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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (27/3/2020)

(Reviews of Fire Will Come; The Perfect Candidate; Lucas & Albert; and Climbing Blind)

Cinemas may be closed during these effing dismal days. But there are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release over the next few weeks and months. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation. FIRE WILL COME. To date, French-born Spanish director Oliver Laxe has made his features in North Africa. In We Are All Captains (2010), he profiled a director losing control of a film about vulnerable children in the Moroccan city of Tangier, while Mimosas (2016) follows a dying sheik in his bid to cross the High Atlas Mountains so that he can be buried in his ancestral soil. The latter shared footage with Ben Rivers's The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (2015), an experimental adaptation of a Paul Bowles story that uses Laxe's efforts to make his film in intractable terrain to examine notions of creativity and colonialisation. But Laxe has returned to his native Galicia for Fire Will Come, a study of humanity, Nature and the elements that places equal emphasis on character and landscape. In the depths of a nocturnal forest, a row of eucalyptus trees is poleaxed in a dread-inducing domino effect. Bright lights reveal a deforesting bulldozer whose beams shine directly into the lens in order to create a sense of wilful menace before they are switched off and plunge the screen into darkness that is penetrated only by the ominous opening of Antonio Vivaldi's `Cum Dederit'. This is the Galician countryside to which hangdog fortysomething Amador Coro Quinoga (Amador Arias) returns after he is paroled two years into a sentence for setting a mountainside on fire and endangering the nearby settlment of Lago. His arrival by bus is noted by Inazio (Inazio Abrao), who offers him a lift in the rain. But Amador prefers to walk to the remote house he shares with his ageing mother, Benedicta (Benedicta Sánchez), whose first response on seeing him is to ask if he is hungry. Although they don't have much to say to one another over the stove at breakfast, Benedicta and Amador slip into an easy routine, as he takes cows Parda, Careta and Cachorra to pasture and she tries to persuade Inacio to offer her son a job restoring abandoned cottages for the tourist trade. When they attend a neighbour's funeral, Amador loiters outside the cemetery, while Benedicta extends her condolences to the widow. A couple of likely lads jokingly ask Amador for a light, but he doesn't rise to the bait. On the way home, Inazio flags them down and tells Amador to pay him a visit so he can start work. Having been forced to shelter from the rain in a hollow tree in the woods, Benedicta gets home to find Amador catching leaks in various pots and pans positioned beneath the holes in the roof. The kitchen stove provides the only heat and Benedicta huddles under her blankets, while Amador strides across the bluish-green hillside in a mist before low cloud envelops the basin in which the house sits. They are both trapped and free, unlike the cow that gets itself stuck in a muddy pool and Amador has to call vet Elena (Elena Fernández) for assiistance. As they drive back to the surgery, with the cow surveying the passing scene from a trailer, Amador claims to have been abroad when Elena asks why she's not seen him before. She plays Leonard Cohen's `Suzanne' on the stereo and assures him that it's possible to enjoy the music even if he doesn't understand the lyrics. Amador and Benedicta take the cows along a steep road to find new grazing. As Luna the dog suns herself, they discuss the eucalyptus trees towering above the rest of the canopy and Amador calls them `a plague, worse than the devil' in cursing the fact that they strangle the roots of everything growing in their vicinity. While Benedicta suggests that the trees hurt others because they are hurting, too, her son declares them a pest and similarly resents the lumberjacks desolating the landscape. In truth, he also has no time for Inazio's holiday home scheme, as he doesn't want a tourist invasion. But he passes the time of day when he comes the tumbledown, bramble-covered barn they are renovating to inform them that he has cleared a blocked water pipe. They offer him a drink, but he politely declines because he's too busy, in much the same way that Elena did when she came to check on the cows. Having put on his best shoes, Amador drives into the nearby town hoping to see Elena. She is chatting at the bar and, when she comes to his table, it's clear that she now knows the truth about his prison record. Shuffling awkwardly, she asks after the injured cow, but she can't quite look at him the same way again. As he drives home, Amador sees a fire engine hurtle past in the opposite direction. A blaze has broken out in the hills and, to the stains of the vocal segment of `Cum Dederit', Benedicta becomes worried because she can't find Luna. Firemen Alvaro (Alvaro De Bazal) and David (David De Pono) visit the outlying farms to evacuate the elderly occupants and their animals. The only creatures in one abandoned homestead, however, are a couple of goats mooching around in a darkened kitchen. But the conflagration quickly gets out of control, with the embers scorching holes in the hosepipes. The chief is forced to set backfires in order to clear an open space in the hope of halting the spread. Seemingly, the tactic worked, as the exhausted crew return to the village at first light. A badly burned and blinded horse staggers out of the charred wood, just as Inazio comes looking for Amador. Convinced that he started the fire that has destroyed his property, he lunges at him and has to be held back by the firemen. Benedicta stands beside her son, as he wipes the blood from his nose and walks away without a word to defend himself. A helicopter flies overhead and momentarily blocks out the sun, as it hovers over the sorry scene. We never learn whether Amador set either fire and his fate as a probationer is left as open as that of poor Luna, who was last seen chasing after Amador's van when he left for his doomed rendezvous with Elena. But such ambiguity is typical of a film that leaves much between the lines. Yet this is markedly more accessible than Laxe's earlier outings and, with the rhythms of daily life being recreated by Cristóbal Fernández measured editing, it's also a timely reminder of the dangers posed by wildfires after the recent conflagrations in Australia and California. In this regard, it echoes Pierre Jolivet's Les Hommes du feu (2017), which included a subplot about a French firefighter tracking down a rural juvenile pyromaniac. But, while it may be the most devastating, fire is just one of the elements to which Laxe refers in this measured, but involving feature. Despite the recurring shots of the glorious countryside, Laxe by no means romanticises the Galician earth, as the farming life is hard and interlopers like the loggers and the eucalyptus trees seem to be doing better than the locals. Whether tippling out of the skies and through the holes in Benedicta's roof, trapping a valuable cow or being blocked in pipes by silt and small stones, water is a source of irritation and danger, as well as life. Even when it could be useful in dousing the flames, it leaks out through the tears in the hoses and proves less effective at stemming the blaze than fire itself. Yet, without the consoling stove, the stone cottage would be almost uninhabitable during the cold winter months, when the air conspires to form the mists and clouds that shroud the village and seal it off from the rest of the world. Shooting on Super 16. cinematographer Mauro Herce also focuses on locating the characters within their surroundings in order to emphasise their insignificance and the magnitude of their task. Basing the action in the area where his grandparents lived, Laxe cast non-professionals with experience of their roles, so Inazio Abrao is a carpenter and Elena Fernández is a vet. But 95 year-old Benedicta Sánchez is a former photographer, who returned to Spain after spending much of her life in Brazil. The way in which she strides through the woods is awe-inspiring, as is the courage shown by the firefighters, whom Laxe filmed with a seven-strong crew during an actual wildfire. Such dedication to authenticity pays off, however, as the climax is as terrifyingly vivid as the opening is hauntingly redolent of the woodland images concocted by such visionaries as Andrei Tarkovsky and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Overall, though, this has more in common with such Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's studies of the Sardinian and Sicilian peasants as Padre Padrone (1977) and Kaos (1984). THE PERFECT CANDIDATE. The career trajectory of Saudi Arabia's leading woman director may strike some as peculiar. Since making an instant impact with her debut, Wadjda (2012) - which centred on a 10 year-old girl playing on adult susceptibilities to wangle herself a new bicycle - Haifaa Al Mansour has worked in English in contextualising the writing of a classic horror story in Mary Shelley (2017) and satirising the onus that society places on female appearance in the romcom, Nappily Ever After (2018). However, the thematic consistency that has characterised her output to date becomes clear as Al Mansour returns to her homeland for The Perfect Candidate. Maryam Abdulaziz al Saffan (Mila Alzahrani) is a doctor at the Al Hana clinic in a small town outside Riyadh. As she drives in to work, she notices the potholes in the unpaved approach road are getting worse and contacts her local councillor, Tarek (Bandar Alkhudair), about prioritising its repair. However, he protests that he is already juggling too many projects and promises to add the job to next year's schedule. Hearing a commotion, Maryam rushes to tend to Abu Musa (Hamad Almuzainy), an old man who has been injured in a minor motoring accident while out with his grandson, Omar (Tarek Ahmed Al Khaldi). He demands to be treated by a male doctor and, when Dr Ghazi (Bandar Hadadi) reprimands her for distressing a patient, Maryam announces that she intends taking an extended break after Eid. Determined to find a new post, Maryam asks sister Selma (Dhay Al Hilali) if she can borrow some money to attend a major medical conference in Dubai. She agrees, while ticking her off for spending her savings on a car. They live with younger sister, Sara (Noura Al Awad), and their father, Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), an oud player who is struggling to come to terms with the recent loss of his singer wife, Badria. However, he has decided to go on a three-week tour with his band and Selma is frustrated at having to stay home and run the house in his absence. At the airport, Maryam bumps into the doctor presiding over the conference and she is asking him about her interview prospects when she discover that her travel permit is out of date and that she will not be able to board the flight. Whent he airline refuse to refund the ticket, Maryam speeds across town to see her cousin, Rashid (Ahmad Alsulaimy), who has a prominent role in the local bureaucracy. In order to get in to see him, however, she has to apply to become a candidate in the upcoming municipal election and Rashid warns her that she will be up against an obdurate opponent in Tarek. As she is only interested in catching a flight, Maryam pays little attention. But Rashid proves unable to help her, as she needs her father's signature to process her visa application. While Abdulaziz and his drummer pal, Mohammed (Shafi Alharthy), play an outdoor gig to an audience of three, wedding photographer Selma joins dozens of women in waiting for the bride. Having decided to run for office after seeing the state of the hospital road after a pipe bursts, Maryam comes to help out and is surprised to discover that Omar is the sound engineer for Khadeeja the wedding singer (Khadeeja Mua'th). Sara is furious with her sibling for entering the election, as she remembers how their mother used to embarrass them with her outspoken remarks on stage. But Selma is more supportive and joins Maryam in singing one of Badria's favourite songs, as they look across the nocturnal town from their rooftop. Having persuaded Abu Musa to let her operate on his back, Maryam ropes Selma into helping her make a campaign video. She takes her cues from an amateurish effort by a Republican named Basil that she found online and agrees to cover her face to spare Sara's blushes. Her father is convinced she's wasting her time, as she has so few followers on social media. But the sincerity of Maryam's message and Selma's use of some CGI butterflies ensure that the message goes viral. As Sara points out, however, many of the comments are hostile and she pleads with her sister to abandon her campaign. Maryam is rising to the challenge, however, and persuades Selma to help her stage a fundraising event. They hire a hall for 200 and she conquers her nerve to give a speech about saving children's lives between a fashion show and a concert by Khadeeja. As the women leave, however, they confess that they either don't vote or do what their husband tells them and Maryam wonders whether she should go on. The next day, however, Selma reports that the feedback has been positive and that she has landed four bookings as a result of the gathering. Out on the road, extremists threaten to attack Abdulaziz's concert, as they disapprove of music. But Mohammed informs his bandmates that they have a duty to perform and they play to a packed house. Meanwhile, Maryam has a triumph of her own, when she appears without a niqab on a local TV news show and sidesteps the smarmy male interviewer's suggestions that she should campaign for more gardens by insisting that she should be taken seriously and judged on her policies and not her gender. Female colleagues at the hospital are proud of her and Selma admits that she didn't think Maryam had it in her. But their father is too preoccupied with his tour to offer support, especially as an important man from the arts ministry will attend the next show. He is recruiting musicians for a new state-approved orchestra and, even though they think he will favour younger players, Abdulaziz and Mohammed put their heart and soul into the performance and the audience goes wild. Sadly, the men attending a speaker meeting that Omar is hosting on Maryam's behalf goes less well, as she is heckled by older men who are affronted by a woman seeking their vote. When the video feed goes down, Maryam breaks convention by storming into the main tent and berating the assembly for being such complacent chauvinists. Omar is dismayed that she has made such a faux pas, as several men were recording her tirade on their phones. But Maryam has no regrets, as she is tired of the treatment that Saudi women are forced to endure. Overnight, Tarek initiates a tarmacking scheme outside the hospital and Maryam is frustrated that he has jumped on her bandwagon. However, the staff are delighted and congratulate her on achieving her objective. But, after all she has witnessed during the campaign, Maryam wants to win and says as much to Abdulaziz when he returns home (having been selected for the band). He says nothing about the accolade, however, as he tells Maryam that her mother would have been proud of her and, in giving her a cassette of her songs, he confides that he is pleased that they have so much in common. As the votes are counted, Maryam goes to her cousin's wedding, where Selma and Sara are setting up their cameras. Omar breaks the news that she has lost by 48-51% (where have we heard that before?) and shows her news footage of a relieved Tarek trying to make light of the closeness of the result. Undaunted, Maryam goes into the main hall and takes over the microphone from Khadeeja to sing one of Badia's signature tunes. Abdulaziz jokes about his daughters being bad for his blood pressure, but he wipes away a tear with his keffiyeh. The following day, Maryam sees Abu Musa in out patients. He allows her to examine him without complaint and thanks her for saving his life. Much to her surprise, the old man also informs her that he had voted for her and reckons that she had deserved to win. Maryam concurs and reveals that she is no longer interested in working in Riyadh because there is so much to do on her own doorstep. As the film ends, she drives along the new road and merges with the rush hour traffic, as she now knows in which direction she's heading. Anyone familiar with Iranian cinema from the mid-1990s will recognise the tone of this quietly assertive, but undeniably polemical picture. Echoes abound of the gynocentric studies made by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his daughters, Samira and Hana, as well as by their stepmother, Marzieh Meshkini. But Haifaa Al Mansour very much has her own voice (if not her own visual style) and the measured way in which Maryam's story plays out bears comparison with Nappily Ever After, a similarly didactic dramedy in which African-American advertising executive Sanaa Lathan not only stakes her claim in a male milieu, but also recalibrates her relationship with her mother. Mila Alzahrani plays Maryam with much the same poise, although her situation is closer to that of Baran Kosan, the footballer barred from leaving Iran in Soheil Beiraghi's Permission (2018), and Amani Ballour, the female doctor facing bigotry on the wards in the Syrian town of Ghouta in Feras Fayyad's remarkable documentary, The Cave (2019). Yet, while the narrative focus falls on Maryam and her sisters, Patrick Orth's camera picks up every hint of casual misogyny, whether it comes from the fulminating Abu Musa and the sneering codger at the rally or the incredulous TV interviewer or the condescending desk jockey at Rashid's office. Abdulaziz also has lessons to learn on his own journey of discovery, as he experiences something of the prejudice that this daughters encounter on a daily basis. The law requiring a guardian's sanction for travel has actually been rescinded, while women drivers are becoming a more common sight on Saudi roads. But change remains glacially slow and Al Mansour and co-writer Brad Niemann wisely avoid a wholly confrontational approach (to the extent that some critics have detected an apologist strain in their scenario). Instead, they rely on well-aimed barbs, many of which stick thanks to some well-judged humour. The hesitant romantic subplot is less persuasive, however, as is Abu Musa's penitent climbdown. However, Maryam deserves a happy ending, even if it's only really a beginning. LUCAS & ALBERT. While it may not seem like it in the depths of the coronavirus crisis, we are exceedingly fortunate in having the Internet to keep us informed and entertained. Fans of blockbusting cinema may be pining for some pixellated spectacle. But a number of online platforms are maintaining a steady trickle of new releases and this period of enforced isolation affords viewers the opportunity to stray off the beaten path and sample something new. Like Lucas & Albert, for example. Adapted by Robert Putt and AG Longhurst from their own stage play, Babysitters, this bleak monochrome crime comedy was filmed over three weeks for the princely sum of £60,000 by Darren S Cook. Despite having several shorts to his name, as well as numerous editing credits, this is Cook's first feature behind the camera and the fact that it was nominated alongside Sam Mendes's 1917 and Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You at the (sadly postponed) National Film Awards speaks volumes for the scale of its achievement. The morning after shopkeeper Brad (Sidney Livingstone) is gunned down by an unseen assailant, Albert (James Osborne) and Lucas (AG. Longhurst) wake up in their respective abodes. Albert is something of a loner, but Lucas enjoys a saucy kitchen unit farewell with Lizzie (Cassandra French) before walking to the car park where he is due to rendezvous for an important job. Both pass a busker (James Pickering) outside a corner shop before Lucas spots Albert's vehicle and they get into a spat about time-keeping. They continue to bicker as they drive along and Albert almost hits an old man crossing the road (Tony Ryan), who turns out to be a con artist looking for easy handouts. Arriving on the Essex coast, the pair find a quiet pub for lunch. By insisting that they sit apart, however, Albert piques the interest of the Honey the waitress (Claudia Grace McKell), who thinks they're gay. Rather than be gawped at, Lucas strides over to Albert's table and kisses him on the mouth before leaving. Albert scurries after him and, following a nosh at a greasy spoon, gets duped into revealing which male celebrity he'd be prepared to sleep with if his family's lives depended upon it. Leaving Lucas to pace around beside the car, Albert disappears for two hours to pay a visit to his mother-in-law, Rose (Gloria Price), in her care home. Despite the fact he pays all her bills, Rose can't forgive Albert for her daughter's death and she has nothing but contempt for the way in which he earns a living. As he's leaving, a male nurse of Polish extraction named David (Robert Walters) informs Albert that his visits cause Rose distress and he asks him politely to stay away. But Albert isn't one to be told what to do and he dumps David to the ground with a single blow and reminds him to mind his own business with a well-aimed kick. The rest of the day is spent staking out their quarry. During the course of a conversation about the women they've slept with, Lucas reveals himself to be a racist and Albert orders him to shut up. While parked outside his hotel, they get a pizza from an elderly delivery boy (Robert Putt), who reveals that the meal had been paid for by a man at the hotel, who has left a message inside the box. Albert reads it, but says nothing and the action jumps forward to the following morning, as Mehmet (Sidney Kean) wakes in a panic and realises he has left it too late to make a quick getaway. Hurriedly packing a bag, he leaves through the back door, but Albert catches up with him at a level crossing and, as he pleads for his life in the dunes, Lucas comes up behind and decapitates him with one swish of a sword. As they drive away, Albert explains that he had been childhood pals with Mehmet. But there's no room for sentiment in this game, especially when the orders come from the big boss, Tony Mac. He also reveals that Brad had been a nark, but Lucas isn't one to dwell on the whys and wherefores. When they park up again, he asks Albert about his first kill and divulges that his had been a garotting while he was serving in the Marines. Albert speculates that Lucas is the type who can kill without conscience, but he isn't in the mood for introspection. The next day, Albert returns from making a call from a phone box with breakfast and a snatch of `Good Morning' from Singin' in the Rain. Lucas mixes up Debbie Reynolds and Julie Andrews, but can't get Albert to rise to the bait when he says he'd sleep with the latter because she's worn so well. They spy with binoculars on their next target and comment on the women he's with. Albert feels sorry for Lucas because he has such a dismissive attitude to women. But, when he quotes Alfred, Lord Tennyson's line about never having loved at all. Lucas fires back with a couple of lines from `If I Fell' and Albert nods in appreciation at the poetic sensibility of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. While waiting for orders, the pair kill time by snoozing with the radio playing. Lucas is having trouble with his guts, but Albert prefers the flatulence to his bedtime paean to the lost art of masturbation. He's on edge, therefore, when Lucas takes two hours over fetching breakfast because he detours to skinny dip on the beach. But he cheers himself up with an Esther Williams crack and seems positively chipper when he spots something awry on the beach and nips off in the car to see what's going on. He gives Lucas a detailed report, but none of the names he mentions mean anything to the viewer, who is left to fathom the significance of the remarks about tai chi and a pet dog. When we next see them, Lucas and Albert are on a boat off the coast. The former points out that `You'll Never Walk Alone' comes from the musical Carousel and the latter nods in appreciation. He explains that his wife had been into amateur dramatics and Lucas reveals that he has a couple of kids, but never felt able to settle down. Albert shows Lucas a picture of his late wife and laments that she had died of cancer 16 years ago. She had been hoping to play Julie in a production of Show Boat and he sings a snatch of `Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man'. Lucas realises that Albert's wife had been black and feels a pang of guilt about his earlier tasteless remarks. When he tries to elicit a little sympathy by telling a story about his father abandoning him shortly after causing him to lose his beloved toy boat, Albert accuses him of stealing the anecdote from a film. Fetching up in a pub, Albert reveals that his first marriage had lasted a mere 18 months before describing how he had been instantly smitten with Grace when he had seen her singing `Don't Rain on My Parade' from Funny Girl. But when the pair are next seen in the car, they're discussing Mr Mac's status, how well Albert knows the different players in this sordid saga and whether there will be a turf war because of the escalating tensions. They mention an ex-boxer named Charlie Boy and a sudden cut away from Lucas and Albert takes us to the car where Renee (Kim Taylforth) and Ali (Paul King) are discussing whether the feud between Charlie (Renee's brother) and Mr Mac will sort itself out before it boils over. Meanwhile, Albert has gone for a walk by himself and Lucas climbs into the car seemingly to follow him. But he shows up at Renee's car and executes her, while Ali looks on. Standing on the quayside, Albert recoils as though he can hear the shot. The next we see of him, he is being met by Lucas at the end of a concrete jetty and, as they turn to walk away, they leave a third man (Sean Cochran) propped up against the railing, as the sea laps around him. Having been asked if they are gay by a teenager asking for a light (Bethany Linell), Lucas and Albert return to surveillance duties. As night falls, they see Mac beckoning them and they swoop to capture Charlie (John Altman). They take him to a remote location and he launches into a speech about a distant bank robbery causing so much trouble and how he hadn't meant to kill a woman named Suzanne. However, everyone had been laughing at him and he had lost his composure. He blames it all on Mr Mac and the Johnson family before asking Albert to take care of Renee. When Lucas quips that they will, Charlie roars at him to hold his tongue before he is silenced by a single bullet. With his dying breath, Charlie urges Albert to watch his back. But he seems to suspect nothing when they report to Mac (Michael McKell), who gives a coffin grin of pleasure at how smoothly everything has gone. He leaves them to dispose of Peter and Suzanne's bodies in an upstairs room and Lucas and Albert don white overalls with a grim sense of relief that their mission is almost over. While Lucas strikes a match to torch the incriminating corpse, Albert reminisces downstairs about the sidestep scene between Dolly Parton and Charles Durning in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). Looking in the mirror, he sees Lucas creep up on him with a gun and pulls his own for a standoff. They try to bluff that they have tampered with each other's weapons before a shot rings out and the screen cuts to black. A midriff shot means it's impossible to tell who has survived. But their triumph proves short-lived, as they are felled by a sniper on the headland, who turns out to be Lizzie. In silhouette against the horizon, she slings her rifle over her shoulder and slowly walks away. It's inevitable from the outset that our two anti-heroes are not going to make it. Anyone familiar with William Shakespeare's Hamlet will know what happens to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Lucas and Albert are very much in their mould - assassins on a one-way trip to their doom. But co-scenarists Livingstone and Putt aren't prepared to cast these human versions of Timon and Pumbaa as duplicitous wretches. Instead, they are closer to Vladimir and Estragon on Samuel Beckett'e Waiting For Godot (1953) or Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994). But the twist is, whereas these sad sacks had no real idea what was going on around them, Albert and Lucas seem pretty clued in and it's the audience that has to stumble around in the dark trying to make sense of the casually tossed out names and whispered snippets of information. The deadly duo may be playing a waiting game, but they have a basic grasp of the rules and that is why the sudden decision late in proceedings to switch the focus away from them and on to Renee and Ali represents such a major miscalculation. It mattered less when Cook cut away to show Mehmet making his exit from the hotel, as we hadn't become so accustomed to the two-handed approach. But the Ali-Renee exchange tilts the balance and the picture never quite rights itself - as was the case with Matthew Butler-Hart's Two Down (2015) and Tom Edmunds's Dead in a Week or Your Money Back (2018), which similarly frittered meticulous build-ups by fumbling the ending. This is a shame, as there is much to commend here. James Osborne and AG Longhurst are excellent as the chalk-and-cheese hitmen, whose banter is sprinkled with wit, warmth and copious references to the golden age of movie musicals. It forever feels as though we are eavesdropping on contextless conversations, whether Lucas and Albert are peering through binoculars through a car windscreen, patrolling in a boat or dispatching their victims with ruthless efficiency. Neill Phillips's deft camerawork plays its part in allowing the audience to share the twosome's front-seat view. However, there are more flamboyant sequences, as Cook switches between ground and mid-level shots to aerial swoops over the Clacton coast to disorientate us. As co-editors, Cook and Phillips also make gleeful use of accelerated montage, as Lucas is locked out of the car while Albert pays his visit to his mother-in-law. This is another sequence that doesn't quite work, as Albert is too experienced a professional to risk drawing attention to himself while on a mission by assaulting a male nurse. But Cook (who amusingly cameos as Peter beneath a white sheet, while Suzanne is played, according to the closing crawl, by three pillows and a blanket) does more than enough to suggest that he has the eye for an image and the ear for dialogue. Let's hope that he eventually gets the opportunity to make Skorned, a supernatural thriller penned by Neil Baker. CLIMBING BLIND. In another lifetime, when writing about film festivals for Empire Online, the name of Alastair Lee kept cropping up while covering the Kendall Mountain and Sheffield Adventure film festivals. Among his 30-odd shorts and featurettes are such climbing classics as Twice Upon a Time in Bolivia (2004), Set in Stone (2006), The Last Great Climb (2013) and Blocheads (2016). These are available VOD on the MNTNFILM website, as is Lee's latest, and perhaps most remarkable, outing: Climbing Blind. Jesse Dufton was born with 20% central vision. But parents Ken and Erica encouraged him to lead an active life and he was clambering up slopes in Snowdonia at the age of two. Shortly afterwards, he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that breaks down the cells in the retina. By the age of 20, Dufton could no longer read. But he completed his university course and, with the help of girlfriend Molly Thompson, he continued to climb. He became a paraclimber and developed his upper body strength as his vision was reduced to light perception with an extremely limited field of view. Most people in similar straits would abandon any thought of adventure. But scaling the insurmountable has become a way of life and, consequently, Dufton decided to follow in the footholds of Red Szell - who had become the first blind climber to conquer the 449ft Old Man of Hoy in the Orkneys - by being the first to lead an ascent of the red sandstone sea stack. On hearing of the expedition, Lee came aboard to chronicle the preparations, profile the remarkable mountaineer and assess the scale of the challenge he faces. Having introduced us to the principles of traditional climbing, Lee shows how Dufton negotiates rocks with audio guidance from Molly following behind him. He also travels to Loughborough to meet coaches Adam Harrison and Robin O'Leary, as well as fellow paraclimber Hannah Baldwin, as they train on indoor walls. Lee discovers that Dufton's physique and technique have been improving as his sight has been deteriorating and he is intrigued by how awed other trad climbers are by his achievements and his ambition. While Dufton heads to Staffordshire to attempt `The Sloth' in the gritstone crag known as The Roaches, Lee goes to see adventure climber and extreme sports specialist Leo Houlding, who first climbed the Old Man of Hoy at the age of 11 and has since abseiled to the headland. He explains the route that Dufton proposes to take and highlights the tricky areas, as well as a spot where Molly won't be able to offer audio assistance, as it will be hidden from her view. As Dufton tackles Higgar Tor in Derbyshire, he reveals the extent to which he is in Molly's hands on any climb. She recalls how they met at the University of Bath and formed a team on and off the rocks before he proposed to her on a summit in Greenland. We see them collaborating on `The File' in the Peak District and their implicit trust is as moving as Dufton's admission that the worst part about losing his sight is that he can no longer see Molly's face. Their rapport is evident on the day of the climb, as Molly leads her fiancé down the incline to the base of the stack. What would normally take 15 minutes, took an hour and a half and Lee puts this struggle into context by rewinding to show Dufton teaching respected professional Neil Gresham how to work blindfolded at The Roaches. After a relatively easy clamber up a boulder, Gresham follows Dufton up `The Sloth' and quickly comes to appreciate the different strategies that a blind climber has to employ. Curious to know whether Dufton's ability is rooted in his lack of vision, Lee accompanies him to an appointment with Professor Andrew Lotery at University Hospital in Southampton. He explains that there is no surgical breakthrough on the horizon that could help repair Dufton's retinas and he cheerfully accepts his lot, as he chats outside with his parents about their efforts to ensure that he was able to enjoy an active childhood, in spite of his ailment. Having explained the problems of filming on a sea stack, Lee gets into position as Dufton sets off at 15.00. Drone shots show Lee in position above his subject so that he can get the best angles without getting in his way. He also discusses the morality of documenting an ascent, as he feels it's his duty to remain silent unless he can avert undetected danger. Consequently, he opts not to tell Dufton about an error with a safety rope that could make things a bit awkward for Molly. In order to ascertain the role played by a spotter, Lee hooks Dufton up with crack climbing specialist Pete Whittaker, as they attempt `The Rasp', a spot on Hiigar Tor that resembles `The Coffin', a notorious narrow stretch on the Old Man of Hoy. We also get an insight into the restrictions Dufton faces when he attempts to spread butter and honey on a toasted muffin and walks to work along a busy road with only his white stick for guidance. It's easy to understand, therefore, why he sets such store by leading a climb, as he is in control of the situation in a way he often isn't in everyday life. With Lee peering down at him from just a few feet way and Molly getting scolded for watching a seal basking below, Dufton makes it through the pitch. A tangled rope exacerbates the problems of being unable to see or place any safety equipment, but he picks his way to a ledge where he is able to pause and celebrate with a pork pie. As Dufton catches his breath, Lee reveals that it's now 20.30 and that the best light of the day has already gone, with still half of the climb to go. But Dufton has no intention of calling it a day, even though he still has to conquer the potentially perilous segment where Molly can't guide him. Steepling drone shots show their relative positions on the rock face, as Dufton reaches out for handholds without knowing whether he is straying from the planned route. At one point, Lee intervenes to prevent a close encounter with a large fulmar. But there was a palpable sense of relief that Dufton had come through the biggest test and, even though it was now 21.45, all knew that there should be sufficient remaining daylight (this far north at this time of year) for Dufton to reach the peak. Spectacular aerial shots show Dufton and Molly back in conversing distance, as they begin the final ascent. Swooping like the seabirds, the drone captures both the breathtaking scenery above the crashing waves and the magnitude of the accomplishment. But anyone suffering from vertigo would be well advised to hang on to the arm of the chair for some of these extreme views, as they're not for the faint-hearted. Stick with it, though, because at 22.30 on 4 June 2019, Jesse Dufton entered the record books and he, Lee and Molly were able to reflect on a job bloody well done. Amidst clips of Dufton appearing on news programmes to share his experience. closing captions reveal that everyone returned safely to ground level by midnight. We also see a photograph of Jesse and Molly's wedding day and one can only wish them all the best, especially as they, along with the entire climbing community, will currently be stuck indoors. This may not be on a par with Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's Oscar-winning Free Solo (2018). But Lee (who resembles a lost Gallagher brother) is a fine film-maker and the footage he captures, along with second cameraman Ben Sharp and drone operator Jago Miller, is magnificent. The flashbacking structure can feel a little arbitrary in places, as Lee involves other climbers in seeking to demonstrate the problems that Dufton will face. But the digressions help sustain the suspense of the actual climb, which now takes its place alongside the pioneering efforts of Chris Bonington, Rusty Baillie and Tom Patey in 1966. The following July, the BBC attracted 15 million viewers over three nights for The Great Climb, which tracked Bonington and Patey as they retraced their steps and Joe Brown and Ian McNaught-Davis and Pete Crew and Dougal Haston, as they established new routes. Even with a captive audience, Climbing Blind won't come close to matching those figures. But for anyone feeling cooped up and yearning for the great outdoors, this undoubtedly offers some vicarious release.

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