Category Archives: Film

“Belle”: A Movie

There is a painting  held at Scone Palace, the ancestral home of the Murray family that shows two beautiful young ladies, Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Elizabeth Belle, in the garden of Kenwood House, with the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral just visible in the background.  Formerly attributed to the portraitist Johann Zoffany, it picks up many of the tropes of 18th century femininity and social life. It contrasts the peaches and cream complexion of Elizabeth and the opulent detail of her dress, with the simple ‘natural’ dress and exotic headgear of the mulatto Dido who holds the obligatory fruit. But this portrait does not show the grinning servility of  little mulatto boys bearing pineapples  or the turbanned otherness of male servants who crowd the corners of other portraits of the time.  Instead, Dido is assertive and confident, pointing rather ambiguously to her cheek, and Elizabeth’s hand at her waist suggests companionship and affection.



This painting features in the movie Belle, which I saw yesterday in its dying days at the Cinema Nova.  I absolutely loved it.  The settings and costumes were lush, there was a story line that worked at several levels, and I came out of the theatre saying “What a terrific movie!” instead of feeling underwhelmed, short-changed and wondering if I actually ‘got it’, which is what I often feel these days.

Dido and Elizabeth were the great-nieces of William Murray, better known as the first Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of England.  Born to different nephews, they were both taken into the home of Lord Mansfield, where they were brought up and educated together.  Dido, despite her mulatto heritage and illegitimacy, was treated as Elizabeth’s ‘sister’, in itself a controversial decision on the part of Lord Mansfield and his wife.  There were limits, of course: Dido did not eat dinner with the family, and her prospects on the marriage market were much different from those of her cousin.

As Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield made two landmark decisions which, although narrow in scope and largely leaving the structure of slavery intact, were taken up by later abolitionists and arguably contributed indirectly to the dismantling of slavery in Britain.  The first of these was the Somerset case in 1772, where Lord Mansfield ruled that chattel slavery was unsupported by the common law in England and Wales, and that a slave could not be removed from England against his will.  The second was the Zong Massacre case in 1783, which was actually an appeal by an insurance company against Mansfield’s earlier ruling over the  loss of slave ‘cargo’ when approximately 142 slaves were thrown overboard from the Zong, a slave ship owned by a Liverpool slaving syndicate.  The Zong case lies at the heart of this film.

I was particularly attracted to this film because of my own research which involves a judge- a nineteenth century one this time- and my interest in the intersection between a man’s abstract principles of law and his private life and experience.  Of course, there are infelicities in this film, all in the cause of a good story: Dido was not in fact left a fortune by her father; her place in the household was more ambiguous than that depicted by the film.  But the theme of humans, be they slaves or women, as property that can be traded is well-made, and the film does not disguise the narrowness of Lord Mansfield’s decision in the Zong case.  You can read more about Dido and the case here.

And if it’s still on in a theatre near you, go see it!

Update: I’ve found this excellent post on the film Thoughts on Belle on Miranda Kaufmann’s blog. It references a Guardian article that also points out the historical embellishments on the film.





Albert Nobbs

We went to see Albert Nobbs. I know that it’s receiving only lukewarm reviews, but I really enjoyed it.  Glenn Close plays a repressed, reclusive little wisp of a man who is, in fact a woman.  He works as a waiter in an Irish  hotel in the late 19th century, painstakingly saving enough to realize his dream of one day owning a tobacconist shop, and terrified of exposure.

It’s a sad little story, and for much of the film, I feared for Albert.  There have been criticisms that Glenn Close is wooden, but I don’t agree.  It’s a very tense, coiled performance and the character of Albert is so repressed and taut that his emotions can only be portrayed as minute gradations, tightly controlled.

Apparently Glenn Close first played the role off-Broadway in 1982, and she and John Banville wrote the film adaptation.  It doesn’t surprise me that John Banville was involved: the film is bleak and sharp, as much of his writing is.

Critics be damned! I liked it.

Being there- almost

Last weekend (i.e. 16th January) we went to see the National Theatre Live production of Hamlet at the Cinema Nova in Carlton.

I’ve seen opera advertised in the same format, but I must admit that I was rather puzzled by the designation ‘live’.  It was scheduled to start at 1.00 p.m. in Theatres 1 and 3, but Theatre 3 was opened up 15 minutes prior to Theatre 1- and surely it wasn’t live at 2.00 a.m. in London?! I’ve since deduced from the posters advertising 9 December 2010 that we must have been one of the four countries watching it on delayed broadcast- five weeks later!

What an odd experience! Our cinema audience in Melbourne Australia filed in, popcorn and choctops in hand, only to see an audience on the other side of the world likewise filing in and taking their seats.  The cameras were visible at the front of the stage. The image shifted back and forth between the view of the whole stage you might have from your seat were you actually there,  to close-ups just as you might see in a film.  How strange: not just for the actors who would need to display the nuance of facial expression picked up by the camera but also the large gesture of the stage; but  for the audience here in Melbourne  too, aware (well, assuming) that this was running live with all the edginess and potential for mishaps this denotes but viewed from even closer than the very, very best seat in the house.   It had the urgency of ‘quick- we need to see it this weekend because it’s only on this Saturday and Sunday!’ and yet you knew, deep down, that you’d only paid $25.00 for your ticket and that you really weren’t all  glammed up for a night at the the-eatre at lunchtime on a Sunday afternoon.

How seductive all this televising is.  I generally watch my football on television at home and on the rare occasions that I might go to the MCG, I find myself watching the vision on the large screen rather than the small dots running around the field far below us.  I pull myself up, thinking  “You’re actually HERE- watch the game, not the screen!” but ah- you can see so much more on the screen.

Then there was the Grand Final rematch last year between my beloved St Kilda and the dastardly Collingwood.  I mentioned the draw very briefly  in this blog, but not the rematch the following week which saw my lovely boys humiliated. [Curse all those Collingwood supporters floating around with their ‘Magpies Premiers 2010’ stickers on their cars- my fingers itch for my car key to just casually…etch…its..way… along…their…duco.  Ooops- did I say that? I may just have to disable the comments function.]

Anyway, with their coffers swelled by an unanticipated rematch, the AFL opened up the newly-completed soccer ground at AAMI Park across the road from the MCG for the overflow crowd to watch on the big screens for free.  So there we were, in a half-empty stadium with a big screen, watching a game that was taking place across the road in a packed MCG, so close that you could almost but not quite hear it .   It was a warm Spring day and we wanted to sit under shade so we sat at one end of the rectangle, with the screens at the other end.  We were there, but we weren’t. There was another much closer screen facing the other way behind us which we could see if we turned around.  But- oh, the pain, the pain- directly in front of us were Collingwood supporters sitting on the ground, facing us, watching the screen behind us.  Not only did we have to watch the crushing of our boys, but we also had to witness the delight of the Collingwood fans in front of us- a truly gruesome ordeal.

You can just see the large screen at the far end of the ground. Mr Judge has turned round and is watching the screen behind us, looking rather downcast. (Click to make bigger image)

The screen immediately behind us if we turned round.

Needless to say, it was such a blood bath that we left early, along with many other St Kilda supporters.

Check out the body language!

And come to think of it, we left early from Hamlet last weekend.  Not because it was a bloodbath – we left before that- and not because we weren’t enjoying it- Rory Kinnear was terrific and made you feel as if you were watching it for the very first time.  No, we left because I didn’t realize that the production went for 210 minutes and a 10 minute interval- we had a dinner to cook!  Would we have walked out on a real, fair-dinkum performance?- I don’t think so.   We were there, almost- but not really.

‘The King’s Speech’

It had been a sad, strained Christmas Day for us this year, and so off to the movies we went for Boxing Day, along with many other burghers of the leafy suburbs over the Yarra.  We were sitting in probably the closest seats to the screen, and  who should be sitting behind us in the second closest seats to the screen but my good friend M.

The movie featured bravura performances from both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush.  The embarrassment of the then-Duke of York’s speech at Wembley Stadium is still excruciating, and the movie succeeds brilliantly in channelling your attention away from the content of what he was trying to convey to a minute, breath-holding fixation on how he was saying it.  The casting was inspired  all round: you could see flashes of our present Queen in the young girl cast as the Princess Elizabeth, and Helen Bonham-Carter captures the vivacity of the woman we came to know as the Queen Mother before she became embalmed in dress coats and ostrich feathers.

It strikes me that poor Bertie was more exposed by live radio technology then than he would be today with almost effortless sound editing.  Unfortunate, really.

Still, I can’t help wondering if “the firm” is not doing a job on us all through cinema- first Helen Mirren in The Queen, and now this movie.  How cynical I am.

Animal Kingdom

A public holiday on a coolish winter day, so off to the Westgarth Cinema to see Animal Kingdom.  My wordy, there must have been a lot of cinemas along High Street pre-World War II. Most of them are closed now, turned into furniture shops, bingo halls and reception centres but the Westgarth (apparently Melbourne’s oldest functioning cinema) was  beautifully restored a couple of years back.  They resisted the temptation to turn it into a multiplex as such, and although the large cinema has been sliced in half to make one large and two smaller theatres, the art deco atmosphere has been well retained.

And Animal Kingdom– what a movie!  I must be one of the handful of people in Melbourne who have NOT watched Underbelly, but any Melburnian would recognize the references to Melbourne’s crime scene in this movie- Walsh Street, Kath Pettingill.   But these are just glancing references, not the story and the movie stands strong without being aware of the real-life parallels.  It’s violent, jumpy and gripping.  At one stage (I only need say ‘backing out the driveway’ to anyone who’s seen it and you’ll know the scene I mean) I gradually became aware that my heart was pounding so hard that I could feel it.  There’s an almost suffocating distrust that seeps into you, and despite the film’s blue skies, warm weather, and the easiness and comfort of the grandmother figure (played by everyone’s favourite Jacki Weaver)  the film feels claustrophobic and fraught with danger and evil.

And how strange to see familiar places- VERY familiar places like the East Ivanhoe shopping centre- associated with such dark deeds.  It reminds me a bit of news reports after a shooting where neighbours shake their heads and say “I can’t believe it- it’s such a quiet street!”.  I felt much the same way.  All of a sudden that bad world out there comes crashing into your quiet, domestic every-day world with a jolt.

Good movie- go see it!

Masters and servants: a Labour Day reflection

It’s Labour Day here in Victoria, celebrating the awarding of the eight hour day to the stonemasons employed at Melbourne University in 1856.  The idea of eight hours work, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest seems rather quaint in our deregulated, open-all-hours economy.

During Judge Willis’ time in Melbourne, labour relations (a terminology not even dreamed of at the time) were governed by Master and Servant legislation.  Such legislation was an empire-wide concept whereby relationships between employers and employees were governed by contracts that were enforceable by magistrates and where breaches by employees were punished.  The New South Wales legislation promulgated in 1828  was even harsher than the corresponding English statute because it provided up to six months imprisonment for absenteeism and desertion, double the penalty in the English legislation.  Labour shortages were an ongoing problem in the colonies, although during the 1840s depression workers were exhorted not to keep insisting on their wages because it would only push their employers into insolvency (huh- I’ve heard THAT before!).  The legislation applied to the overwhelming majority of workers including, at first, independent contractors as well as hired servants and apprentices.  Domestic servants, and especially female domestic servants were expressly included because of perceptions of scarcity and troublesome character, and to prevent them absconding.  The Act was modified in 1840 but still remained heavily weighted towards the employer, although cases for non-payment of wages were reported in the newspapers as well.  This legislation was generally heard by the Police Magistrate in the Police Court.

So, in the Port Phillip Herald on the 24th January 1843 we have an item headed “Female Impudence”

At the police office, on Thursday, Jane Kelly preferred a charge against Mr J. Cade of the River Plenty, under the Masters’ and Servants’ Act, inasmuch as she had been in the service of the said Mr John Cade as a maid of all work, he refused to pay the balance of wages due to her, 24s.  The defendant on being asked by the Police Magistrate if he denied “the soft impeachment” ungallantly said, the fair Jane had got drunk last Sunday evening, disturbed the whole family with her vagaries, while in that unenviable state of oblivion and would not go to her own bed, but wanted to come to his, and to effect her purpose broke open the window of his bed-room. Here an angry discussion ensued between the parties as to who had the best right to the bed in question, the complainant contending the bed was hers, and the defendant with equal pertinacity urging his claims to it.  The bench consisting of the police magistrate, Mr Airey, and Capt. Smith endeavoured to solve the point by ascertaining its position in the house, but nothing definite from the conflicting statement of the parties could be arrived at. The complainant at last said the least the defendent said on that subject the better as he had bit her finger and endeavoured to take liberties with her, which charge was indignantly denied by the defendant, who expressed his honest indignation at her impudence in endeavouring to force an entrance into his bed-room. The court and bench were frequently convulsed with laughter at their mutual recriminations, and the police magistrate suddenly discovered her as an old acquaintance who had formerly endeavoured to force an entrance into the bed-room of Mr Boyd, who was so alarmed on the occasion as be compelled to have recourse to the protection of the police: she had since been in gaol several times for misconduct, and under all the circumstances the bench dismissed the case, to the no small mortification of Miss Jane, whose countenance, which had been before sprightly and gay, now assumed a dark and down-cast hue.

Or, another report in the Port Phillip Herald of 28th June 1842 where  a servant girl took her employer to the Police Court for non-payment of wages.

On Saturday, at the Police Office, in a case for the recovery of wages, by a servant girl from her master, Mr Murray a late arrival, the defendant stated in his defence that in the place where he came from, in Scotland, three pounds per annum was the rate of wages which he was willing to allow her, but as she had made an application for the return of a certificate she had received from her clergyman, and which he held, he refused to give it up, he having himself paid 2s 6d for it before leaving home.  Major St John [the police magistrate] after having patiently heard both sides of the case, immediately directed the payment of the wages due, and that the certificate of character should immediately be given up, and that he would himself pay the half-crown, which he presented to Mr Murray.  The latter, however, said he could not give it up as he had it not, whereupon the Major ordered him to sit down and write her out a receipt for the document, which Mr Murray did without specifying whether it stated that her character was good, but was forthwith directed to add the fact to the receipt, as the poor girl, like many others, had nothing but her character on which to depend.

It wasn’t just women who fronted the courts.  An item headed “Cakes” of 4th January 1842:

A person whose name like his trade was A. Baker, summoned his master on Saturday last to the Police Office for wages due: the latter in his defence stated that the man engaged with him as journeyman Baker, but proved a traitor to his name and profession, being neither baker nor tradesman, having lately spoiled a family Christmas cake, by flattening the nose of the white sugared Queen seated thereupon. On being reproved therefore he offered to perform the like service for his master “if he was game” for which the latter stopped payment until advised to stump up by the Bench.

It seemed fitting to spend Labour Day at the movies seeing George Clooney in “Up in the Air”

I assume that the last segment of talking heads was just to reassure us, in case we didn’t already know, that life is really about family and loved ones in your backpack.  And I just shake my head in amazement that somehow Americans assure themselves that they can stand on their own two feet and don’t need “big government” and that having a health insurance system tied so closely to employment status is a good idea. Sheesh.


Michael Quinlan ‘Australia 1788-1902: A Workingman’s Paradise?’ in Douglas Hay and Peter Craven Masters, Servants and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, University of North Carolina Press, 2004

Review of ‘Masters, Servants and Magistrates in Smith Book Review

‘My Year Without Sex’


Terrific film.  Set in the western suburbs of Melbourne, it’s a  slice of suburban life that is  Melbourne through and through, but also broadly human. It’s the experience of a young mother who suffers an aneurism and is warned that lifting, constipation, stifling sneezing and orgasms could trigger another bleed : as her doctor said, there’s one of those you can avoid. And so, she and her husband do, over a one year period punctuated with tooth fairies,  nits, football finals and Christmas raffles.  All this domestic clutter continues as Natalie returns to her role as mother, fragile and teary, reprieved and troubled by her own mortality; her husband Ross is rocked by her near-death, anxious about the constant restructuring in his own workplace, quailing in the face of financial troubles and resentful of his wife’s tentative explorations of spirituality.

The acting was wonderful:  Sasha Horler (Natalie) would look at her children and crumple into tears- and so did I.   I held my breath as she lay in her hospital bed, so still and so very, very ill.  When Bubblehead the fox terrier was attacked by a larger dog, I found myself shaking like a leaf, just as I did when my own little Ellie was monstered by the dog down the street.  A look; a comment tossed over the shoulder- it was like watching someone else’s life unfold before you.

This is Sarah Watt’s second film after Look Both Ways.  There are similarities between the two: both are set in Melbourne; both are intimate slices of a set period of time (a weekend; a year); both use animation as structural devices although there was less of this in ‘My Year Without Sex’. I do find myself wondering whether she will move beyond such up-close explorations of illness and mortality: it’s obviously a theme that is important to her.

This film is not unlike ‘The Castle’ in that, as a Melburnian, you can identify instantly with so many aspects of their daily life- even if MY house is much neater, my children are older, we’re on the other side of the Westgate etc.  It’s such an affectionate film. I’m delighted that it’s doing so well.

Of time and the city


We saw the documentary “Of Time and the City” last weekend.  It is down to one showing a day at the Nova, which is a fairly good indication that it’s about to disappear soon.

It is a strange film about the changes wrought in Liverpool since the 1940s-50s.  It is narrated by its director Terence Davies, who speaks in fruity, world weary and  very-English tones.  To my shame, I am not familiar enough with 20th century English poetry to recognize when he was quoting, and when it was his own sardonic, wistful, elegaic commentary.  Whether they were his own words or others’, what came through was a mixture of regret and a shuddering distaste for what had passed away,  bitterness over the struggle between his Catholicism and his homosexuality,  and a deep ambivalence over what has replaced the Liverpool of his childhood.

In the same way that the voice-over is a mash-up, so too are the visuals.  Much of it has been taken from documentaries and photographs in the past, and you find yourself wondering WHY film was ever taken of an older child fitting socks over a sibling’s cold hands while standing under deserted play equipment in a bleak and snowy playground.  Why were street scenes taken, from a car, of row after row of terraces with a door and single window facing out onto a street?

What struck me from the footage from the 1950s was the sheer number of children, and the stultifying boredom of such poverty.  Mothers sat in the weak sunshine on their front steps, chatting with neighbours, while children would play in prams or run on the street.  And so many people- streaming off a steamboat to lie on the beach like corpses in a row; crowded into the shallows splashing and laughing; stacked into the football grounds with bobbing heads and flags, wreathed in cigarette smoke and gloom.  And the rain, the dirty snow, the puddles,  the washing hanging cold and clammy.

Davies admits that the excitement of the Beatles and the 1960s escaped him completely and he immersed himself in Mahler and other more lofty pursuits.  There’s footage of the Cavern Club (and my claustrophobia mounted as I gazed on that curved, tunnel-like roof and the clouds of cigarette smoke and fug) overdubbed with a soundtrack  of  the Hippy Hippy Shake performed not by the Beatles, but the  Swinging Blue Jeans.  I wonder if it was a matter of cost in getting access to a Beatles soundtrack, or whether Davies particularly wanted to portray the Beatles obliquely by showing a band that was not the Beatles, and featuring a song linked with Beatles, but not performed by them.  At times the music chosen jarred: film reel of young English soldiers going off to fight in Korea in the 1950s- ( and what a distant and  truly pointless war  that must have seemed to a nation still suffering from World War II damage) –  was accompanied by The Hollies’ “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” from 1969.

There were many visual juxtapositions: the wealth and arrogance of the Liverpool city fathers in constructing such grand public buildings, contrasted with the meanness of the terraced streets;  the beachside scenes contrasted with the gloom of misty rain;  the teeming crowds disembarking from ferries on the river compared with a small knot of children walking along a deserted, pock-marked area after the demolition of the neighbourhood.

And yet some images were more familiar than I would have anticipated.  Melbourne has its slum images as well, but somehow the light is different and you don’t get the same sense of settling, bone-deep damp.   I was amazed to see exactly the same high-rise buildings erected after slum clearance as our own Housing Commission towers.

liverpool hirise

Above:  Liverpool hi-rise


Collingwood, Melbourne hi-rise

Then, gradually, we emerge out into Liverpool of today.  There are children in prams, but this time well-fed, indulged children in huge engineered contraptions, hovered over by parents and with the handles of the pram festooned with shopping bags.  People eating, people buying – so much consumption compared with the hungry-looking footage of the 1940s and 50s.

There’s no plot at all to Of Time and the City.  It’s a bit like being behind someone else’s eyes, watching and observing, and someone else is telling you what you see- someone who both loves and hates what he is viewing, who wants to mock but wants to grieve as well.  An unsettling experience.