My last post (14 June) was about Little Dog for Roger (Malcolm Le Grice 1968) consciously going back to 1897 and the beginning of cinema. A day or two later I watched 45 Years (Andrew Haigh 2015), a strangled weepie about an old couple excavating a past event in their lives with great pain all round. The main reason to watch it was because it was set in Norfolk, UK, where I live, but it was stimulating enough to prompt serious reflections.
Once again I was struck by the conservatism of British narrative film. Here is a work that – quite unconsciously, as far as I can see – goes back to the first decade of cinema: plonk the camera down and turn the handle, and the actors will do the rest. This they do very well in 45 Years: Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay wear suitably crumpled expressions and weep beautifully. “Actors are trained to express complexities” (Ingmar Bergman) and they do. But you can only lament the wooden-ness of the camera work, a timidity in its use of different camera angles or of the moving camera. The film cries out for close-ups since at its dramatic core is the presence (in the attic*) of old photographs. They are used as projected slides in one sequence, effectively enough, but a photograph in the hand would be so much more rivetting.
And why not use close-ups of objects in the house to show what sort of people Geoff and Kate Mercer are. They like popular music from their youth: why not show some old record covers? Think of the opening of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, or even more remarkably, the tour of Norman Bates’s bedroom in Psycho. In Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale there is a marvellous sequence in which the camera travels round Culpeper/the glueman’s study, telling us a great deal about this mysterious character.
I blame Britain’s lively, or rather lofty theatrical tradition. We turn out so many good actors and actresses, all speaking comprehensible English, that directors feel exonerated from doing more than just put performances centre stage (although Hitchcock and Powell & Pressburger never felt this way). It’s all made worse by the current fad, at least in the UK, of streaming live dramatic performance on stage to local cinemas. The theatre strikes back, with a vengeance.
* It is a rule of narrative cinema that going into the attic or down to the cellar is dangerous, which is why it happens so often. I liked the idea of the attic containing, not a corpse, but old, ignored photographs with a potent charge.
note I write about the creative alliance between camera and set designers in ‘Film Past Film Future’, my e-book about creative aspects of the cinema, in chapter 10 ‘Interiority’. See http://bit.ly/FilmPastFilmFuture. Very cheap, incidentally.