Movies are often designed to elicit emotions in their audience – the fear of the horror film and the joy of a comedy are examples of two genres which offer up efforts that aim to do their utmost in bringing about the desired feeling in the viewer.
Two genres that everyone is familiar with, and kin to the weepie, a type of movie often aimed at a female audience and deigned to tug the heartstrings via some doomed or troubled romance that usually, but not always, wins through in the end.
I like to think that I’m too cynical and knowing to fall for the obvious attempts of some movies to increase hankie use, but even I, stiff-upper-lip Englishman that I am, have found the tears welling up thanks to some films.
The majority of movies that have moved me have come about in the last few years – could it be that movies are getting more cutting, or am I just going soft in my old age?
The first film I remember leaving me in danger of wet cheeks was Dancer in the Dark, Lars Von Trier’s case against capital punishment which featured Bjork in her first and last starring role.
You do kind of expect that a film about a self-sacrificing, single mother, who is slowly going blind as she desperately tries to provide for her son before being unjustly sentenced to death, may try to elicit a response. And you’d be right. But what could have been a worthy but stodgy TV movie of the week in another’s hands, becomes, due to the direction of Von Trier and the influence of his Dogme background, a devastatingly intimate story that earns rather than forces its empathy from you. After the film finished, all I heard around me in the dark as the credits rolled were the snifflings of the Curzon Soho patrons penetrating the stunned silence.
Don’t hold the fact that it’s a musical against it.
Not long afterwards I caught a screening of the Grave of the Fireflies as part of a Studio Ghibli season at the Barbican. Directed by Isao Takahata, the co-founder of the studio alongside the better-known Hayao Miyazaki, the film tells the story of a brother and sister’s desperate struggle for survival when they are orphaned as a result of the Tokyo fire bombing in World War 2. The death of parents and children in peril are themes that are admittedly ripe for the cynical heart-string pluckers of the weepie world, but even though the body of translated anime offers few examples that transcend the realms of adolescent fantasy or romance, Fireflies succeeds in telling the tale with no little subtlety and care, allowing you to develop a real attachment to the children that would have been so hard to achieve with live actors and their fine line of schooled ability or unskilled naivety both potentially pulling you out of their world.
Again, a hushed auditorium punctuated by wet sounds as people dragged themselves, dazed, from their seats.
Alongside the films of Satoshi Kon that match live action cinema for their craft in storytelling, beauty and immersion, Grave of the Fireflies is one of the finest anime movies ever made.
No films got to me as deeply in the intervening years. Some like Seul Contre Tous, or Funny Games, succeeded in shaking me to the core so that I felt shaken for hours afterwards, but these weren’t sad films so much as a type of horror film that needs not rely on monsters and are all the more horrifying for it. United 93 also left me affected, as surprisingly for a film in which you know the entire plot from beginning to end beforehand it was and is the tensest film that I have seen in my life, but it didn’t push the same buttons.
Then last year came Children of Men.
I have spoken of this film before, and it is truly a film that deserves to be seen before you learn anything about it, but suffice to say it was the best film last year. I’ve written about it before (link), but it needs to be said that it not only brings you close to the characters so that you fear for them, but it says things about the world today that also cut me deep. Without giving to much away, after one of the most superlative scenes of the film (and, indeed, cinema) I had to literally fight back the tears for about ten minutes, such was the urge to just burst out sobbing. It is a truly affecting film and I would urge (again) that everyone who thinks themselves a fan of cinema owes it to themselves to see it. Looking back on what I’ve written, I suspected that I might have built it up too much.
But I haven’t.
Reign Over Me is an odd one. I initially resisted the idea of seeing it chiefly down to the casting of Sandler. I’d never actually, watched an Adam Sandler movie from start to finish before, so my dislike was firmly irrational, but that feeling was enough to have me avoid him until now.
After a favourable write up in Time Out, though, combined with my free cinema pass and a work related journey near one of the few cinemas screening the film, I decided to give it a shot.
The tale of a dentist bumping into the college roommate he has not seen in years, it revolves around the fact that his old friend, Charlie Fineman, lost his wife and kids to one of the planes used on the fateful day of September 11th 2001, and has retreated into an adolescent bubble ever since, aided by a huge compensation payout.
In part it seems a typical Hollywood offering, with schmaltzy sentiment and some skirting round the more difficult problems faced by the characters, but there is real warmth there, too, along with some great acting from Don Cheadle who shines in the lead role of the everyman Alan Johnson, a character that could so easily have been a bland foil to Sandler’s occasional Rain Man-esque histrionics. Jealous of Charlie’s freedoms, Alan feels trapped by his job and his family, and finds some release through his visits to his friend, but comes to realise that what he has is actually what he needs blah blah blah. Ably supported by Liv Tyler, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Saffron Burrows, with a brief but hearty cameo from Donald Sutherland, Reign Over Me manages to move almost despite the seemingly cynical origins of a film that seems designed to tug at America’s heart(land)-strings and provide Sandler with another crack at getting taken seriously with that whole acting thing.
Whilst Sandler is admittedly responsible for the scene that actually caused me to well up, be it from the power of ACTING or the situation of his character, it is nevertheless Cheadle’s movie and makes you wish that he wasn’t so often stuck in supporting roles, playing that second fiddle. Whilst certainly not one of the greatest movies dealing with grief, it’s worth watching for the Don alone.
It also has one of the greatest examples of movie product placement with Sony’s Shadow of the Colossus, rubbing your face in the fact that Charlie Fineman Has Retreated Into A Fantasy World.
Most recently though, it is the marvellous This Is England that has been worrying my tear ducts.
Set in 1983, Shane Meadow’s latest follows 12 year old, fatherless, Shaun, who gets picked on at school and generally has a rough time of things until he is welcomed into a gang of skinheads by Woody and finds happiness with his new friends and surrogate family. Inevitably this joy is short lived thanks to the return of Combo from a stretch inside, who quickly divides the group with nationalist speeches, and takes Shaun under his wing when Shaun decides he wants his dad’s death on the Falklands to mean something.
This Is England is an uncanny glimpse at early 80’s Britain risen from the dead, with every performance note-perfect and a devastating and gripping story despite the predictability of things all going wrong.
As Combo, Stephen Graham succeeds in the unenviable task of portraying a racist, thuggish skinhead as a three-dimensional character, but it is Thomas Turgoose who shines out as Shaun, exactly like a 12 year old boy from ’83, with that intangible mix of wisdom and innocence that films fail to capture with child characters again and again.
Even though you can see the events at the close of the film coming from a long way off this builds on rather than detracting its power, making for a searing and sobering experience.
A massive contribution to the emotion involved comes from early in the film where a few scenes of the gang together somehow seem to distil what it means to be friends, and is as touching as the tragedy that rears towards the end.
This Is England shares with A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes a wonderful naturalism from the performers, so that it never seems that you are watching a film with players but rather are catching a slice of people’s lives. This Is England joins the aforementioned films as some of the best British cinema has to offer and marks Meadows as a director to watch, if only to see how he plans to follow what he has achieved so far.
Best film of the year.