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The Grey

The Grey posterSynopsis

Set in Alaska in the snow and pine forests where wolf packs live.  Liam Neeson plays a rifleman who is hired by a petroleum company to hunt wolves that attack people.  He is a loner who longs for his wife and nearly kills himself.  He is on a plane with rough frontier people.  The plane crashes in icy wilderness and as Neeson uses his skills to become the leader facing down macho competition from the surviving group.  They all face death,,,


The film starts out with the stereotypically rugged loner with an emotionally difficult past, and he’s on a plane with familiarly rugged attitudes and faces you find in many westerns.  The plane crashes and I wondered if we were in for Lost with ice and snow.  Instead a very watchable film survived the early crash.  We have also seen lots of survival films in which the best and strongest guy prevails over the inevitable challenge to his natural authority.  When his leadership is contested we expect his rivals to be motivated by weakness and cynical self disappointment and The Grey has quite a bit of that  Then we get a creepy family man telling the group about his relationship with his family, this is the survival equivalent of the war film in which a soldier shows an enemy soldier his family photograph in order to establish his credentials as a human being under the uniform.  The Grey does all this but it works, after all what would people in extreme situations talk to one another about?  The simplified confrontations are used for the benefit of the film because of the limitations of time.  We wouldn’t pay to watch a film where someone just mumbles inanely in the snow for a couple of hours, would we? Come to think of it, that’s what we get in a lot of mainstream films anyway.

The Grey does a creditable job of steering us through and beyond the usual confrontational reliabilities:  winning over the sneering cynic, the sensitive guy dying, the bloody minded maverick who finally realizes he can’t make it without the others, the ritualized recognition of our animality (they eat a wolf’s carcass and one of the characters hacks off the wolf’s head in a sort of blood rite).  Throughout all this, Liam Neeson emerges as a monument of stern self reliance, his features like a bony mask of patience and suffering.  A sort of nature mysticism welds their solidarity in the face of icy wilderness and predatory wolves who stalk them.  When people face unwanted ordeals  of pain and endurance (like surviving in wildernesses and enduring childbirth) it shows the pathetically childish nonsense of machismo in stark relief, and people will suffer what they can the more reluctantly, the more heroically.  The Grey is at its best when it shows all this.  They have to get off a mountain by crossing over to the forest below and one of them falls and crashes into the trees hallucinating his daughter as he dies.  Their acceptance of probable death is what endows these otherwise unremarkable people with tragic heroism.  There is dark humour and then acceptance of death.  This reminded me of Jack London stories also set in the Alaskan forests.  Watching this film is a bit like studying a manuel for survival after a plane crash.  We learn that wolves have to be faced down in a confrontation, that the alpha wolf will send in a low status wolf to test the opposition.  Mercifully in The Grey we don’t hear about cannibalism or get any cannibal jokes, the main thing is to build a fire and eat the wolves.

A spectacular adventure.

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Posted by on February 8, 2012 in At the cinema, Film Reviews


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Made in Dagenham

Made in Dagenham posterSynopsis

About the 1968 strike at the Ford factory in Dagenham by women machinists who are declared unskilled labour.  They eventually fight for equal pay with men and they are led by the initially reluctant Sally Hawkins when Geraldine James steps down and accepts her as spokesperson.  The foreman is Bob Hoskins who is sympathetic to the women’s cause because he had to live on his mother’s wages and life was very hard.  They take their dispute to the management and the Michigan bosses find out about the strike and want it stopped.  Hawkins has trouble with her male chauvinist husband as well as with male chauvinist trade unionists and communist party bosses.  Geraldine James’ husband kills himself and this motivates James to join the striking women who make an impression at the TUC. conference, and then meet Barbara Castle who has to deal with American bosses and Harold Wilson.  In the end the women win and the Equal Pay Act comes out in 1970.


Watching this film aroused curiosity, nostalgia and embarrassment for me.  Curiosity because this is yet another film dealing with recent history and it shows the same faults as other films with similar ambitions.  It’s as if this takes its cue from soap operas of the time, turning characters into broadbrush caricatures.  Trade unionists and women act like TV- depicted so called ‘ordinary people’.  It’s almost a humorous soap opera parody of working life and betrays the same fascinated misperception that middle class Marxists were hampered with at the time.  We only see working people at moments which reassuringly illustrate their ordinariness: concern with money, sexuality, relationship with bosses and other workers as if there is no life beyond these cosy predictabilities.  We are in Mike Leigh country here, I half expected Timothy Spall or Jim Broadbent to come on, playing sturdy avuncular  figures.  It would have been better to have Ken Loach directing this, though I only have a little more time for Loach than I do for Leigh.  I think they have both made a career out of turning working people into noble savages.  Showbiz perceptions of working people and work at the time came from Coronation Street and Miriam Karlin in a comedy called The Rag Trade.  I worked in a couple of factories just after this 1968 strike and they were nastier places than this film shows.   In Made In Dagenham the factory floor is a sort of performance art industrial theatre where personalities clash in a vaudeville stunt, whereas in reality factories were monotonous.

Sally Hawkins plays a cockney sparrer, a bit like Poppy in Happy Go Lucky.  We see an early example of her bravery when she confronts the maths master who’s into corporal punishment (weren’t they all happy to cane pupils then?  Mine was).  Anyway her inarticulate decency hyperventilates like Billy Budd faced with Claggarts’ vileness.  Then she is the feminist hero confounding the chauvinist insecurities of her boring husband.  She gradually acquires articulate self confidence but it’s all done in a sort of moralistic heartwarming way, beloved of Hollywood.  It’s interesting that striking trade unionists can now be regarded as heroes.  Imagine trying to make such a film in the heyday of the strikes in the late 70s.  Of course, it’s now at a safe distance and we can all shed hypercritical tears for what’s quaint.  Hawkins gains that sentimental male approval beloved of patriarchs with a conscience, and I squirmed.  Rosemund Pike plays the Cambridge educated wife of one of the Ford managers and she develops covert sisterly sympathies with Hawkins.  It’s fascinating to see her suffering the patronizing imbecilities of her husband and it does concentrate the mind on how recent and still prevalent male stupidity was and is.  The problem is that this is all done in a jarringly moralistic way, it’s almost Dickension in its simple sentimentality.  Twenty first century audiences swallow this anodyne morality play and it amazes me.  Then there’s the jarring note of Geraldine James turning up with the strikers after she had pulled out because of her marital miseries with her mentally unwell husband.  It reminds me of the Comic Strip comedy team who did a Hollywood spoof on the miners’ strike.

Bob Hoskins did his usual rent-a-working-class stereotype, he’s been doing it since playing a Cockney soldier in Zulu Dawn.  Hoskins is likeable but too ready with the timely noble sentiment.  He is the cow eyed stalwart shedding a tear at the triumph of the just.

To remind us we are in the 60s we get the usual soundtrack of hits, and of course TV must be in black and white like in Life on Mars.  This film succumbs to the dramatic requirements which insist on cartoonish simplicity.  Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, gets her feistiness quite well.  John Sessions is good as the wearily pragmatic politician who had to keep the Americans happy, he plays Harold Wilson.  Did the women strikers see themselves as pioneering feminists?  The film certainly says so:  Hawkins puts her partner right about his claims to saintliness based on surrendering his lordly rights.

Where are the Marxists, the factory gate paper sellers and agitators?  They’ve been edited out, they’d get in the way of the feel good factor, wouldn’t they?  There is nothing about the wider political context.  The women are wheeled onto the public arena like Pocohontas paraded at the court of King James and the film seems happy with that trivialization..

This movie arouses nostalgia because it exposes, without meaning to, the cruel limitations of trade unionists.  There was no vision beyond a decent striving for any better life than the capitalists would grant.  Not really true to life then but occasionally entertaining and the acting is good.


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Posted by on July 10, 2011 in Film Reviews, Out on DVD


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