I'm No Film Critic, But...

I’m no film critic, but I do like to lose myself in the plot of a good film. It may be a serious film, it may be a comedy; it may be philosophical. I enjoy the thrill of a well-told ghost story (though not horror for the sake of gore). But it never fails to surprise me how many films disappoint me. Am I so fussy when it comes to film? Or do I simply refuse to accept what The Critics say?

Unusually, in the past few days I have seen two new films on the big screen. Unusually, because I am still old-fashioned enough to buy DVDs and watch the latest releases when they have already been out for many months, often years. A good film should stand the test of time, so it doesn’t bother me if I don’t catch it as soon as it receives the plaudits of The Critics.

I’ve just watched two new films. And each of them disappointed me. Perhaps I’m just a cinema Scrooge? The first was Mr Jones, which tells the fascinating true story of how Welsh journalist Gareth Jones slipped the leash of his Soviet minder to go to Ukraine in March 1933 and see for himself the horror of the famine – known in Ukrainian as Holodomor – which Stalin had deliberately created there.

Image courtesy of
By Український інститут національної пам'яті - People of Truth, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This is a hugely important story, yet one which (despite Jones’ reports at the time) was largely suppressed by the Soviet Union until that country collapsed at the end of 1991. To this end, Mr Jones has a significant role to play in informing people of a bitter truth about Stalin’s regime. In the present climate in Russia of rehabilitating Stalin, it is unlikely to be shown there; but any Russians abroad who have the chance to see it should do so.

And yet, despite the message of the film being so important, simply as a film it didn’t work for me. At times the plot seemed to be too drawn out; whilst at others it seemed to jump disconnectedly from one scene to another. The apparent link with George Orwell’s Animal Farm was not immediately apparent, despite Orwell being the first character we see in the film. Poetic licence allowed for a meeting between Orwell and Jones which never happened in reality, but more could have been made of the connection. Certainly it would appear that the references in Animal Farm to famine were meant to indicate what had gone on in Ukraine in 1932-33, and may well have been inspired by Jones’ reports.

Perhaps it was a question of a low budget; or perhaps the producers of the film became so caught up in telling the story of the Holodomor that they lost the detachment necessary to maintain the quality of the film. Two excellent scenes in particular do stand out. The haunting (genuine) Ukrainian song about the famine as a group of children gather around Jones; and the scene where it is revealed how older brother Kolya has provided his siblings with meat. But I feel that the chance has been lost to make a truly powerful film about this incredible and horrifying story.

The second film does not have an important message; and I would simply rate it as a flop. I went to see The Personal History of David Copperfield simply because it was directed by Armando Iannucci, whose film, The Death of Stalin I rate among my favourite films of all time. In The Death of Stalin, Iannucci captures brilliantly the atmosphere of fear and distrust of Stalin’s Soviet Union, while illustrating through satire how absurd and awful that atmosphere was. But all I saw in The Personal History of David Copperfield was a very silly and pointless film, filled with supposedly humourous yet unfunny moments. Had my son not been curious enough to want to see how the film ended I would have walked out halfway through. I feel that I gained nothing by staying to see the rest of the film.

Some years ago I spent a week working with the film director Michael Mann. He is someone who knows what he wants, expects total commitment from those around him and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The only time he was stopped in his tracks was when I said to him, “Michael, why do directors make so many bad films?” “Well,” he stuttered, “they don’t go out to make bad films…” Clearly he wasn’t used to people not taking the approach of “yes, Michael, no Michael, three bags full, Michael”.

The gods of the film world seem to think that they can do no wrong, that somehow they are above us mere mortals and we should be grateful for what they serve up to us on the cinema screen. But sometimes they need to be told not simply by The Critics but by the public who pay to watch their films in whatever format that the cinematic king has no clothes.


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