Thursday 28 September 2023

Theatre Review: Infamous (Jermyn Street Theatre)

Always among the most accessible and least pretentious of contemporary British playwrights, April De Angelis has also demonstrated a stealth subversiveness and wide range in her work. As Dominic Dromgoole writes in The Full Room: "Her imagination can encompass and reproduce worlds very distant from her own, and she has an ease with non-naturalistic dialogue that carries the audience with her... There is a central coarseness, a vitality, a rudeness that keeps it fresh and alive." 

De Angelis brings those qualities to her latest historical play, Infamous, which focuses on Emma Hamilton. The scandalous life story of "that Hamilton woman," wife of Sir William and lover of Lord Nelson, has, of course, often been dramatised - including in Susan Sontag's great The Volcano Lover (1992) which filtered the events mostly through Sir William's perspective. 

But where Sontag's novel constantly expanded outwards through rich allusions and digressions, De Angelis play is distilled, intimate and interior - particularly so in Michael Oakley's production on the tiny Jermyn Street stage. Pointedly, William and Nelson are nowhere to be seen here: the only male characters are an Italian servant and a French Mayor's son, both played with gusto by Riad Richie. 

Instead, De Angelis makes Infamous a mother/daughter story, and one that's much enhanced in Oakley's production by the casting of real-life mother and daughter Caroline and Rose Quentin. 

The play opens in 1798 in Naples, with Rose as the young Emma, married to William, the English Ambassador, but already plotting the seduction of Nelson fresh off the boat. She receives her mother, who's been visiting the daughter that Emma's abandoned in England, and who has a secret of her own to share.

In the second half, the scene shifts to Calais in 1815. Nelson is dead and the ageing, drink-dependant Emma (now played by Caroline) is living in decidedly straitened circumstances with Nelson's daughter Horatia, dwelling on memories of her illustrious past. 

As in her last play - last year's unfairly critically-mauled (but audience-pleasing) Kerry Jackson -  De Angelis deceptively packs quite a lot into a small, unassuming space in Infamous. Exceptionally clear, the historical context is lightly sketched but felt - weaving a sense of Emma's history into the sometimes sparky, sometimes painful exchanges between her and her mother, and then between her and Horatia. 

Oakley's no-frills production places the emphasis firmly on the dialogue and the actors, who capture all the contours of the characters' dynamics in both time periods. 

From Jumpy to the hilariously excruciating memorial service mashup in Kerry, De Angelis loves to integrate a moment of full-on female performance into her plays, and here Caroline Quentin gets to deliver Emma's "Attitudes", the set of historical and mythological poses she persists in viewing as an artistic triumph. 

Equally good in their other role, the Quentins give marvellously complementary performances as Emma, the pertness, casual cruelty and self-regard of Rose's turn in the first half given its distorted mirror image in Caroline's very physical portrayal of the character's decline in the second. Neither demonising nor romanticising its heroine, yet subtly casting her in a fresh light, De Angelis' funny, touching play finally places the emphasis on female fortitude. 

Infamous is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 7 October. 

Production photos by Steve Gregson. 

Tuesday 26 September 2023

A Change of Energy? on 48th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia (18-23 September 2023)

2023 at Polish Film Festival in Gdynia (FPFF) sees the arrival of a new Artistic Director, following the departure of Tomasz Kolankiewicz after three turbulent but generally stellar years. (I think back with special fondness on the festival's "post-pandemic" edition of 2021.) A veteran of New Horizons (2002-2016) and Transatlantyk (2016-2020) festivals, Joanna Łapińska now makes history as the first female to hold the role. While acknowledging the "symbolic significance" of her appointment, Łapińska also noted the strong presence of many "wonderful, experienced women" in the festival team for years, influencing and "creating the character of this event."

Leszek Kopeć and Joanna Łapińska
(Fot. Sylvia Olszewska)

In addition to this generous assessment, Łapińska is realistic in her appraisal of the particular challenges that FPFF poses for an Artistic Director, ones that Kolankiewicz has been vocal about in a recent interview. "Many elements of the Festival are dictated by rules and regulations," Łapińska admitted. "When it comes to the whole programme, I prepare it, propose it, but in the end I need the Organising Committee’s acceptance... This is an environment in which we must demonstrate great diplomacy, but also the ability to compromise."

The notable absence in the Main Competition of at least two of the year's major Polish releases - Agnieszka Holland's government-derided, Venice-premiered migrant drama The Green Border (Zielona Granica), which  opened in Polish cinemas on the very weekend that the Festival closed, and Małgorzata Szumowska's Woman Of..., which also debuted at Venice - clearly speaks to those challenges and compromises. 

But Łapińska, though appointed late, has nonetheless succeeded in creating a very solid programme for her first FPFF, one that retained the same structure as the last years' editions - a Main Competition, a Microbudget Competition, a Short Film Competition, and other established strands - while incorporating a few fresh touches, such as "The Big Five," a section inviting iconic figures of Polish cinema to screen a favourite Polish film and discuss it with the Festival audience. The 15 new films I saw during my stay - 13 from the Main Competition and 2 from the Microbudget one - naturally varied in quality but included enough diversity, highlights and surprises to make for a memorable, satisfying 48th edition of Poland's Cannes. 

Doppelgänger. Sobowtór 

Doppelgänger. Sobowtór (Doppelgänger. The Double) was this year's opening film, and proved a belter. Jan Holoubek, director of 25 lat niewinności. Sprawa Tomka Komendy (25 Years of Innocence. The Case of Tomek Komenda) (2020) and the Wielka Woda TV series (2022) and screenwriter Andrzej Gołda fashion a tense, absorbing spy drama, inspired by various real life cases, which parallels the experiences of two protagonists, played by Jakub Gierszał and Tomasz Schuchardt, on either side of the Iron Curtain, unknown to each other yet intimately linked. Essentially a story of identity theft and its political/personal consequences in a Cold War context, Doppelgänger is technically accomplished, with terrific production design  by Marek Warszewski evoking place and period in a tactile way, and superb cinematography by Bartłomiej Kaczmarek that subtly ramps up the tension with some delicious slow zooms. 

Though Schuchardt's role feels underdeveloped compared to Gierszał's, the transitions between the two locations are elegantly managed, and the protagonists' eventual encounter both understated and oddly touching. A rather rushed conclusion brings a slight sense of a let-down, but the stylish Doppelgänger still takes its place alongside superior latter-day spy dramas like Billy Ray's Breach (2007) and Christian Carion's Farewell (2009), a well-judged James Bond allusion highlighting its difference in terms of intimacy and moral unease.

Ultima Thule

In an entirely different  mode, Gierszał also gave a fine performance in Ultima Thule - a deserved winner of the Microbudget Competition. Klaudiusz Chrostowski's lovely, quietly restorative, low-key drama is about a young man seeking escape and solitude on Shetland and gradually making a new kind of life there. 

Indeed, films focusing on adrift, highly strung or under-pressure males - or what one might more generously call themes of "masculinity in crisis" - made up a substantial part of the Festival programme this year. A fresh addition to Polish cinema in 2012 when Leszek David burst onto the scene with Jesteś Bogiem, about hip hop group Paktofonika, the Polish rap film has since become cliche-ridden and  irresistibly susceptible to parody,  inevitably featuring appearances by real-life artists and plots that find baseball cap-sporting protagonists swaggering around the streets, getting involved in crime or drugs, and endlessly greeting each other as "mordo" or "stary."

Życie w błocie się złoci

While last year's Zadra brought some new energy to the genre by focusing on a female rapper, this year's Festival offered up two such examples. Życie w błocie się złoci (Life in the Mud is Golden), directed by Piotr Kujawiński, centred on the travails of an aspiring hip hop star contending with an alcoholic father, the care of his young sister, and a drugs-related arrest. Narratively shaky, the film is notable for a couple of vibrant music sequences and the last screen appearance by veteran Jan Nowicki. 


At once slicker and sillier, Maciek Bochniak's Freestyle (in the Main Competition) ends up somewhere between Uncut Gems (2019) and a Guy Ritchie caper in its focus on a young rapper (Maciej Musiałowskiforever kicking something in frustration) trying to outsmart adversaries that include gangsters, drug dealers, loan sharks, and his lover's boyfriend. I started out taking Freestyle quite seriously but gradually found myself giggling helplessly as ever-more-unlikely plot twists piled up. Already available on Netflix, Bochniak's film is terrible trash but great fun - best experienced with some pals and plenty of booze on hand.

Horror Story

Anxieties of urban and country experience received contrasting treatments in two fine debut features. A stylised Gothic comedy of Gen Z job-seeking and cohabitation woes, Adrian Apanel's enjoyable Horror Story throws away several promising ideas but still lands some big laughs as it relishes putting its young protagonist (superb  Jakub Zając), an initially eager, increasingly beleaguered graduate in "business and finance," through a series of Coenesque humiliations. 

Tyle co nic

The most overtly political film that I saw at the Festival, Grzegorz Dębowski's Tyle co Nic (Next to Nothing) uses familiar but still potent means of realist social cinema to highlight the difficulties of a group of farmers, screwed over by a local MP, one of whom ends up dead. Despite some heavy-handed symbolism, Dębowski creates an involving drama, and a worthy addition to the growing canon of flawed but interesting contemporary Polish provincial films, including Wszystkie nasze strachy (Fearsand Po miłość/Pour l'amour (both 2021). The film particularly shows its intelligence in a well-written late scene between the MP and the hero (Artur Paczesny).  Paczesny was the winner of the Festival's lead male acting prize, and the film itself took the Visions Apart "Golden Claw" award. 


Two highly anticipated Main Competition films sought to add something fresh to Polish historical drama, with mixed results. Arriving on a wave of acclaim from TIFF, and about to screen at LFF, Chłopi (The Peasants) finds DK and Hugh Welchman applying the same process of hand-drawn animation to live action footage that proved attention-grabbing in their Loving Vincent (2017) to an adaptation of Władysław Reymont's four-volume epic. 

Notwithstanding a couple of standout dancing sequences - enhanced by the film's rousing score - it's hard to see what the painstaking animation process contributes this time around. Zoning in on the text's themes of female transgression and victimhood (the final scenes are practically Lars von Trier-worthy), the adaptation undoubtedly has a modish quality - "a stark portrait of old-school misogyny," noted Nick Schager, approvingly, in his rave review - that will probably make it an international hit. (It's already announced as Poland's Oscar candidate.) But if you don't respond to the visuals then Chłopi simply feels neither fish nor fowl, suspended in a limbo between live action and animation that finally diminishes the expressive power of both.


Having delivered one of the splashiest debut films in recent Polish cinema with 2017's Atak Paniki - a part-Wild Tales, part-11 Minutes multi-stranded dark comedy of contemporary anxieties - Paweł Maślona returns with Kos (unfortunate English title: Scarborn) which won the Festival's top Golden Lions prize. Kos centres on another return: that of General Tadeusz Kościuszko from the American War of Independence to Poland where, with the freed African American slave Domingo, he's intent on mobilising the Polish peasantry and gentry against their Russian invaders.

Part pageant, part pantomime, influences from Shakespeare to Tarantino are discernible in Kos but I'd expected a weirder, wilder ride from this film. In fact, it feels straitjacketed - a semi-postmodern historical drama that becomes weirdly static in its second half, confined to chat in interior locations, before a final bloodbath.


The film is quite bold in drawing parallels between the experiences of African slaves and Polish peasants - yes, there's a scene of scars comparison - and the presence of Jason Mitchell as Domingo is welcome, though the development of the character rather less so. Too self-consciously, Maślona makes Domingo a transplant from contemporary American cinema rather than a freshly imagined character - he's a fish-out-of-water comic sidekick constantly cussing and cracking wise. (Notably, he's the first to burst through the stately historical ambience of the film's opening with an f-bomb.) 

Having remarked on non-white representation in the Festival's programme over the last years - from Kler (2018)'s moment of racist caricaturing through the Senegalese scammer portrayed in Po miłość/Pour l'amour to the undeveloped migrant characters in Silent Land (2021) and Bread and Salt (2022) - it would be tempting to see Kos as an advance. It is - but only in part, since, through Domingo's contemporary colloquialisms, the film appears to imply that a Black character can only exist in a period context as an anachronism. 

Luckily, the charismatic Mitchell succeeds in bringing a touch of grit to the limited characterisation. In contrast, Jacek Braciak as Kos himself seems muted, an afterthought; one might charitably consider this a deliberate choice made to undercut national myth-making but it still leaves a gaping hole at the centre of the film. Ultimately, the greatest pleasures in Kos come from the juicy work of the supporting cast: Robert Więckiewicz as the Russian cavalry captain, forever reminding everyone just how much Poland needs "Mother Russia"; Agnieszka Grochowska's sharp-witted widow; and a barnstorming Piotr Pacek, gleefully building on his repertoire of sadistic siblings after Król (2020)

Święto ognia

A film by Kinga Dębska is always a welcome, friendly prospect; I count myself a fan of the writer-director's brand of warm but tart comedy-drama since the Gdynia screening of Moje córki krowy back in 2015. In Święto ognia (Feast of Fire) Dębska adapts Jakub Małecki's novel in a way that fits perfectly with her own sensibilities, focusing on two teenage sisters dealing with body issues: the first pursuing her career as a ballet dancer, the second (the film's narrator) born with cerebral palsy and dedicated to observing the world from her balcony. The film was a worthy winner of two acting prizes, with Paulina Pytlak honoured as best newcomer and the venerable Kinga Preis as supporting actress for her glowing performance as the sisters' neighbour. 


A tougher proposition as a sibling drama, also much centred around the body, is Sławomir Fabicki's Lęk (Anxiety), which reunites Magdalena Cielecka and Marta Nieradkiewicz from Tomasz Wasilewski's United States of Love (2016), again cast as sisters here. This time the pair are on the road, driving Cielecka's terminally ill Małgorzata to a Swiss clinic to end her life. Nieradkiewicz's Lucja still has serious doubts about her sister's decision, though, viewing it as a definitive example of the control freakery with which Małgorzata has always set about managing her own and others' experiences. 

As well as the two actresses, Fabicki brings something of Wasilewski's "transgressive" spirit to these proceedings, especially in a humiliating scene of an aborted tryst over a car bonnet, and a distinctly icky moment of sisterly sexual healing. But, working from Monika Sobień-Górska's screenplay, he also modulates the tone more effectively, keeping the proceedings fluid with some mordant humour and unexpected developments. Lęk is at its best when least straining, avoiding pathos or polemic in its most well-observed intimate scenes. The actresses both deliver, achieving a Bergman-worthy intensity of feeling at times. 

Sny pełne dymu

Apart from Piotr Dumała's typically eccentric (if far from fully realised) Fin del Mundo?, the most daring films I saw at this year's Festival both came from female filmmakers. Dorota Kędzierzawska surprised with Sny pełne dymu (Dreams Full of Smoke), an intimate two-hander for Krzysztof Globisz and Żaneta Łabudzka-Grzesiuk. (A fond nod to Kędzierzawska's regular, now late, collaborator Danuta Szaflarska is also included.) By turns lyrical, smutty, soulful and hilarious, the dialogue-rich film prompted more walkouts than any other I saw at the Festival but proved a hypnotic experience for those on its wavelength: a true film poem, given wings by its actors' perfectly calibrated duet. (When Łabudzka-Grzesiuk tells Globisz "Nikt nie mówi „kurwa” piękniej niż Ty" - "No-one says 'fuck' more beautifully than you" - we can only agree.)

My favourite film of this year's Festival, however, was Olga Chajdas's Imago - winner of the Silver Lions and leading actress prizes. A deeply personal project for its fearless co-writer/star Lena Góra (known for her role as the transgressive daughter in Król, and as the star and writer of last year's great Roving Woman), Imago finds the actress playing her own mother, Ela (Malwina) Góra, a singer in several '80s alternative bands. 

The film's perfect, psychologically-savvy title and poster design suggest Bergman. But Imago is very much its own unruly, lurching, restless and beautiful beast. At once an expressionistic portrait of the emotional ups-and-downs of its heroine and a vibrant evocation of the post-punk Tri-City artistic scene - you've never seen an '80s Poland quite like this on screen before - the film  moves to its own innovative, jagged rhythms, with great, edgy editing and  cinematography (by Pavel Hrdlička and Tomasz Naumiak, respectively) and a fantastic soundtrack.  

One of Ela's tics involves moving her single earring from one ear to the other - resulting in what she describes as "a change of energy." Imago itself boasts multiple "changes of energy"; the film is a rich and immersive ride with a gorgeous ending. Despite such exciting wildcards in its Main Competition, FPFF 2023 itself tended more towards continuity than change, overall. But all positive indications are that Łapińska is the right Artistic Director to balance both elements, as the Festival heads towards its 50th anniversary in two years' time. 

The 48th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia took place from 18-23 September. Full programme details here. 

Thursday 14 September 2023

10 Great Films about Novelists piece (BFI online)

I wrote a piece on 10 Great Films about Novelists for BFI. You can read it here.