by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Weinstein Company
Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell in Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream."

At Venice festival, a quartet of morality tales


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 4 September 2007

 

The possibility that a film by the veteran leftist English director Ken Loach and another by Woody Allen should investigate the same territory - literally (London) and metaphorically - may have seemed a rather remote one. But with Ken Loach's "It's a Free World . . ." and Allen's "Cassandra's Dream," screened on the same day at the Venice Film Festival, the unlikely has occurred.

"How Far Will You Go to Make Your Dreams Come True?," the publicity shout line for Allen's production, would not have looked in the least out of place on posters for Loach's film.

"It's a Free World . . ." is set in the murky zone of illegal immigration - the title an update, to take account of globalization, on that old-fashioned British response to official interference: "It's a free country . . ."

Angie, played convincingly by Kierston Wareing, is a 30-something working-class peroxide blonde, with an 11-year-old son and an absent father, who has been through a long series of dead-end jobs. When she loses her latest position, with a dodgy employment agency recruiting workers in Poland, Angie persuades her friend Rose (Juliet Ellis) to help her set up a similar outfit in the backyard of a pub, supplying immigrant labor on a daily basis to construction sites and factories.

Soon business is booming, until one of her main clients goes bust, and she finds she cannot pay her workers' wages. This does not deter her from spending money on luxuries, such as an expensive SUV and planning to rent new office premises. The swindled workers become increasingly menacing, knowing that she has made money out of them. However, going to the police is hardly an option for her, given the illegality of her operation.

Despite the fact that Angie appears to have the morals of a cat (though she is capable of spontaneous kindness and generosity), we become genuinely anxious for her safety and how all this will end.

Though Loach and his scriptwriter Paul Laverty have somewhat over-egged the pudding in their handling of the Polish workers - some of them may be mixed up in the black economy, but they are entitled to work in Britain - the director reins in his propagandist tendencies, while offering a sad vision of a morally bankrupt Britain, to which government policy on immigration is contributing by turning a blind eye to irregularities.

But the underlying, rather patronizing, implication is that Angie's behavior is essentially the result of social forces, and of a system that builds up unrealistic expectations and encourages greed, absolving her of personal moral responsibility for her self-seeking behavior at the expense of those who place their trust in her.

Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream" also features working-class Londoners who have ambitions for the high life that can only be realized by jettisoning any scruples: Ian (Ewan McGregor), who helps out in his father's restaurant, and his brother Terry (Colin Farrell), a car mechanic.

Ian falls for a high-maintenance young actress Angela (Hayley Atwell). He is determined that she will stay with him and go with him to Los Angeles where he is involved in a speculative hotel project. Terry, after a run of bad luck gambling, incurs a serious debt to loan sharks. The brothers' only hope is their uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), who has made a fortune in cosmetic clinics in the United States and now China. But Uncle Howard, finding himself in a bad situation, sees no reason why these desperate young men should not help him solve it in exchange for bailing them out financially.

This is no comedy - the only macabre humor is provided by Uncle Howard's ruthlessness, so breathtaking that he would have comfortably fitted in to Chairman Mao's inner circle - but a very black drama about the overwhelming guilt that a normal decent human being is tormented by when drawn into committing a devastating out-of-character act. Colin Farrell gives a compelling, agonizing performance as Terry. But the credibility of the film stands on whether we can bring ourselves fully to believe that these two ordinary young men could really follow the course they do, in a world where, unlike in Greek tragedy, things are decided by individuals, not the Fates.

"The Valley of Elah," written and directed by Paul Haggis, whose "Crash" won two Oscars, is based on actual events and a terrible crime.

This story too has wider implications for the state of a nation, in this case the United States and more particularly young service personnel returning from Iraq.

Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) is a retired military policeman, whose son is listed as missing after his return from Iraq. The father travels to the military base from which he has disappeared. Matters are complicated by rival jurisdictions of the military and local police, but Deerfield manages to strike up an alliance with the sole woman detective in the regular police department, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron).

The film adopts the format of an investigative thriller, but contains some persuasive social observation. Its conclusions are not sensational, yet cumulatively shocking as to the loss of moral direction in many young returnees. Haggis suggests that the aftermath of the Iraq experience will be long and painful in America, and not only for those who actually fought in the war.

The outlaw Jessie James was a survivor of the losing side in the American Civil War, but to what extent this might have had any bearing on his subsequent conduct is not investigated in Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Bob Ford," a film that wears like a badge of honor the inarticulacy of its characters.

Brad Pitt as one of the producers has cast himself in the no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy role as James, while Casey Affleck (younger brother of the more famous Ben) comes close to stealing the show as his nemesis, Ford. The movie concentrates on the last year of James's life, following the gang's last train robbery. By the time we see James, he is approaching his mid-thirties, but prematurely old, suffering from old wounds and other ailments. He has no regrets about his past crimes and multiple murders, but few hopes for the future. The movie does not shy away from representing him as the paranoid murderous monster he evidently was.

This is a long film and sometimes has an almost hypnotic quality, which brings to mind Terrence Malick's 1974 "Badlands," an impression enhanced by some striking camera work by Roger Deakins and a strong musical score by Nick Cage and Warren Ellis. But the voice-over narrative links from Ron Hansen's novel of the same title are ponderous, mannered and intrusive.

The New Zealander Dominik, like many directors today, served his apprenticeship in the world of commercials and music videos. And one is left slightly anxious that the range of too-good-to-be-true homestead kitchens (bar a very messy one inhabited by a man clearly doomed to die), so lovingly lit and shot, may yet be merchandized as spinoffs of the movie.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016