Prior to the big showdown with nefarious forces, Byrne walks through the same club library in which Daniel Craig and Michael Gambon made a drug deal in another of my recommendations, Layer Cake, which is also the room where I wrote that recommendation and this one too.

Categories
British Drama Mystery/Noir

The Offence

The James Bond films made Sean Connery an international superstar, but presented him few challenges as an actor. In the midst of Bondmania, desperate to avoid typecasting and to take on more substantial roles, Connery began collaborating with Director Sidney Lumet. This resulted in one financially successful and entertaining film (The Anderson Tapes), but more importantly led to Connery turning in two critically-praised, Oscar-worthy performances that hardly anyone saw. The first was in one of my prior film recommendations, The Hill. The second was in this week’s film recommendation: The Offence.

The back story of this far-too-rarely-seen 1972 movie reveals much of Connery’s psychology at the time, as well as his star power. He had walked away in disgust from the Bond enterprise, and his replacement (George Lazenby, not as bad an actor as reputed but also no Connery) had not had the same box office draw. United Artists was so desperate for their superstar’s return to Bondage that they offered him whatever he wanted. He could have insisted on the world’s biggest paycheck, but instead he demanded that United Artist support two low-budget art house films! One was to be a Connery-directed adaptation of Macbeth, which would have been a Scottish treat and was unfortunately never made. The other was The Offence, which everybody concerned made for art’s sake because they knew there was no way in the world this film would garner even 1% of the box office receipts of the Bond films. The modestly-paid cast and crew worked like dogs to complete the entire shoot in less than a month (Connery himself allegedly put in up to 20 hours a day). The resulting labor of love is a shattering cinematic experience.

The plot centers on disillusioned, angry and unstable Detective Sergeant Johnson (Connery). In the visually distorted, almost dissociative opening sequence that reflects the tortured workings of his mind, the audience sees that Johnson has just beaten a suspected child molester. He snaps out of his rage and realizes what he has done, but it’s too late. The suspect is being taken to hospital and may well die. We then learn the background: A monster has been victimizing little girls and getting away with it time and again despite the efforts of the police. Another girl is kidnapped and raped, but ultimately found by DS Johnson. But rather than regard him as a rescuer, she reacts in terror to him, leading something inside him to snap. The smug, posh suspect who is eventually brought in gets under Johnson’s skin even more, causing him to lose control, although we do not learn the reasons why until the film’s devastating final act.

The Offence (1972) - Blu-Ray Review

After this opening, the movie then turns into a three-act play, with each act being a two-hander (This staginess is the film’s only flaw; given more time and money I suspect Lumet could have escaped the story’s playhouse origins as he did in other films adapted from the stage). First is Connery and his long-suffering wife (Vivien Merchant), then Connery and the investigating senior officer (Trevor Howard), and finally Connery with the suspect (Ian Bannen).

The acting in these three scenes is a revelation. Vivien Merchant absorbs Connery’s brutality but is unable to reach her husband, making him even more rageful but also more pathetic. In a scene of fewer than 15 minutes the two actors let the viewer grasp everything about the long agonies of this unhappily married couple and how they have disappointed and torn at each other over the years. The scene with Howard is almost as good, but is topped by the astounding concluding act with Ian Bannen (who was also brilliant alongside Connery in The Hill). Bannen and Connery play off each other magnificently in a cat-and-mouse game during which each experiences fear of, hatred for and yet also some identification with the other.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

The Hill

Sidney Lumet’s brutal, gripping 1965 movie The Hill opens with a solitary figure laboring up the man-made torture device that gives the film its title. In one of Oswald Morris’ many mesmerizing crane shots, the man collapses in the North African heat and then the camera begins to move slowly away, off into the distance, abandoning the man and the compound in which he is forced to live. As in the rest of the film, no music is heard, which lets the hopelessness and isolation of the people we are watching sink in.

The story begins with five British soldiers arriving at a military prison. Four of them are privates who have committed various crimes (including Ossie Davis as a West Indian soldier and Roy Kinnear as a fat spiv), but the fifth is something different. Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) was a heroic sergeant major who has been busted down for beating up his commanding officer. Connery, given his first chance as a star to do something different from James Bond, plays the part well, showing how Roberts can be callous in some respects yet gentle in others. He is in emotional agony, for reasons that become clear as the film progresses.

The most complex performance is given by Harry Andrews, as RSM Wilson, who runs the daily operations of the prison. It would have been easy to write and play the character of RSM Wilson as a heartless martinet. But Ray Rigby’s script and Andrews’ acting are much more sophisticated than that. Yes, the RSM can be tough, but he also shows compassion because he is committed to rebuilding the prisoners rather than simply destroying them. He’s a three dimensional person, unlike the newly arrived Sergeant Major Williams (Ian Hendry), who is uncomplicatedly nasty. Ian Hendry, who was by all accounts a piece of work in real life (sadly, he drank himself to death in his early 50s) is convincingly vicious as Williams. As Connery’s character says “Wilson wants to build toy soldiers and Williams wants to break them”.

The prisoners struggle against the harsh prison regime, and also among themselves. But as Williams gets more brutal, causing a tragic incident, they begin to unify in opposition to the screws. They are aided by a diffident medical officer (a solid as ever Michael Redgrave) and a staff sergeant whose motives are interesting to speculate about (Ian Bannen).

Two complaints. The film would have benefited from some tightening in length and from dropping the final stages of evolution of Ossie Davis’ character. His behavior at the end seems a theatrical flourish to please a 1965 audience and not, like the rest of the film, a realistic take on WWII prison life. His performance though, like that of everyone else in the all-male cast, remains top-notch.

It would be an injustice to close on such cavils, however. Sidney Lumet’s “movie as play” style works perfectly in the claustrophobic setting of a prison. Cinematographer Oswald Morris and editor Thelma Connell do brilliant work throughout, particular during the scenes in which the prisoners are forced to climb the hill (In one case, while wearing a gas mask — horrifying). Given its subject matter and tone, this isn’t a date movie…but it’s a great movie.

A closing note on Connery’s evolution: As this critically-acclaimed movie bombed at the box office he saw audiences line up world wide to munch popcorn and watch Thunderball, which began to disgust him with the James Bond franchise and the state of his career. But while he didn’t know it at the time, he had already made the wisest move possible, which was to link up with a great director who saw more to him as an actor than the Bond films revealed (For more on this, see my recommendation of The Offence). 

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

If I were BBC Director-General, and had been granted only 24 broadcast hours to make the case to the nation and its elected officials that my organisation was capable of greatness, I would immediately fill the first 315 minutes of my schedule with 1979’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

This is what a television mini-series can do that is virtually impossible in the movie theater: Tell a long, complex, intimate story over a series of episodes that hang together, and in which the audience being forced to wait for the resolution adds to the exquisite tension of the tale. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is also the apotheosis of what BBC can do better than any other organisation when it sets its mind to it: Trawl through the British theater for stage-trained, perfectly cast actors to play parts large and small, give them a quintessentially British script, and spend a TV-level budget in just the right way to get the sets and production that are “tailor made” (sorry, couldn’t pass that up) for the story. The result is BBC television magic.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | From I, Claudius to This Country: the ...

The plot: The aging head of the British Secret Service, dogged by a series of espionage failures and declining health, sends out a trusted agent on a mission to Czechoslovakia that will help smoke out a high-level mole who is working for the Soviets. The mission goes horribly wrong, almost as if the enemy knew of it in advance. A different group of agents ascends to control of the service, and casts out along the way faithful, long-serving head of personnel George Smiley. But the politician who oversee the service believes the mole is still active, and recruits Smiley out of retirement to covertly investigate his former colleagues. With glum professionalism, and the aid of an embittered assassin who has been demoted, he slowly draws on the loose strings that he hopes will lead him to the mole’s identity.

I am no expert on Le Carré, but his passionate fans embraced this production as assiduously faithful to the book. Indeed, the man himself said that after viewing the mini-series, he could no longer think about Smiley without visualizing Alec Guinness.

Many people say Sir Alec was “born to play” spymaster George Smiley. But people said that about many of the parts he played in his career, a tribute to his genius as an actor. I love all the small things he does in this movie: Wiping his glasses on his tie, locking his flat door behind him without looking, wincing almost imperceptibly at the mention of his wayward wife. And he never commits the dramatic error of trying to make Smiley normal or likable. As his former wife says to him in the crucial final scene, he doesn’t understand life very well at all, he is strangely emotionally detached and not someone you’d want to have over to dinner. Unlike many of the people around him, he still seems to hold his country in some regard, but even that explanation doesn’t seem to fully explain why he takes on the difficult mission which he is assigned.

I frankly think this movie is no less enjoyable if you know in advance (from the book or from prior viewings) the mole’s identity. The story is about institutional rot, collective lassitude and endemic careerism. Yes, one man is particularly guilty but in various ways, every one of the key suspects has much of which to be ashamed.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) - Ian Richardson - He Was Shot ...

Director John Irvin was at the peak of his skills in the late 1970s, helming this series and The Dogs of War immediately afterwards. His career seemed to stall after those two triumphs, but he certainly delivers the goods here. Irvin had a champagne cast with which to work, not just Guinness. The actors are so uniformly fine that it seems an injustice to single out particular performers, but I will nonetheless take the risk to applaud Ian Richardson as Deputy Director Bill Haydon, who defeats Smiley in bureaucratic battles and does something even more horrid to him on the home front. How in the name of The Queen, St. Michael and St. George was this magnificent actor never knighted? Perhaps it was the suddenness of his death when he seemed in rude health…if so that’s a case for honoring people when they deserve it rather than waiting until they are “old enough”.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a million miles from the heroic James Bond-sort of secret agent picture. There are no car chases, fist fights or explosions. There instead is the gritty, slimy work of espionage, the grind of a meticulous investigation and the guessing and re-guessing of who can be trusted and who is a villain. Yet even with a running time of more than 5 hours, it never loses the viewer’s interest. Indeed, I would not be surprised if some people who own it on DVD devour it in one or two sittings.

p.s. I am given to understand that the US rebroadcast version of this mini-series is shorter than the UK original and also makes some narrative changes. Not having viewed it, I do not know how it compares to the version I review here.