Julie Walters

The Secret Garden

28/02/21

Amazon Prime Video

It’s a hundred and ten years since Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was first published, but its appeal remains undiminished. I remember fondly the copy I had, part of a collection called ‘Children’s Classics for Girls’ (my brother had ‘Children’s Classics for Boys,’ but we both read all of them, of course, because gender boundaries are stupid, and no one knows that better than kids). I remember my grandad (who worked for MGM) enthusing about the 1949 film version too, because it was mostly shot in black and white, but changed to glorious technicolour in the titular garden. I didn’t actually see it until I was grown up, but I carried that image in my head for years.

Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is ten years old, and living in India. Her family is rich and British, but their enormous wealth and privilege can’t save them. This latest movie adaptation changes the context, so that it’s 1947, and we see the turmoil outside the Lennox mansion, caused by Partition. In the novel, Mary’s parents die of cholera. Here, it seems, they are victims of understandably violent protest. One by one, the servants leave, and Mary is left alone: orphaned, adrift.

In the novel, Mary is spoiled: a demanding, contrary madam, who needs to be brought down a peg or two. Here, director Marc Munden offers us a more sympathetic perspective: how can a child be held accountable for her bad manners? She has been parented in a distant, remote way; raised to expect others to obey her commands. What this Mary needs is love and attention – but that’s in short supply. Found, eventually, by British soldiers, Mary is shipped off to a cold, grey England she has never seen, to live with an uncle she doesn’t know. And she never gets to know him, really, because Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) is every bit as unreachable as her own parents were, willing to do his duty and provide for his niece, but completely uninterested in actually seeing her. The ancestral home, Misselthwaite Manor, is enormous, so it’s easy for them to live separate lives.

As in India, Mary spends most of her time in the company of servants. Here in Yorkshire, this means the formidable Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) and the down-to-earth Martha (Isis Davis). While befriending Mrs Medlock is out of the question, Martha proves more amiable, and her brother Dickon (Amir Wilson), whom Mary meets while exploring the estate, soon becomes Mary’s playmate. Together, they roam the vast grounds, take care of a lame dog and, one day, discover a way into a walled garden, which has been locked ever since Archibald’s wife – Mary’s aunt – died, many years ago. This secret, magical place becomes their sanctuary. The idea of transformation is integral to the book, so it’s a little odd that Jack Thorne’s script seems almost to toss this idea aside. Whereas Hodgson Burnett has the children working hard every day to restore the garden to its former glory, here they just play in it. This undermines the central tenet of the story: that gardens (and children) need tending if they’re to grow well.

Take cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst), who is bedridden, and supposedly out of bounds. He’s another neglected child, trapped by his father’s fears. Archibald thinks Colin has inherited his hunch back, and keeps his son ‘safe’ by cutting him off from the world. Mary hears him crying in the night and decides that what he really needs is to play outside. Like Clara in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, it turns out that his disability can be ‘cured’ by a bit of fresh air and a positive attitude. (I don’t know if this is as deeply offensive as it seems on the face of things or if it’s a true reflection of poor medical practice at the turn of the last century. Even if the latter is true, does this still apply in 1947?) Still, it’s a transformative move: like the garden, both Colin and Mary become stronger, happier people once they’re shown a bit of love.

This is a good-looking film, and the children all perform well. I like the fact that Mary’s story is contextualised, both by the opening scenes in India and by the old equipment lying around the Manor, a reminder of its recently being requisitioned as a war hospital. But both Walters and Firth are criminally under-used (why cast such great actors if you’re not going to give them anything to do?) and it’s a shame that the garden itself never seems magical; in fact, it’s almost indistinguishable from the rest of the estate, and it’s not clear why this place in particular matters so much to the children. From black and white to technicolour might seem hack nowadays, but I think this movie needs an equivalent trick.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Wild Rose

19/03/19

After her confident showing in Beast, it only seemed a matter of time before we saw Jessie Buckley in a star-making role – and Wild Rose might just be the film to do it for her. As Glaswegian wannabe country star, Rose-Lynn Harlen, she positively owns the screen, even when starring opposite professional scene-stealer, Julie Walters.

Rose-Lynn has long held an ambition: to go to Nashville and become a star of country music (not country and western, mind; that’s a whole different kettle of corn!). But when we first meet her, she’s in the process of being released from a year’s spell in prison, where she’s been sent for throwing a bag of heroin over the wall to one of the inmates. Issued with an ankle tag, which means she has to be home by seven o’clock every evening, she heads off to her mother, Marion (Walters), who has been looking after Rose-Lynn’s two young children in her absence. The children barely know Rose and it’s clear she needs to spend time learning to be their mother again – but those long-held ambitions don’t leave much room for anything so mundane as parenthood.

Rose-Lynn soon discovers that while she’s been away, her regular gig at a Glasgow country music venue has been taken over by someone far less talented than her, and she can’t perform in the evenings anyway. So, at Marion’s urging, she takes a day-job as a cleaner for the wealthy and influential Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who, once appraised of Rose’s singing skills, decides to use her considerable clout to give her cleaner’s stalled career a boost – but it eventually becomes apparent that the only person who can really help Rose-Lynn achieve her ambitions is… Rose-Lynn herself.

The film is directed by Tom Harper and cannily scripted by Nicole Taylor, and is astonishingly sure-footed throughout. Every time the story threatens to edge too close to cliché, Taylor cannily subverts it and steers things in a much more interesting direction. Here are well-drawn working-class characters, who are never allowed to be the butt of cheap jokes, but emerge as fully drawn, sympathetic people with real lives to live. Okenedo’s character is also a delight, someone who’s prepared to give everything she’s got to help someone better their situation.

Of course, the icing on the cake is that Buckley has an absolutely amazing voice, delivering every song with real passion and vigour, whether she’s standing mournfully on the stage of the Grand Ole’ Opry or belting out a humdinger in a hometown nightclub.  Oh, and look out for a cameo from ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris, playing himself with absolute conviction.

Wild Rose is a genuine treat, a country music spectacular that never slows down long enough to drag its cowgirl heels. Miss this one and weep!

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

17/11/17

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is Peter Turner’s story. Based on his memoir of the same name, the film, scripted by Matt Greenhalgh, tells of Turner’s affair with fading film star, Gloria Grahame, and the extraordinary tale of how she came to live out her last days with his mum and dad in 1980s Liverpool.

The performances here are exemplary: both Jamie Bell (as Peter) and Annette Bening (as Gloria) are on top form, and their relationship is affectingly conveyed. Bening convinces absolutely as the ex-Hollywood sexpot, holding her head up high and forging a career in British theatre: proud but vulnerable; confident but insecure. Bell is also utterly credible as the young Turner, flattered by the attentions of someone so famous, falling hopelessly in love. And it’s a touching story: rejected by the film industry, out of touch with her family and dying of cancer, Gloria turns to her ex-lover for the warmth she knows his ‘ordinary’ family can offer, and his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) are more than happy to oblige.

A shame, then, that there isn’t more on offer here. There’s a stellar cast without much to do: Vanessa Redgrave, as Gaynor’s mother, says almost nothing of note; Frances Barber, as her sister, does what she can with a couple of bitchy lines. Walters stands out, as she always does, but is criminally under-used, never called upon to offer anything more than ‘kindly mum.’ The marvellous Stephen Graham plays Peter’s brother, but his talent is wasted: he just sits at the kitchen table wearing one of Harry Enfield’s Scouser wigs, whinging occasionally and looking meaningfully at his strangely silent wife (Leanne Best).

I think the problem is that it’s all very rose-tinted, too closely based, perhaps, on Turner’s memoir, without enough space for the spiky complexity of human reality. It’s superficial and chocolate-boxy: a special memory preserved as in a photo-book, rather than an engaging film that allows its characters to show their flaws. And the story arc lacks drama too, never really building, never really drawing us in. This is a film that relies entirely on its central performances; the casting director (Debbie McWilliams) has done a sterling job; thanks to her, it’s not an entirely missed opportunity.

3.6 stars

Susan Singfield

Brooklyn

MV5BMzE4MDk5NzEyOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDM4NDA3NjE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_

17/02/15

‘Missed this film at the multiplex but caught it at an Indie.’ This is something I seem to be saying with increasing regularity, these days. Take Brooklyn, for instance, critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated, yet it just about managed to scrape a week at Cineworld, to be replaced no doubt, by Dirty Grandpa or something equally vacuous. We caught it at the Heaton Moor Savoy – and while I’m on the subject, how gratifying it was to see this recently refurbished cinema completely sold out at 3.30 pm on a wet Wednesday afternoon, proving that there certainly is a big audience for this film, provided it’s advertised correctly.

Brooklyn is an unashamedly old-fashioned movie, based on the book by Colm Toibin and adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby. In 1950s Wexford, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is failing to flourish. She has no job and (even more shameful in that era) no prospect of marriage, so when New York-based Father Flood (Jim Broadbent) arranges for her to emigrate to New York, she jumps at the chance, leaving her older sister, Rose to look after their widowed mother. Once in Brooklyn, Eilis finds a job in a swish department store and a home in a boarding house on Clinton Street run by Mrs Keogh (a delightful cameo by Julie Walters). But it isn’t long before romance arrives in the shape of Italian-American, Tony (Emory Cohen). As is usual in such stories, the path of true love seldom runs smooth and when Rose dies suddenly, Eilis has to head home for the funeral – and once back in her mother’s vicelike grip, life becomes increasingly complicated…

This is a pleasurable, warm bath of a film – there are no great surprises here, but the 50s setting is beautifully evoked, the performances are uniformly good (particularly from Ronan, who fully deserves her Oscar nod) and the story is strong enough to hook you to the end. There’s enough resonance in what happens here to strike chords with most older viewers and in the end, this is perhaps the film’s greatest strength – an everyday tale of an everyday Irish girl cast adrift in an unfamiliar location.

Charming.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney