Testament of Youth – Biography of Vera Brittain

Testament of Youth is a very moving film and we showed it on  wet November night that was just right for the viewing. It was our first experience of our brand new equipment, new projector, blu ray etc and we were delighted by it.

The Film was actually released as part of the World War One Commemorations. This is the story of our grandfathers and great grandfathers and its based on Vera Brittains memoir Testament Of Youth, which many of you will have read.  The book was first published in 1933, to great acclaim.   It was subsequently re published by VIrago in 1978.

You might wonder why not sooner, why not publish just after the War? But it was not until 1933 that Vera Brittain could work out how to write it, she’d tried a novel, tried a letters and journal form, but it was not till 1933 that she could find an appropriate way to express her experiences. She wrote it as a memoir and she went on to write testament of Friendship and Testament of Experience after that.

What is seminal about Testament of Youth is the fact that it stands alone a s a woman’s experiences of WW1. There were lots of accounts written by men, Edmund Blunden, Sassoon, Graves but nothing that tells us what women went through during that dark period. That makes it unique.

Vera Brittain did find a way forward, after her experiences and she did marry in 1925, and had two children, one of whom is the Liberal Democrat peer Shirley Williams. What was great for the film was that Shirley Williams helped on the set of the film and spent  time with the actress Aliia Vikander, helping her to understand and accurately represent her mother.

A first full length feature film for James Kent and what an achievemnt it is!    He was already an experienced documentary film maker and Tv director . He had seen the TV series ,  of Testament of youth in 1979 and he had been very arrested by it. His friend Juliette Towhide wrote the script and he says he felt  very lucky to be able to direct this new film version.  He also had the invaluable support of Mark Bostridge who wrote the biography of Vera Brittain.

Its hard to get your head around a world where women could not normally go to university and where even if they did, like Vera, who was one of the first group to go to Oxford, that they could not take a degree!! And then of course it was even more radical to leave that university and go and wok in the field hospitals in France in the war!

Huge praises go to Alicia Vikander- hardly ever seen before, one film credit to her name, and no doubt she is going to go on to a great career! James Kent said, “ we needed a remarkable actress to captture the range and complexity of Vera. Alicia has a great ability to express a wide range of emotions and she has a lot of discipline and a lot of grit. All Vera Brittain qualities!

I discovered an amazing local note!   Kit Harrington, who plays Roland, was at school at the Chantry and in school productions there and at Worcester Sixth Form College where he studied Drama d Theatre Studies!  He was in the TV series Games of Thrones, So Testament was a very different kind of challenge for him.  All the actors worked very very hard and the extras were Afghan veterans , from the Agency Amputees in Action.

The film settings are faithful to the book, London , Oxford , Uppingham School, and for railway buffs, the stations and interiors were shot at Keithley Railway station,  the trains were from the Worth Valley Railway and the landscape shots  are taken from the heritage track of the North York Moors Railway.

It has to be said, this film is NOT a dusty piece of history, its a fresh , personal and very moving testimony that speaks across the decades.

This is the week that we decide whether to bomb in Syria and extend the war . This made it  a more than fitting time to show this particular film. As Mark Bostridge had said of 1914, “It is all too easy for governments to drift into war…it imposes a terrible cost…we did go into Vietnam, we did go into Iraq..”  Vera Brittain showed the terrible cost of such decisons .

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“Greenfingers” – 23 May

This proved to be an ideal May party film and everyone enjoyed it. The story is loosely based on a true story of prisoners at Leyhill Minimum Security prison in the Cotswolds. For the lat 10 tears or so , inmates have been gardening- part of the return to work programme . They have exhibited at Hampton Court Flower Show, winning the coveted Tudor Rose completion one year for their garden called “Take a walk on the wild side” and winning a Gold Medal at Chelsea for their display called “Time the Healer”.

American director Joel Hershman- who confesses to not even having a window box – heard the story of the Chelsea win and got permission to interview the prisoners and make the film. He was helped by none other than Rosemary Verey, the grand dame of garden Designers- and by the RHS itself. He was given Rosemary Verey’s garden and house to use in the film. Helen Mirren , who based her character on Verey, said she loved the idea of the Americans gently sending up the autocratic great ladies of the British gardening establishment.

Hershman sais he “loved the idea of all those macho guys working with fowers.” . He added that if he had just heard this story he would have considered it way too sentimental but “ what gives it poignancy and meaning is that its true. ”His budget for the film was very tiny, but producer Trudi Styler- wife of Sting_ persuaded her friends, Elton John and Bruce Springstein, to allow their music to be used in the film at low cost , a very tight rein had to be kept on the purse strings, and the film got made. The RHS hosted the premiere when it came out in London and the Governor, inmates and staff had a special showing of their own.

The Main actor, Clive Owen, was voted by Empire as on the hundred sexiest male stars. He’s had an up and down career, as actors most often do, mixing some Hollywood with stage work and even periods doing adverts! His method of acting he says, is to make maximum use of his eyes, he feels the eyes should be the most expressive part of an actor. And he likes to play characters who are a mix of good and bad. So this role was perfect for him!

It’s a film about second chances in life and its message is really that “anything can happen to anyone at any time, so long as you find something you’re devoted to”. The critics were sniffy about the film, so, as it was the night of the Eurovision Song Contest, we awarded them “ nul points”!.

Greenfingers is a film of warmth, humour and gardens…. What’s not to like, as they say!

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Boy – Saturday 18th April

This film was an interesting choice, made by one of our audience, and it scored highly in the voting system last summer. It’s very unusual, very little known. I wonder how many people in the UK have ever had a chance to see it and I suspect not many. Boy is a small budget New Zealand film. Perhaps the only other NZ film that most of us know is Whale Rider (2003), a film about a 12 year old girl.

Boy has been a huge success in NZ and other parts of the world. It earned more on its opening day than any NZ film ever! And it now counts as the most successful NZ film ever made.

The director Taika Waititi , also known as Taika Cohen, has a fascinating background. His mother a European Jew and his father Maori. He comes from the rural East Coast of NZ and spent his childhood in Waihau Bay. This is where the film is set, apparently a problem to shoot in the Summer as there are so many tourists! He has made one short film before Boy, it’s called Two Cars, One Driver, then there was our film Boy in 2012 and in 2013 he directed a vampire comedy “What we do in the Shadows”.

This director is also a stand up comedian, actor, (he stars in Boy as the father), photographer, and fashion designer.

Boy is set in an isolated Maori village, a very poor and deprived place, a place of fractured families, kids left to grow up on their own, in an impoverished culture that is infiltrated by global/US pop culture. Boys are called Falcon Crest, Dallas and Rocky and one of the girls is called Dynasty! Set in the 1980’s Boy himself has an obsession with Michael Jackson. We still do learn a lot about Maori culture in the film but with this overlay of Americanisation.

In terms of technique, the film is unusual, playful and very inventive. There are fantasy/animation sequences interlaced. We are meant to see the world through the eyes of the children, to be immersed in their perspective and this quirky inventive technique gives us this.

There’s a great performance by 12 year old James Rollason. James was an extra on the set until noticed by the director and elevated to the main role two days before the shooting started. Most of the other actors are non-professionals, and most are local kids from the area.

So, this film is offbeat, quirky, emphatically not a blockbuster and very original. It has in it lots of emotional truths, it serious stuff, but yet it’s a warm and cheeky comedy!

The film starts with a quote from ET – “you could be happy here. We could grow up together.” Growing up is a major theme, as is Responsibility, as is Friendship. And it is the kids who have these qualities more than the adults!

One critic summed it up by saying it’s a “tiny, charming, perfect coming of age film, set in the Bay of Plenty” There was a lot to like!!

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Marius – 21 February 2015

Everyone loved this film!

In a way, it has two “histories”: the “real” one and the Little Witley one!

For the real one, we can say that the film Marius is the first part of Daniel Auteuil’s re make of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille Trilogy of plays.  It was released on the same day as his Part Two, which is entitled Fanny and the director is still shooting the last part , Cesar.   Pagnol was France’s great twentieth Century dramatist, playwright and novelist.  He actually wrote the screenplay for the first films of his plays , and the result was directed by Alexander Korda in 1931. I believe there was another as well , a later Hollywood remake by MGM in 1961,  with big stars, Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron, and it is said, a “lot of noisy French peasant types”!  Somehow, I don’t find myself rushing to see this last one!

Daniel Auteuil, who directs and stars in this 2013 Marius, is ” acting royalty” in France. He has been immersed in the work of Pagnol for some time, as an actor  and he is in close touch with the Pagnol Family who are pleased to support his films.  Born in Algeria,  he moved as a child to the South of France, and he has total attachment to Provence. And that means he has the right accent when it comes to the films.!

And so for the Little Witley background: we have enjoyed a series of great French films, so Marius is part of this. We saw The Baker- set in Provence, then Conversations with My Gardener, starring the same two principal actors as in Marius- Auteiul himself and Pierre Daroussin- and recently we saw The Well Digger’s  Daughter, a Pagnol tale directed by  Aueuil   with himself and Daroussin again in the key roles. So for Little Witley the key question is will we vote for the next two instalments of the Trilogy? What actually happened at our showing was that everyone wanted to see Fanny “tomorrow”!, so there doesn’t seem to be any doubt which way the voting will go.

Marcel Pagnol’s tales tend to have certain key ingredients: proud and rather dictatorial fathers, bright and rebellious children. an acute observation of the ways and mores of what Pagnol termed the “lower, poorer class”, an an overarching theme of the fundamental importance of human  bonds. The story of Marius is no exception.

The plot of Marius is slight- and there are no prizes given for knowing what will happen!    A period piece, set in the 20’s,   the shooting style  is almost deliberately theatrical. It is set in what one critic called the “Marseille of our imagination”, very beautiful to look at. The tone  is light yet underneath it all there is a deep seriousness.  I wondered if this tone has perhaps something very French in its quality .  There is lots of humour. And at the end, as Marius leaves Fanny to go to sea, he sails away, to  Charles Trenet ” la Mer”.

This film has been rightly termed “sweet and old fashioned” and a “sweet natured joy” . Like everyone else in Little Witley, I can’t wait for the next one!

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WALK THE LINE 24 January 2015

This 2005 film is loved by aficionados of the singer Johnny Cash. It charts his early life up to his famous on stage proposal of marriage to June Carter. Most of the story details are true, the director James Mangold having collaborated closely with the famous pair on the script. The children of Johnny Cash and his first wife objected to the portrayal of their mother however, and accordingly two scenes that were not flattering to her, were respectfully removed. Even given this excision, Rosanne Cash declared it was still “like having a root filling without the anesthetic”! It must have been hard for the real life first family who were abandoned, to see themselves represented in a film. Johnny and June sadly died before the film was released. You can see them on You Tube at various points in their lives. The couple  stayed together for the rest of their lives and died within a few months of one another.

So in the film we see Johnny, born on a poor Southern farm, with a rough father and a supportive mother, the death of his brother, the army, the first attempts at songwriting, and the finding of the real “honest raw emotion in a song” that went on to make him famous, the addictions to prescription drugs and alcohol and his survival of this.

For me, and many others, the truly amazing thing about this film , is the acting performances, especially that of Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, although Reese Witherspoon was the one to actually claim the Oscar for her performance as June. Phoenix had been invited to dinner at the Cash home, as Johnny wanted to meet him and to say how impressed he was by his acting. They got on well, though the idea for a film came later. When the idea of a biopic of Johnny surfaced, he very much approved Joaquin Phoenix for the role.

What is astonishing is that everything you hear o the soundtrack is Phoenix and Witherspoon. Both actors worked phenomenally hard to get the right sound. They took up instruments that were new to them, and Phoenix wrote his own songs, in order to understand the songwriting process of Cash, he listened to Johnny Cash singing all the time, read everything there was to read. He said, “ I knew I didn’t have to sound like Cash, but I certainly had to know how he felt when he was singing”. He even created a huge tension in the Folsom prison scene by forcing the crew to act as extras and denying them food, drink and toilet breaks during the takes. Notoriously hard to direct, Joaquin Phoenix commented “ I abandon my life when I work” No personal life is allowed to intrude upon his work. And the result is an amazing intensity in his acting  performance.

Having said this, most people feel that his singing IS uncannily VERY like that of Cash himself ! The well known critic Roger Egbert commented.” I know all of Cash’ albums by heart but I was gobsmaked by the singing of the two of them, especially Phoenix. I closed my eyes and I’m convinced that it is JC himself that I am listening to. And they give off such sexual heat between them that you wonder they don’t burst into flames!  When the movie ends you are astonished to realize that everything on the soundtrack is coming from these two actors”!”

Phoenix own life and background is worth googling! Raised by hippie parents, his other name is Leaf Phoenix,  he has siblings called Rain, River, , (who sadly died of a drug overdose) , Liberty and Summer. They all took part in talent contests as children and they were actually discovered by a Hollywood agent. The careers of each are very arresting. Stories of Joaquin’s own alcohol problems are legendary, including being rescued by the famous German film director Werner Herzog, when he had overturned his car.

He has already had great career as an actor, specially noted for example, for his performance of Commodus in Gladiator, but he is also a well know activist in social issues and humanitarian projects. He is part for example of an organization called Lunchbox which helps to feed children in the South African Townships, and it has to be said, he is famously  difficult to interview!

Its been a delight to listen to Johnny Cash and June Carter again, and specially interesting to compare their voices  with  those of Phoenix and Witherspoon. This film gave lots of us the excuse, if we needed one, to revisit songs we remember and have loved for years!

So, a good choice Little Witley Voters!!!

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Grand Budapest Hotel – 15th November


This film proved to be a “romp”! A very artful one and one that constantly has its tongue firmly in its cheek.  It was written and directed by Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr Fox, Rushmore) , a director who is usually interested in the US aristocracy but in this film he turns his attention to presenting the old Central European aristocracy.

GBH is a British German co production.  Anderson based his film on the writings of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian novelist, playwright and journalist in the 20,s and 30,s. Zveig was in fact the most translated Viennese author of his day in the world, though he is relatively unknown today. The themes of his writings have to do with denouncing the conventions of society, lambasting sexual repression, and they are underpinned with a constant fear of anti Semitism. In fact, as a Jew and feeling under threat, Zweig eventually fled from the Nazis, going to Brazil where he eventually died.  Wes Anderson loved his book “Beware of Pity” and was also very much moved by Zveig’s autobiography,  “The World of Yesterday”. In this autobiography, the writer describes an old gracious world that is in process of being lost. This sense of loss and an era passing is very much the spirit of the film. Zweig himself, called “ the author”, is represented as a statue at the outset of the film, and then he is shown as a character, played by Jude Law.

GBH is a film is full of stars, to the extent of the audience being able to play “spot the star”! This may be particularly difficult with regard to Tilda Swinton who reputedly had to spend 5 hours in the makeup department for her part! The filming took place in Saxony, in a studio in Berlin and in a 1910 department store which boasted a huge atrium, which became the lobby of the Grand Hotel in the film. Not many of these stores had survived World War One.  Wes Anderson studied and visited lots of old grand European hotels, including the grand Hotel Gellert in Hungary. He had actually seen, during his searches, a pink hotel in Carlsbad in Czechoslovakia and that became his vision for the hotel in the film.

When we see exterior shots of the Grand Budapest Hotel in the film,  what we are seeing is a model, so the result is meant to be artificial, almost like a wedding cake, certainly like a picture taken out of a fairy tale. Sometime after the films release, a model was actually made out of Lego, some 50,000 pieces being used and the whole thing measuring  7 feet by 5 and a half feet across!

The settings in the film do look artificial but some things are real : there does exist a real group of high-class concierges who come from across Europe to meet and who call themselves The Golden Key. Wes Anderson went to meet them and actually picked their brains about life in Grand Hotels in the past and today!

The style of “ Grand Budapest Hotel” is really unique. For example there are three different aspect ratios used, one for each time period that is depicted. And ndeson clearly took great delight in all the precise details of each period, the exact perfume, the manufactured newspapers, the cakes, the renaissance painting which was commissioned specially for the film and painted by Michael Taylor.

GBH is endlessly inventive. The director clearly loves old movie devices, like elaborate chases, hairbreadth escapes, flashbacks, an old man telling a story to a young man. He is just having a great time!

The music is playful too, constantly changing: it changes from Russian folk songs, to full orchestral works, flamenco guitars, church organs, a harpsichord, a musical box and a Swiss folk song!

Yet despite all this inventive and self conscious artifice, the film is deceptively thoughtful. Central Europe was indeed destroyed by Nazism, then by communism. There is a sort of doom and deep sadness that underlies the wit and humour. We do see a highly civilized world and we also see a world that becomes barbaric. One critic called GBH “ confection with bite”, which seems very apt.

Out of all this shines the performance of Ralph Fiennes. His acting is clever and subtle, stylized when it needs to be and yet full of feeling at other moments. You can only admire as well his rapid verbal delivery!

The film team, actors and crew all loved working on GBH. They worked communally, no special caravans for stars, they all ate together, and indeed apparently they all had a great time!

So what do we have, in the end? A film that is clever, self-conscious, very film literate, highly inventive, and surprisingly thoughtful. The Guardian critic called it “ magnificently cockeyed”. That sums it up well. The word that kept coming to my own mind was “impish”! It is constantly impish!

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“Saving Grace” Film Notes – September 2014

“Saving Grace” was a real hit with the Little Witley audience for the September opening night in the village hall.

It occurred to me while preparing this introduction that this film is set in a small village which is full of loveable and eccentric people with harmless roguish behaviour and the only REAL rogues are in London and they are FRENCH!!  (of course) And well… don’t we recognise this??  Isn’t this Little Witley!!

The famous film critic, Roger Ebert answered his own question “do such places exist?” by saying that he HOPED so. Actually, WE know they DO…

This film most reminds me of an Ealing Comedy, an updated one..with crooks held in check by handbag wielding old ladies…— just as we used to see in the Ladykillers

And the old English teacher left in me , must think too, of Thomas Hardy’s chorus of Rustics…a group of dotty and loveable eccentrics

The film is in the direct film tradition of lots of British film comedies… Local Hero, Brassed Off, calendar Girls…and even Whisky Galore from back in the 40,s.

Saving Grace is directed by Nigel Cole , on a very low budget  and you’ll be pleased to know that on the day of its release, it took one-tenth of the takings of Gladiator…! That seems pretty good to me.  It did very well in the US.. Not a surprise.. And Martin Clunes actually starred in two prequels made later for tv by Bsky B. these tv films are about Dr Bamford leaving London and finding a new life in Cornwall… with all sorts of ups and downs as you can imagine.

A treat is that its filmed in Cornwall…St Isaacs I think and Boscastle. and there are a host of well know actors here too.  Brenda Blethyn is the star of course…She didn’t get well known until the 90,s… having started out working for British Rail, but then she broke through with films like Secrets and Lies, Little Voice, Vera..etc.and lots and lots of TV

So one vital question is left to us…… what about the PLANTS…which of course look, and are, very REAL. The British Government I am told, had to give permission for the film crew to use 150 marijuana plants but under  close supervision from the authorities!   SO the plants had to have someone guarding them when on the set.. and watching over their transportation at night to a nearly” storage facility”

But then of course this film WAS made in year 2000… such a long time ago!!

And..Keep an eye out for the two film blunders…something else to watch out for.

Finally here is the crowning accolade: normally as we know, Art imitates Life

HERE it is exactly the reverse… in July2012 ,  reported in the Telegraph, as one of only two recored crimes in Port Gaverne in Cornwall, 500 marijuana plants were seized…from two fisherman’s cottages which had heavy curtains over the windows, and whose human  inhabitants had been rarely seen

An “unmistakable sweet, sickly smell”  was noticed in nearby gardens and people were reported to be getting high while digging their vegetable  patches..INDEED, an organised criminal gang,  seeking a quiet corner of the county , had picked a small village in Cornwall where they would find no disturbance

SO this film you’d have to say, in the end, is a veritable School for Scandal!

other than this, and judging by the peals of laughter in the village hall last saturday,  we all agreed on the night , that it was “sweet, silly, sincere and FUN”

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