- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (15/7/2022)
(Reviews of The Return of the Railway Children; The Good Boss; and Ode to the Spring)
Despite rising Covid levels, it's safe(ish) to presume that cinema-going is still a thing - even in perilous temperatures. Thankfully, however, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.
THE RETURN OF THE RAILWAY CHILDREN.
For two lucky siblings, The Railway Children (1970) will always conjure memories of a pale blue Dansette, positioned between two bedrooms on a Wirral landing, playing an LP containing scenes from Lionel Jeffries's delightful adaptation of Edith Nesbit's 1905 novel. The film itself came back into focus when it started appearing on television, which is where the story of three children forced to relocate from London to Yorkshire after their father's arrest had first appeared in BBC serialisations made in 1951, 1957 and 1968.
Jenny Agutter played Roberta Waterbury in the latter small-screen version and the 1970 feature. She also took over from Dinah Sheridan in the role of Mother for Catherine Morshead's 2000 remake. Now, she's back as Grandma Bobbie in Morgan Matthews's The Railway Children Return, which is set during the Second World War and brings a gaggle of Mancunian evacuees and an African-American deserter to the picturesque West Riding village of Oakworth.
Seen off by their nurse mother, Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton) and Ted Watts (Zac Cudby) leave Salford by steam train in 1944. As there are no toilets aboard, Lily pulls the communication chord and pinches a bar of chocolate from the officious evacuation officer. They are greeted at their destination by the local headmistress, Annie Clark (Sheridan Smith), her son, Thomas (Austin Haynes), and her mother, Bobbie (Jenny Agutter). As no one else is willing to take them in, the siblings are squeezed into a single bedroom at Three Chimneys.
Despite Bobbie's reassuring welcome, they find it hard to sleep on their first night, with Lily thinking about her father going away to fight. Thomas's father is with the RAF in France and he forges an immediate bond with the newcomers after they slip in some mud while collecting eggs. However, Georgie Duckworth (Joseph Richards) and his pals from St Mark's resent having interlopers in Oakworth and they chase the quartet into the railway sidings, where Thomas has established a hideout in a disused locomotive. Lily refuses to be cowed by bullies, however, and subjects Georgie to some nostril stretching.
On the day Annie receives a telegram, the children make a mess baking bread and decide to lay low. They play hide and seek in the sidings and Pattie finds a stranger in Thomas's hideout. She tells the others and they meet Abe McCarthy (Kenneth Aikens), a Black GI, who informs them that he is on a secret mission that has to be kept secret. He asks them to bring a bandage for his leg wound and Lily sneaks out at bedtime with some supplies.
As she is making her way towards the engine, a bomb is dropped by a plane returning to Germany and Lily is knocked unconscious. Bobbie comes to investigate and is horrified to find a burning crater in the cemetery where her brother, Peter, is buried. Abe takes Lily to the cab and tends to a wound on her forehead. She dresses his leg and learns about Abe's older brother being killed by the Nazis. It's clear that Abe has enlisted underage, but Lily agrees to keep his secret and help him catch a train to Liverpool.
Returning home after visiting Abe, the children see some white military policemen clubbing another Black soldier for consorting with a white woman. They don't understand what's going on, when everyone is supposed to be on the same side fighting Adolf Hitler. That night, Lily thinks about seeing her father off on a steam-clouded station and lashes out at Georgie in class when he makes a joke about Manchester slums.
While waiting outside Annie's office, Lily sees some MPs asking her to keep an eye out for a deserter. Realising that Abe has lied, she steals a bike and cycles to the sidings to confront him. He reveals that he is only 14 years old and has had a miserable time since joining up. Smuggling him back to Three Chimneys, Lily hides Abe in Thomas's cupboard, just as Great-Uncle Walter (Tom Courtney) comes on a visit from London.
He is something big in a ministry and he hopes that D-Day will be a turning point. He almost stumbles across Abe while searching for a backgammon set and this makes up the American's mind to leave before he gets the kids into trouble. Thomas wants to tell the grown-ups, but Lily insists on smuggling Abe on to a train. However, they are caught hiding in the luggage compartment and are placed in cells in handcuffs.
Thomas is angry with Annie for not telling him that his father is now a POW. But she hopes she can make things up to him by getting Uncle Walter to use his influence to help Lily and Abe. He reassures Thomas that a good fight is always right and that no wartime sacrifice is in vain. Moreover, he has heard that a train carrying an important general is going through Oakworth and station porter Richard (John Bradley) tips them off when it's due to pass.
With the help of the other evacuees and the village kids, Thomas, Pattie and Ted succeed in forcing the train to stop. The general (Hugh Quarshie) demands to know what is going on and Thomas declares his intention to join up. When the general points out he is too young, they tell him about Abe and Lily and they are brought on to the track, just as Bobbie, Annie and Uncle Walter arrive.
As the general looks through Abe's papers, Annie asks if he's not embarrassed that the recruiting officer accepted such an obviously amended birth certificate. He replies that he had joined up at 15, but agrees a child has a right to change their mind and orders the highly reluctant MP to release his prisoners. Hugs and cheers follow, as we hear Abe's letter to him mom over soft-focus footage of the children playing in the sunshine.
Abe and Lily promise to write, as the train pulls away and the foursome rejoin the adults waving along the platform. Photo-captions reveal that Abe made it home safely, along with Thomas's father, while the Watts children returned home just three weeks after their adventure. Leaving life in Oakworth to return to normal.
Scripted by Daniel Brocklehurst from an outline by producer Jemma Rodgers, this is a genial sequel to the Nesbit story that strives to retain its spirit. A nostalgic warmth permeates every scene, while the bid to examine issues that would be relevant to modern teenagers is extremely laudable. One can't help concluding, however, that radio writer Roy Apps and director Martin Jenkins came up with a much better storyline for the BBC Radio Four drama, The Saving of Albert Perks (2021), which centred on the two Kindertransport refugees that Bobbie entrusts to the porter who had been so kind to her years before.
This five-part serial had allowed Bernard Cribbins to reprise the role that he had played in the 1970 film. Sadly, he was unable to cameo in the update and it's not made entirely clear that the underused Richard is his grandson. His absence deprives the sequel of some much-needed light relief. Moreover, he would have tied Bobbie more persuasively into the locale, as no reason is given as to why she would have returned to Three Chimneys to raise her daughter after doing her bit as a Suffragette. She remains more of a memory than a fully fleshed character and the same is frustratingly true of Annie and Uncle Walter, who are played with sincerity
by a miscast Sheridan Smith and the ever-amiable Tom Courtenay, who takes over kindly old gentleman duties from William Mervyn.
Rather like Phyllis and Peter before them, Pattie and Ted are somewhat sketchily limned, although more time has been devoted to giving Lily, Thomas and Abe backstories that show how alike they are, even though they hail from markedly different backgrounds. More might have been made of the cross-class and town-and-country divides, however. It's also disappointing that there wasn't more interaction between Bobbie and the children, as she had experienced their sense of dislocation.
This is mentioned in one of the handful of echoes from the first film, such as the reference to a Russian spy, Thomas following his grandmother in standing on the track to flag down a train and Lily calling out `Daddy!' on a shrouded station platform, as Bobbie had once done in very different circumstances. There's even a hint of a crush between Lily and Abe, as there had been between Bobbie and Jim, the schoolboy who had broken his leg during the hare and hounds race.
Agutter has a nice line about Winston Churchill doing little for equal opportunities for women. But she has no scenes to reflect upon being a war widow (was Jim her husband?) or having also lost her brother (no mention is made at all of sister Phyllis). Smith is also left to make the most of little, with the result that she occasionally overcompensates. But the focus is on the children, with Beau Gadsdon being head and shoulders above her castmates, despite the solid contributions of Austin Haynes and Kenneth `KJ' Aikens.
It was nice to hear a snatch of Johnny Douglas's original theme amidst the pleasant, but less subtle score of Edward Farmer and Martin Phipps. Jeff Tessler's production design and Dinah Collin's costumes are less eager, although Kit Fraser's cinematography errs on the chocolate boxy side in order to evoke an England that might have been an imperfect idyll, but was more a home to justice, decency and fair play than any of its enemies and even some of its Allies. Oh, if only that world had ever existed.
THE GOOD BOSS.
Javier Bardem and Fernando León de Aranoa go back a long way. They explored labour relations together in Mondays in the Sun (2002) and the Colombian drug trade in Loving Pablo (2017). Now, they turn to corporate shenanigans in The Good Boss, which drew a record-breaking 20 nominations at the 2022 Goya Awards.
Julio Blanco (Javier Bardem) is the owner of Blanco Scales. He has been informed that his company is on the shortlist for a regional business award and that judges could arrive for an inspection at any time. The last thing he needs, therefore, is for longtime employee José (Óscar de la Fuente) to make a fuss about his dismissal in front of a journalist writing a puff piece.
His Sunday is disrupted when handyman Fortuna (Celso Bugallo) asks Blanco to help spring his son from jail, after he was arrested following an attack on some migrants. Blanco arranges for Salva (Martín Páez) to start work at the boutique run by his wife, Adela (Sonia Almarcha). She's far from impressed, but agrees to help out.
As Monday comes, Blanco beeps his horn to drive away a bird that has unbalanced the scales at the factory entrance. He notices Liliana (Almudena Amor) among a new intake of interns, but also discovers that foreman Miralles (Manolo Solo) is becoming so distracted by his marital woes that he is starting to make mistakes at work. In order to give him a pep talk, Blanco takes Miralles to dinner and reminds him that they have known each other since they were kids and that he wants to help him.
By Tuesday, José has set up camp outside the factory with his two young children in order to embarrass Blanco. As he's on public ground, he can't be removed and Blanco tells Rubio (Rafa Castejón) to offer him a bigger severance package. In an effort to keep Miralles focussed, Blanco ambushes his wife, Aurora (Mara Guil), on her lunch break and asks her not to walk out on him until after the judges have made their visit. She doesn't think he has the right to interfere, but reveals that Miralles has been having an affair with Blanco's secretary, Inés (Yael Belicha).
He tries to talk to her, but can't raise such a delicate issue. However, he does follow Liliana on a tour of the shop floor and notices how she responds to his flirting. That night, Miralles calls to ask him to accompany him on a spying mission on Aurora, but this only makes Blanco more convinced that his right-hand man is losing his grip.
Wednesday opens with Blanco reprimanding poetry-writing security guard Roman (Fernando Albizu) for fraternising with José. He is busy calling the cops to report a vagabond sleeping rough with his young children when he discovers that Miralles has brought production to a standstill by botching another order. While checking on voluble worker, Khaled (Tarik Rmili), Blanco discovers that he is Aurora's lover.
Not that he's a paragon when it comes to marital vows, as he offers Liliana a lift home and gives her his number in case she needs his assistance. Frustrated at not being able to persuade to cops to evict José, Blanco takes Miralles to a strip club in the hope of taking his mind off Aurora. He quickly realises that he is approaching a breakdown, but hopes a night with Liliana and her friend, Ángela (María de Nati) will make him relax, But he winds up bawling at her, while Blanco and Liliana are having sex in the next room and he has to whisk him away.
Creeping into bed, Blanco wakes Adela, who reminds him that Liliana is the daughter of a family friend who is coming to supper on Thursday night. He rolls over to sleep aghast.
Things go from bad to worse, as Blanco finds Liliana buying a dress in Adela's shop. He takes her with him to order desserts, but she refuses to promise to behave around her parents. Aurora proves equally spirited when she slaps Blanco's face in the supermarket where she works for suggesting that she puts the company above her own feelings. Khaled also sneers off Blanco's threats, as does the editor of the reporter who is covering José's story.
Despite the odd veiled utterance, the dinner party goes off without incident. However, Liliana is disappointed to learn that her placement will only last a month. She's the least of his worries on Friday, as José refuses a job offer to return to the fold before the judges arrive. Having found bird droppings in the scales at the gates, Blanco's mood worsens.
He fires Liliana when she tells him she's dumped her boyfriend to be with him. She spend the night with Khaled. Blanco also gives Román his tickets to the ballet so that he can be home all evening, as he has asked Fortuna to tell Salva to attack José. Unfortunately, José has a sword and kills Salva, as his car and banners burn, and Fortuna collapses on Blanco's doorstep when he comes to break the news.
Blanco speaks at the rain-sodden funeral and promises to name the new line of scales after Salva. Miralles wants a word, but he insists it waits until Monday. He arrives, however, to find Khaled in his office and is appalled to learn that Blanco has fired him because Inés has made a complaint about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.
Feeling in control again, Blanco ignores Miralles's threats to expose him and orders Román to have José's camp cleared before the judges arrive. When he gets home, however, he finds Liliana waiting for him with Adela. She has promoted herself to head of marketing on a huge salary and even talked her way into the spare bedroom. Blanco is powerless to refuse, but he makes sure he introduces Liliana and Khaled to the judges when they make their tour. It's a triumph. But Blanco isn't sure that Fortuna has drilled the hole in the right place on his trophy wall, as the silver salver looks out of kilter.
Would Fortuna attack his boss with the power drill he's holding as the scene cuts to black? Who knows. No one could blame him and Blanco could have few complaints. But people who tilt the rules of the game to suit themselves have a habit of getting away with it and, as Liliana and Khaled have already discovered to their advantage.
León de Aranoa won Goyas for both his direction and his screenplay, while Bardem took Best Actor. Editor Vanessa Marimbert and composer Zeltia Montes were also rewarded, as the Best Picture prize completed a triumphant night. Each success was well merited, with the mischievous score reinforcing the line the film treads between incisive satire and black comedy. Bardem is no stranger to this territory and his shifts between smarmy paternalism, bombastic entitlement and hissable ruthlessness are effortlessly achieved.
The supporting cast is excellent, even though the secondary characters are little more than outline sketches who have no life outside the impact they have on Blanco Scales. Nevertheless, Almudena Amor deserved her Goya nomination for Best New Actress for the measured manner in which she exploits Bardem for her own ends. Yet, for all its slickness, this is never as snappy or spiky as it might have been. Never for a second does it feel as though Blanco's plates are going to stop spinning, as he always has something up his sleeve to tilt the scales. Moreover, he also has the nous to respect a fellow game player, even when they are a Moroccan migrant and a young woman.
ODE TO THE SPRING.
The Chinese state is behind the anthology Ode to the Spring, as it seeks to show how well the population responded to Covid-19. The five vignettes are set in Wuhan and depict the city that many regard as Ground Zero as a post-apocalyptic shell. Given the post-pandemic dip in attendance figures across British cinemas, it seems unlikely that many will risk sitting in an enclosed space with complete strangers with unknown medical history or symptoms to watch what is essentially a piece of Communist Party propaganda.
In the first episode, Shang Xiaoyu (Dongyu Zhou) has just seen her mother leave for hospital in an ambulance when she receives a call from banker boyfriend Li Nanfeng (Fang Yin), who has flown into Wuhan from Shanghai in order to propose. However, she has also been taken into an isolation ward and she asks him to cross the city to find her mother.
As Nanfeng finds crowds melting away so that he has the entire city to himself. He finds Xiaoyu's mother and persuades a nurse to give her his phone so that she can talk to her daughter. When his mobile is returned, however, the nurse said that the mother asked him to leave Xiaoyu alone. Shrugging off the message, he finds a bike to shuttle between the hospitals in the incessant rain and passes on the good news when Mrs Shang responds to treatment.
However, shortly after Nanfeng lit a Spring Festival sparkler for Xiaoyu to see from her window, the mother dies and leaves Nanfeng a text to take care of her daughter. He keeps sending messages from his old phone to reassure Xiaoyu and even uses a billboard so she can see pictures of a happy holiday they took together. When she's discharged, Xiaoyu feels lost without her mother, but Nanfeng urges her to rely on him.
Migrant delivery drivers Liu Erhong (Song Xiaobao) and Wang Dapeng (Pan Binlong)have been away from their families for so long that their children have grown up. As they carry a cargo of paper masks, they see a young girl wheeling her grandmother through the deserted streets on a desk chair. She needs to get to hospital, so the good Samaritans respond. Shocked by the sight of so many people suffering in corridors, they try to persuade a doctor to help the old lady. But she shows them CCTV footage of people in critical condition in the intensive care beds and asks them which one she should turf out.
Meanwhile, government official Wang (Wang Jingchun) receives a call from a tower-block resident to complain about Zhao Xiaomai (Zhao Jingmai) making too much noise while practicing the piano. He realises she's alone in the apartment and discovers that her mother is a doctor on a seemingly endless shift. Indeed, the only time she sees her is from the balcony when she comes in an ambulance to collect a patient from their high-rise community.
Nurse Yang Shan (Si Yang) is sleeping in her car and is joined by her doctor husband, Gong Chen (Huang Chao), who has just finished an equally exhausting shift, in which he had to order a colleague to pull himself together because people are dying, equipment is failing and there aren't enough beds. No sooner have they greeted each other than Yang is called on her pager.
As Wang finds a solution to the piano problem by using cardboard boxes and tarpaulin to muffle the noise, Yang and Gong have an argument about him being tough on their son over the phone about his homework. He is living with his grandmother, who has been told they are living in a hotel to stop her from worrying. There's a power cut and the whole city goes dark, as Xiaomai sings at her piano.
Nurse Zhang Jing (Yang Si) gets Covid, as does Wang and his team, as they are sorting out provisions for their neighbours. However, a senior doctor dies in the ICU and Gong is distraught and has to give his team a pep talk to keep them focussed on winning the battle. On returning to the car, Yang berates him for not changing his mask often enough and operating withtout a visor. But he tells her about his colleague and reminds her that they have a duty to their patients that sometimes means putting themselves at risk. He also plays her the message he has recorded for their son, should he not survive. They share a moment of intimacy before he heads in through the rain next morning.
Across the city, as the TV news shows reinforcements arriving in Wuhan from the People's Liberation Army, Li Jing (Huang Xiaoming) gets home to find son Le Le (Zhang Hangcheng) playing on the roof with the kid next door. He scolds him for not staying indoors and reminds him that his mother is busy with her patients before he fields a phone call from his brother. The apartment is a mess and Le Le is unamused by the prospect of instant noodles for supper again.
Father and son bicker the following night, even though Le Le has tidied up and he accuses Li of having driven Ji Tuan (Song Jia) away by having an affair. He explains that she is in Wuhan helping with the emergency, but Le Le isn't convinced and is still calming down after a minor earth tremor when his mother calls to reassure him.
Le Le's behaviour doesn't improve, however. He returns to the roof and is being mocked for his failed efforts to master his two-wheeler bike by a boy from the next building when Li prevents him from falling over the edge. The neighbour kid's father tells Li to cut Le Le some slack, but he orders him to butt out. In revenge, Le Le calls the hospital claiming to have a fever and a medical unit in full PPE arrives at the door to examine him.
Li is embarrassed. But he is cajoled into going easier on Le Le when Ji calls to inform him that she has developed symptoms. He is moved when she talks him through her plans for their son, in case the worst happens. But Le Le overhears and bawls his eyes out over his birthday breakfast and he is initially suspicious when Li starts spending more quality time with him. They ride his bike, draw and play dressing-up before an inspirational bedtime story about the youthful deity Nezha.
Next morning, Le Le leaves Li a chalked message on the roof before cycling off to a giant lakeside statute of Buddha. Using a loudhailer, Le Le appeals to him to cure his mother and asks if he can transform him into Nezha so that he can conquer Covid. Much to his amazement, he is whisked into the air and is becoming his hero when his mother wakes him from the dream and he bounces on the bed with happiness that the family is together again.
A brief coda shows Wang back at his post and Nanfeng and Xiaoyu celebrating their wedding at sunset on their dream beach. We also see patriotic images commending the people on working together to beat the virus.
A lot of people did remarkable things during the pandemic and we should all be grateful for their sacrifices. But they deserve a better memorial than this collection of mawkish mini-melodramas.
They're well enough played, with Zhang Hangcheng stealing the show as the bespectacled bundle of energy who can't understand why his childhood has suddenly been put on hold. But, even if it were possible to determine which was directed by Yue Dong, Xiaozhi Rao, Yusheng Tian, Chi Zhang or Nan Zhou, it wouldn't matter, as the segments are so amorphous - with the notable exception of the ICU sequences, although they are shot on handheld cameras and cut with the kind of clichéd freneticism one expects of hospital soap operas. It feels mean-spirited to be so deprecating, but this cynically calculating self-glorification sticks in the craw.