It is easy to think of the English movie industry as a freak encounter among a few picturesque geniuses. An encounter: not, however, a tradition or anything approaching it. Charles Laughton, Alec Guinness, and the Beatles all made or appeared in memorable films, but none of them is primarily a film star. Hitchcock (we are told) had to go to America to become a great director. Furthermore, since a brief period of prosperity in the Sixties, most of the best British films have been made for TV. Little wonder that moviegoers have been inclined to agree with Truffaut's sneaky comment that England and film are two irreconcilable ideas.
With the degeneration of the French tradition that Truffaut and his friends established, England looks better and better. Margaret Thatcher and Monty Python share credit for this development about equally: Thatcher because she provided her country with interesting times, Python because it— or they—demonstrated that peculiarly English humor could make money in the United States. The result was that, along with the obligatory costume dramas (Ghandi), we started to get movies like A Private Function—probably the most satisfying comedy from any source last year and (no coincidence) a perfect exemplification of my argument.
The lucky people who saw it will recall that Function concerns food rationing in Britain shortly after World War II, not, I suppose, a subject to titillate millions. Michael Palin (of Python) plays a podiatrist or a foot manicurist—it's a little hard to say which—whose shrewish wife (Maggie Smith) wants to rise in the social scale. She is unable to do so until she nags her husband into stealing a pig—the very pig which the local elite are illegally raising to be served at a banquet in celebration of the royal wedding. This all sounds very P.G. Wodehouse, but whereas Wodehouse's romps are innocent Function has a disabused notion of human nature.
The movie traces relationships between a biological fact (appetite) and a social situation (fights over social status in a time of economic scarcity). I particularly recommend the scene where Maggie Smith bargains with the local doctor—elegantly dressed, chairman of the banquet committee—about the pig's uncertain future. Thatcher and Monty Python couldn't have met any more fruitfully than they do in this grim dialogue, or in the farce of which it is part.
Among the English films I have seen more recently, the nearest to Function is My Beautiful Laundrette. In this case, the success on which all else depends is a superb script. Hanif Kureishi writes largely about Pakistanis in present-day London, but uses his specialized knowledge to analyze the workings of a society. The protagonist is Omar (Gordon Warnecke), a Pakistani boy living "on the dole" with his father, a washed-up alcoholic journalist who spends his days in bed.
This hopeless derelict calls an enterprising brother (Saeed Jeffrey) who has made a fortune running a garage—and also, as we soon discover, working the drug trade. The brother offers his Omar a job cleaning up cars. Soon the young polisher graduates to other activities. He helps out on a drug transaction, thus accumulating the capital—and the brownie points—to renovate a half-ruined laundrette owned by his family. Around this experiment in capitalism accumulate the social, familial, and racial jealousies of at least twelve significant characters.
Much is made of a love affair between Omar and Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis, of a distinguished literary family), an indigenous thug who belongs to a racist gang. The two are said to have been childhood friends. Johnny wants out of his futile life wandering around intimidating people or being intimidated in return. It is he who effects the drug sale which allows the laundrette's renovation. It is he who acts as carpenter and painter.
Evidently Omar becomes a capitalist exploiter. He provides the property and the ideas; someone else does the dirty work. But seldom has the relation between capitalist and worker been more slyly—one might say, more erotically—depicted. Johnny is willing to be exploited, partly because he is desperate for a job and partly because his hunger for his friend's body is unstoppable. There are the beginnings of an allegory in this situation, but Kureishi has the tact not to push his arguments too far.
The American film Desert Hearts provides a good point of reference because it also depicts a homosexual love affair, yet insists idiotically that sex is a thing-in-itself, a be-all and end-all, rather than part of a larger social and biological pattern. Kureishi doesn't have to take up the burden of constantly reassuring us that Sex is Good. Instead he works matter-of-factly towards a set of observations on a love affair and its implications in a particular world.
The film as a whole has this same quality of witty detachment, detachment that allows us to sympathize with everyone a little without losing a comprehensive view of what's happening. Only one character, Omar's older cousin, is played as an irredeemable heavy and even he has a few moments of his own: there is a delightful scene where he throws cash around and seedy-looking Anglo-Saxon types, minor men of letters or something, have to get down and pick it up.
Another ineffective intellectual, the boy's father, gets what may be Kureishi's last word: showing up for the grand opening of the laundrette (but at three in the morning rather than the afternoon: wrong again!) he ends up talking with his son's lover, discoursing on life's disappointments. Education is necessary, he notes, because you have to know who is doing what to you. My Beautiful Laundrette tries to prepare its viewer for this kind of education. It succeeds.
In a couple of artsy cities where I spent some time this summer (Austin and Chapel Hill) the most popular "art" film was a new production of the Ivory-Merchant team, an adaptation of E.M. Forster's Room with a View. I usually hate film adaptations of novels, at least if the novels are any good, but Room is a special case. It is short, light-hearted, arranged in scenes, and frequently dependent on scenery. Such a book is appropriate material for a good two-hour movie.
A craftsmanlike script by the novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabavlia helps towards this goal. She drops much of the novel's commentary on religion—a semi-tragic subplot concerning baptism is gone—but preserves the brilliantly-arranged story of a young girl's transformation by experiences in Italy and her later attempts to deny that anything important has happened to her, that travelling (in some generous meaning of the word) can actually change you.
She also retains Forster's chapter titles, which suggest the kind of wit on which the book depends, so we get: The Reverend Arthur Beebe, the Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr. Emerson, Mr. George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, and Miss Lucy Honeychurch, Drive out in Carriages to See a View: Italians Drive Them, and similar drolleries throughout. To put the point another way, there is enough of Forster's voice here to make the comic tableaux almost uniformly affecting.
Northern Europeans used to love travelling in Italy and receiving what they thought—what may really have been—an education of the senses. Forster's novel, and the Merchant-Ivory film right along with it, manages to revivify a cliché. It does so by making distinctions, by suggesting that people might get different things from a trip to the Mediterranean, depending on their readiness and their luck. Lucy Emerson, the heroine, gets a few surprises: she watches a man die in a public square and later is kissed in a field by impulsive George Emerson. Miss Lavish, a bad novelist, gets the locale and decor for a bad novel. Cecil, who becomes Lucy's fiancé once she returns to England, gets what he supposes is "subtlety."
Since it is only Lucy who has received anything really new, the false gifts are used to reveal the true one. Lucy has to see that Cecil is a confused and vague person rather than a masterful man of the world; it is his mockery of Miss Lavish's silly novel (which turns out to contain the incident of Lucy being kissed by George) that turns her away from her engagement at a crucial moment. The tale ends very satisfactorily with the right people marrying each other, after which they return to Italy for their honeymoon.
Needless to say that the plot is rigged: Forster assures us, quite frankly, that his characters are watched over by the Comic Muse. What makes one rigged plot better than another? As Lucy Honeychurch, lush Helen Bonham-Carter helps a lot. She struggles about somnabulistically, stunned by one violation of propriety after another. She is convincing in the role of a delicious young person whose passions have somehow been put to sleep or sublimated completely into art. As the clergyman Mr. Beebe observes, when Lucy starts living her life the way she plays Beethoven, there will be considerable excitement. And there is. Bonham-Carter is ever more delicious and ever more confused as her world collapses in on her. She becomes the center of something like an Edwardian psychomachia, a struggle for a soul articulated by several brilliant performances.
Maggie Smith as Lucy's frustrated aunt (and chaperone on the first visit to Italy) is particularly good, lean and drawn-out like a piece of anxious beef jerky; as Cecil, Daniel Day Lewis—less certain of what he wanted than he was as Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette—conveys the horror of his pseudosophisticated pose, so that we feel the character's sufferings as well as his imposition on Lucy; Denholm Eliot as the old Mr. Emerson is still playing Jarndyce of Bleak House, but why not? It suits him, and suits the part. I should add, for the prurient or the curious, that this film contains an extended interlude of full frontal male nudity straight out of the book.
The film I enjoyed most this summer was Labyrinth, presented in the ads as a creation of producer George Lucas, Jim Henson (of the Muppets), and aging English rock star David Bowie. Another important contribution comes from illustrator Brian Froud, who must have worked closely with Henson, but— as in the films considered above— no one's work is more fundamental than the scriptwriter's. In a recent monograph, Chaucer's Knight, Terry Jones argues that the supposedly noble knight of The Canterbury Tales is really a base mercenary. Jones' assertion is highly debatable, but his knowledge of medieval warfare is so thorough that he almost convinces the unwary reader (me).
Is this the sort of mind that could cook up a good fantasy film for children? Apparently it is. The underrated Monty Python and the Meaning of Life demonstrated that Jones had a considerable talent for organizing a miscellany of comic incidents; Labyrinth fulfills the promise of the earlier film. Jones draws considerably on Lewis Carroll; he manages to approximate the tone of the Alice books without ever borrowing directly from them. What we have here, in fact, is the first—and probably last—successful Carrollian film.
This is not to say that the film is exclusively based on Carroll; Jones is superb as a patcher-together of other people' ideas into a plausible whole. His plot works from a familiar fairy-tale premise. Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), a teenage girl jealous of a baby brother—or half-brother—is stuck one night babysitting the kid; she wishes out loud that the goblins would come and get him. They do. The baby, Toby, is the offspring of Brian Froud but—as attired in the fine striped red suit provided for him—appears to have been designed by Maurice Sendak, an eminence among contemporary children's illustrators.
Appropriately enough, our heroine is stuck in a situation reminiscent of Sendak: like the protagonist of his Higglety-Pigglety-Pop, she is given responsibility for an obnoxious child and almost—but not quite—allows him to perish (strictly speaking, to become a goblin). References to the film version of The Wizard of Oz also figure prominently; Sarah moves through a dream world which recalls her real life, picking up odd friends along the way. At the very end, M. C. Escher's labyrinth-pictures enter in too: the maze, which has been an endless alley, a network of caverns, a formal hedge-garden, and a forest (among other things) becomes one of Escher's mystifying and contradictory spaces where people seem to move in conflicting dimensions.
With all this baggage, however, the Alice atmosphere never gets lost. Though the girl and her parents are depicted as an American family, the labyrinth couldn't be more English and more Carrollian. Jones catches perfectly the feeling of Alice's dizzying progress. On first entering the labyrinth—at whose center she hopes to find the unfortunate Toby—she encounters a goblin gardener exterminating faeries with insect spray . . . and learns the hard way that he is quite right to be annihilating the nasty little things. (Cf. the odd excursus on insects and their deaths offered by the giant Gnat of Through the Looking-Glass.) There is the same strange mathematical dream-logic as in Alice, with Sarah at one point being called upon to solve a riddle of the "All Cretans are liars" variety.
The characters in the labyrinth are English eccentrics at heart and in voice, with Bowie—the goblin king—as a brooding Byronic eminence who terrorizes them all. (He acts this part well.) At one point we are allowed an overhead view of the labyrinth and see Sarah and Carroll's Red Knight almost bump into each other. At the last moment they take different turns—which is the film's way of saying that there are many possibilities within the maze, many threads that can be followed through it. Because Jones has the intelligence to imitate Carroll without parroting him, this kind of declaration is convincing.
Also convincing is the sexual subtext, with Bowie wooing our heroine: tempting her to think that she's a little older than she is. He wants to accomplish her imaginative seduction (at least). One issue in this labyrinth is thus the treacherous connection between fantasy and early teenage sexuality. This is a useful variant on Carroll's weirder sexual preoccupations. I can't recall another case where a great writer has been drawn upon so refreshingly in a movie. Jones brings Carroll into the twentieth century, an extraordinary accomplishment.
Henson and (if I recall correctly) Froud have done good work before in fantasy films; The Dark Crystal was a pleasure to view and would have been a pleasure to hear if only it hadn't been so schmaltzy. Our brilliant designers—not to mention our clever producers—have long needed some educated persons to work with them. These English films are wonderful not only because of the excellent scripts I have emphasized, and not only because of the skilled acting and art direction used to realize the scripts, but because there is in each case a genuinely literary intelligence conceiving and shaping the material. At the present moment intelligence of this kind is rare in the world of movies. And while literature and film have sometimes seemed as irreconcilable as England and film, just now the three categories seem to have merged. Perhaps, in the long run, it is this conjunction which will define the tradition of English cinema.