Suite Francais

This poster gives away a bit of the plot. She's cuddling zee German!

This poster gives away a bit of the plot. She’s cuddling zee German!

Warming to the wartime romance theme, the next film I decided to watch on my October round-the-world plane medley was Suite Francais, which despite the title was a Hollywood production. Michelle Williams what can I say? You are a most fantastic actress, and apart from the misguided “My week with Marilyn” this movie continues your fine form. The plot is ostensibly a romance between the lonely Lucille (Williams), who’s husband is a POW in Germany, and a lonely German officer (played by some German bloke) billeted with her and her scary mother-in-law (Kristen Scott Thomas playing it beautifully) in their pretty manor house. Really though the film is about how a close-knit community copes when an outside influence comes to bear (topical I think) and captures the class-ridden hierarchy of French village life very well. We all tend to think if the Nazis came to town and occupied us we’d be the heroes, blowing up railway lines and sabotaging the Onion soup etc, but this film shows it’s never that simple. It also shows that in order to resist effectively, you have to engage and collaborate with the oppressor to some extent. Just like in an office environment.

Another reason to watch this movie is that Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian only gave it 2 stars and said it was a bit dull. You know when he doesn’t like something it’s potentially good, as this is the film critic who gave the woeful god-bothering allegory “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” 5 stars. His review of Suite Francais is classic of the type with a series of breathtakingly stupid statements like: “The movie version’s final words sonorously remark that the war would continue for four more years – not something Némirovsky could have known.” The Nemirovsky he refers to is Irene, the original author of the novel on which the film is based, who died at the hands of the Germans in 1942. The manuscript was later found and only published in 2004 and is apparently worth a read. Presumably as a film critic Bradshaw is familiar with “adaptations” and “versions” and “screenplays” which kind of allow the film maker to do exactly what the fuck they like, whether for good or ill, and in this case they are clearly looking back with a bit of hindsight. Durrrrrrrr. Anyway, don’t worry about Bradshaw, watch the movie and the extraordinary way that Michelle Williams manages to be sexy without really being that sexy. The only thing I really didn’t dig was the mournful piano playing. I know it’s what brings them together but If I’d made the film I would have had them bonding over a card game or something, to avoid it.

“Testament of Youth” and “Ted 2”

Good actress & hottie, absolute hottie.

Hottie, absolute hottie.

I don’t go to the cinema very often in Singapore. There are few movies to watch, with the public only responding to children’s action films, usually involving a superhero, or men and women that illegally race cars on public roads in Nevada, Tokyo, and probably elsewhere.

The lead character in the average film shown at a Singapore cinema will look something like this.

The lead character in the average film shown at a Singapore cinema will look something like this.

That said the last film I saw in Singapore was ‘Everest’ which was exciting even though I knew the ending having read ‘Into Thin Air’. The cinema was empty as you would expect, given complexities like plot and character having to be absorbed. Moreover, “based on a true story” is probably the box office death knell for any film. What self-respecting adult wants truth, when flying CGI men in lycra bodysuits or gigantic robotic insects are available? Anyway I digress.

So how do I catch up with world cinema? Via one of Singapore’s finest institutions (well corporations really) Singapore Airlines. Long haul flights are the chance to watch anything half-decent I’ve missed, and delve into the magnificent world of European cinema. So on the way to SFO I watched 2 films. The first ‘Ted 2’ was truly dreadful…a kind of warmed up entrails of the first ‘Ted’. Seth Macfarlane hang your head in shame. The scene where the blonde lawyer girl wasn’t familiar with the Rocky franchise was quite funny admittedly. The improv comedy night scene where Ted shouts “9/11” and “the offices of Charlie Hebdo” was good also, but did not make up for the rest of the schmaltz, and tastelessness.

Wahlberg and Ted incredulous as it turns out there's not enough dope in the world to make their sequel funny

Wahlberg and Ted incredulous as it turns out there’s not enough dope in the world to make their sequel funny

So next i decided to go serious and watch Testament of Youth, an adaptation of Vera Brittain’s classic First World War memoir of the same name. Normally I’m skeptical of any film set in the First World War given the propensity for cliches, and overblown action sequences where whistles blow and honest men clamber into the field of fire, It’s not that that didn’t happen, but it’s been done, and Peter Weir’s Gallipolli is still the benchmark, 35 years on. However, a hot girl in the trailer playing the lead (Alicia Vikander) swayed me. And my Mum always told me to read the book which I never did so I felt like I should see what it was all about.

The cover of the 1980s paperback that my Mum tried to foist on me when I was too young to read about women.

The cover of the 1980s paperback that my Mum tried to foist on me when I was too young to read about women.

The plot is simple. in 1913/14 Vera, her brother and his mates are all on the verge of going up to Oxford, and life’s major problems consist of overbearing parents and being chaperoned by some fat woman when you go on a hot date. Needless to say, war creeps up in 1914 and all the lads say tally ho and off to France to fight the Kaiser’s evil Boche hordes. Our heroine Vera is left trudging off to Oxford, miffed that her beau John Snow Roland (Kit Harington) is no longer going to be there for some late night blue stocking hi-jinks. Incidentally, the cinematographer sets most of the Oxford scenes outside the Radcliffe Camera which is deuced odd, and clearly Somerville College was a lot prettier one hundred years ago, that’s all I can say.  When Vera realizes that it isn’t all going to be over by Christmas, she decides to leave Oxford to train as a nurse…and the rest is…well you’ll have to read the book or watch the movie.

Vikander with Vera Brittain's daughter Shirley Williams who became one of my Mum's favourite Labour ministers until she went all weird and joined the SDP. Picture courtesy of the Telegraph.

Vikander with Vera Brittain’s daughter Shirley Williams who became one of my Mum’s favourite Labour ministers until she went all weird and joined the SDP. Picture courtesy of the Telegraph.

It’s a real slow burner of a film, and gets better as it goes on. Vikander’s performance is understated and powerful, while the rest of the ensemble cast (Miranda Richardson, Hayley Atwell (mmmm!) Dominic West, Emily Watson) are very good. Only Harington disappoints for me, though I may be biased against him. Anyway, despite myself I enjoyed it and thought it was moving, and said alot more about the First world war than anything involving a horse as the main character. I’m much more likely to read the book now, and I know it’s a bloody thick book, so that’s something.