And now, Agora

agoraLets talk film connections… well, here’s an example of one anyway- having watched Oliver Stone’s Alexander a few nights ago, I followed it up with another film set in the Ancient World- Alejandro Amenabar’s magnificent Agora. The connection is simple enough:  Alexander closes with Ptolemy an old man in the city of Alexandria in 285 BC, a centre of learning with a library that has teased and bewitched historians and academics for centuries regards the treasures it held within. Agora returns us to the Library of Alexandria in 400 AD, or thereabouts, and concerns the destruction of what remains of the library and how it ties into the fate of Hypatia, one of the most famous women of the ancient world who was killed by a Christian mob – perhaps a key event that signalled humanity descending into the Dark Ages. I think its a great film -much better than Alexander, by the way- and am always frustrated by how it seems to have slipped under most peoples radar. I don’t know if its relative obscurity is because its an independent, European film with limited distribution channels (I had to import a French Blu-ray several years ago to see it) or something down to its rather negative viewpoint of religion and early, formative Christianity in particular. I’d urge anyone who gets the opportunity to give Agora a watch.

Regards historical films. Does one judge Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus by its historical accuracy, or by whether its a great story well told? Should one disparage Oliver Stone’s Alexander because of his artistic license regards real events or academic debate, or just take it as a great romantic yarn about a major historical figure? Films are products of their time, and Spartacus is clearly a 1950s film and Alexander clearly a film with modern sensibilities concerned with the tensions between West and East that continue to dominate political discourse. Should any concern regards historical accuracy impact what one thinks of either film? How far can one go with historical accuracy before it lessens the entertainment value or dramatic qualities of a film?

agora2As far as I can tell, Agora is surprisingly accurate regards the events it portrays. Its Alexandria is a city in decline, with the Roman Empire on the wane, its pagan culture and Gods fading away to the steady rise of Christianity. There is a real feeling of change, the close of one era and the beginning of another. The Library of Alexandria has at this point been reduced to what scrolls remain in the Serapeion, a complex part Temple, part University, which is presumably a pale shadow of the Library’s earlier glory. Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) is a philosopher who teaches there and works to make some sense of humanity’s place in the universe- she looks up longingly at the stars, trying to make sense of them, reaching for the perspective that the camera gifts us with our Gods-Eye views of the world (which I’ll come to later). I understand that the film largely exaggerates her intellectual prowess and what she discovers, but in most other respects it seems very fair to her and largely accurate. She feels like a very modern woman, independent, not needing the company or love of a man (rejecting overtures from a student) or feeling it necessary to fulfil the usual tasks of a woman. While not a Christian (the film infers she was, perhaps unsurprisingly as a scientist and philosopher, also an atheist) she had freinds who were Christians, most notably Orestes (Oscar Isaac), the Roman prefect of Egypt whose friendship caused her downfall as it made her a target of Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria who was feuding with Orestes for control of the city.  

I consider Agora a simply magnificent film and one of my favourites of the last twenty years. I think its beautifully well-made, looking absolutely convincing with excellent art direction and wonderful sets, featuring a very good cast, which also includes Max Minghella and Rupert Evans. Rachel Weisz as Hypatia in possibly the actresses finest role. Agora can be seen as a very sobering, even quite depressing film with a rather negative view of humanity, religion and Christianity in particular- moreover, how religion, or especially religion, suffers from very human failings such as intolerance and tribal politics. There is a sense of seeing humanity at its very best, but also at its very worst. I think the film has something to say, and says it very well. There is a real sense of perspective offered by the film, regards our place in the cosmos, our fragility, and how transient and unimportant our human concerns can seem: at certain times the film literally gifts us a Gods-Eye view of events, seeing the Earth from space and in some shots sweeping down from  a global view to gradually close in on the North African shoreline and further down to street level. At other times he camera rises up from scenes, almost reducing people to ants in the landscape. Its an almost revelatory suggestion of time and space and history made tangible, and quite intoxicating.

agora3In 1980 I learned of the Library of Alexandria through Carl Sagan’s Cosmos tv series, when through the magic of miniature effects and video compositing Sagan walked through the halls of the library talking about all the books and essays lost to us forever when it was burned down in the 4th Century AD. Sagan was a great populariser of science but tended to romanticise; the Library of Alexandria he walks through is glorious, huge; just how much of the library was even left by the 4th Century AD when Hypatia lived is open to debate among historians. Sagan cites the library’s destruction as the onset of the Dark Ages, that it lost to us all the works within, but in truth, no written texts from the Ancient world could have possibly survived to the present day even had the library not been sacked and burned. Its a point raised by Oliver Stone in his Alexander commentary that the memoirs that Ptolemy is seen writing about Alexander, telling us his story, did not survive and were lost to antiquity, ensuring that Alexander would remain an enigma to us. Preserving ancient works would have entailed copying them, repeatedly over long centuries and so many generations, over and over, with subsequent danger of embellishment or editing. Books and scrolls were on papyrus, and individually handwritten/copied, not printed. So it was never likely any of those ancient works could have lasted a few centuries (Ptolemy’s memoirs probably being lost before even Hypatia’s day), never mind millennia to the present day; but Sagan was right about the sense of tragic loss and the period of enlightenment shattered by barbarian hordes pulling humanity down into the Dark Ages. That being said, Hypatia of course sees nothing wrong with having slaves, so even that sense of ‘enlightenment’ that Sagan eulogised should be questioned.

 

The Favourite

fave2My issues with this film are many, but perhaps best exemplified by the image above; examples of the chapter headings that run through the film. I gather its a design approach that ran through the films advertising and poster design. To say its irritating would be an understatement, particularly as this is applied to the credits/titles that bookend the film. I’ve attached this snapshot here  of some offave the end-credits (apologies for the quality but I did it on the spur of the moment). This film is so hellbent on ‘saying’ something, and being needlessly sophisticated at it, that it even manages to reduce simple credits to almost hieroglyphic quality; at some points quite indecipherable. No doubt somebody (the director?) is chuffed with themselves regards how clever and edgy and different it all is but it infuriated me throughout. The Favourite seems to be one of those films that has a ‘message,’ which is fine, but then labours that message in as obtuse a way as possible. I would imagine its one about how power corrupts, or how three women trying to survive/thrive in a mans world are forced to turn upon one another to do so. Its not lost on me how the women are pretty much portrayed as decent (at least initially until that power thing sets in) and intelligent and all the men as venal and stupid, but hey ho its the times we are living in, that stuff sells now. It certainly wins awards at any rate.

The soundtrack, and much of the sound design in general,  is appalling. At one point towards the end I actually paused the film thinking either a plane was going to crash nearby or my central heating was about to explode, but instead it was some rising dramatics in what apparently qualifies as the score. What were they thinking? Well its just the same as those credits, being ‘sophisticated’ for the sake of it, and arthouse sensibilities disappearing up its own navel. Ridiculous.

If I were looking for positives, well, the performances from the leads, particularly Rachel Weisz, are very good (I’m a bit conflicted on Emma Stone, if I’m honest). I have written before regards good period dramas being pretty much like science fiction films, to me, in that they offer other worlds, the past as genuinely foreign to us as any imagine future. The settings are convincing but appear quite alien, the characters look and act in alien ways, following strange social etiquette and demonstrating odd belief-systems and traditions… its all very, well to labour a point, very alien and this film manages that with its slightly screwed representation of 17th Century England. I found this part of it quite appealing and enjoyed the strangeness of it all, as I often think film-makers trying to create a compelling and convincing ‘future world’ would do well to examine the example of good period-set films. I think its something David Lynch did well in the 1984 Dune and of course Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner succeeds so well largely because of its nods to 1940s fashions and film noir.

On the whole though all the artifice in this film turned me off, which is annoying because I think ultimately all that style for the sake of it and arthouse nonsense ill-served the leads, who deserved better.

The Mercy

It is impossible, frankly, to write about this film without spoilers. It just cannot be done. That being said, it is arguable that the very idea of spoilers here is ridiculous, considering anyone can Google the name of Donald Crowhurst. My recommendation is don’t do it. Refrain from any such temptation, and watch this film first, as I did (and of course, don’t read any more of this post until you have)

mercy2So if you’re still here, I’ll assume you have either seen the film, have no interest in ever doing so, or already know the tragic story of Donald Crowhurst, a very human story of a flawed man who became his own undoing. I should begin by stating that Johann Johannsson brought me here, not the first time the late Icelandic composer brought me to a film that he had worked on, but sadly possibly the last. I only knew of The Mercy because its soundtrack was the last to be released prior to his sudden passing, and Johannsson was possibly the last film composer whose soundtrack albums I would buy heedless of the film or music itself. The music did not disappoint, with new material and old it teased a sombre and moody film.  I must say, having now seen the film, it is clear that Johannsson was the perfect choice for the film’s score- the music is typical of the composers work- intimate, fragile, tender, mournful, yet enlightened with moments of joy.

Which is where, I suppose, we now come to the film itself. As I have stated, I came to the film knowing nothing about the true story behind it- I only knew that it was some kind of sailing adventure, perhaps one of those stirring and daunting nautical tales of man against nature, likely similar to the film All is Lost. Well, I was both right and wrong.

The story, part mystery, part tragedy, is well known, apparently- though naturally it was new to me. Donald Crowhurst  (played here by Colin Firth) was a failing businessman and amateur yachtsman who took part in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race of 1968, a competition to be the first person to sail nonstop single-handedly around the world. Crowhurst was not a good enough sailor, was under-prepared, underfunded, handicapped by a boat that was unfit for purpose- but incredibly the competition did not scrutinise entrants for sufficient experience or ability. Crowhurst’s attempt was hopelessly doomed, but haunted by the threat of bankruptcy and ruin (his financier held Crowhurst’s house as collateral if he failed to finish the race), he stayed out at sea for 240 days and attempted to hoax the press and public that he’d managed the circumnavigation. Crowhurst believed that if he could convince, through fake log-books, that he had managed the voyage, if one of the other entrants won, he would not come under any scrutiny. His schemes unravelled when the majority of the other competitors dropped out during the daunting race and when it seemed that he would succeed in the setting of the fastest time, he realised he was undone and could not maintain the lie under the scrutiny of winning. While thousands, including his wife Clare and his children, waited his triumphant return home, Crowhurst could see no way out. Radio contact ended, Crowhurst disappeared, and when his trimaran was found, derelict in the mid-Atlantic under a single sail, there was no sign of him, and the log-books that he had left revealed a tale of a tragic fall into desperation and madness, a descent into oblivion.

mercy1The story of the failed hoax, when it broke, proved to be a huge scandal, but The Mercy wisely raises above just that story, and tells us about the flawed, driven individual who loved his family but whom fate and hubris drove him to tragedy (and left his wife and children to face the fallout). While it starts all light and positive, it takes a very dark turn that was quite unexpected by me. Indeed, its one of the most depressing films I have seen in quite awhile, but nonetheless a fascinating one. Colin Firth is very good at portraying the best in Crowhurst, perhaps less so in showing his failings. Inherently Firth has too noble a screen persona and while this ultimately works against the film it does mean the eventual twist and downfall is possibly all the more shocking. Rachel Weisz as his wife Clare proves to be the heart and soul of the film, albeit she is perhaps too beautiful, too perfect? Well, that’s an issue I have often found with Weisz, as she usually gravitates towards very normal, ordinary characters in her film choices, but here it raises the question of what fool of a man could ever leave this idyllic wife and mother of his children for a dangerous journey risking life and everything? As usual, David Thewlis is excellent: here playing the dubious, provincial hack reporter Rodney Hallworth, who was hired as publicist and whose hype and tall tales fanned the flames of race fever that would eventually drive Crowhurst to foolish ruin.

Its a very sober tale of the human condition, I thought, and I found this film to be both riveting and horrifying, frankly, especially as I had no idea of the story’s dark denouement. Carried along by the beautiful light and darkness of the music of Johann Johannsson, with all the poignancy that his own passing itself entails, I found this to be a very fine film. It feels very much like an anxiety-dream,  a terrible fall into hopelessness and quite harrowing.

The Mercy is currently available on Amazon Prime, and on DVD and Blu-ray.