The stars lined up for Alexander Korda when he made (reportedly at the request of Winston Churchill) That Hamilton Woman (Criterion). Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier had just become Hollywood stars (she with “Gone With the Wind,” he with “Wuthering Heights”) and, after a notorious affair, become husband and wife before shooting began. It was perfect casting for a film celebrating naval hero Lord Horatio Nelson and his scandalous affair with Emma Lady Hamilton in the late 18th century. Whether the passion on screen is their private life seeping into the film or simply superb acting, the result is an impassioned romance celebrated as a triumph of love and patriotic duty just as Britain entered World War II. It’s also the most gracefully directed and dramatically engaging film from British film impresario Korda, who generally directed like a producer. This is as episodic as all of Korda’s directorial efforts, but in this film he creates an elegance and rhythm that keeps the film flowing over the temporal leaps and the evocative cinematography by Rudolph Mate and production design by Korda’s brother, Vincent, sets it off like a jewel.
The B&W films looks very good, with strong contrasts and only light surface scratches and scuffs from the fine-grain master print, and has been very slightly windowboxed. The crisply-delivered commentary by film historian Ian Christie is filled with background on both the historical characters and the film production in addition to his sharp observations. His theatrical delivery keeps it lively and engaging. Michael Korda, son of art director Vincent Korda and nephew of Alexander and author of a Korda family biography, adds another perspective to the production history in a newly recorded video interview. Continue reading “DVDs for 9/8/09 – That Hamilton Woman, Model Shop and Mad Monsters”
The screen opens on the night sky, the stars glowing (not twinkling, mind you, but crisp and sharp and dense as seen from the clarity of a desert, with no city lights or urban pollution to muddy the view). The sounds of night are the only soundtrack, hyper-attentive to the natural world of insects. The starfield suddenly starts to bend and warp as the screen spirals and the camera readjusts. It’s only when the orange and green of dawn begins to overpower the black sky and drown out the stars and dark shadows of silhouettes are slowly revealed that we realize it is the horizon. It’s like watching the world being born in front of our eyes, with the sounds of farm animals waking to the dawn and the Earth rousing from slumber taking over the soundtrack. The camera silently tracks in to the scene, creeping so slowly it’s almost imperceptible but for the shifting perspective.
I can’t recall ever seeing such a vision of dawn as the birth of a new day, of the turning of the Earth as a literal rebirth of life, in a film, let alone in the defining first images. Silent Light, Carlos Reygadas’ third feature, is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico, an insular pocket of agrarian people that feels almost like a portal to old Europe within modern Mexico. This is not some Luddite culture – Johan (Cornelio Wall), the gentle patriarch of the farm family we meet over silent prayer and bustling breakfast, drives a sturdy new pickup and harvests the fields with combines and he joins his children to watch a DVD in a portable TV in a van – but these people hold close to their values, their religion and their way of life. Reygadas’ measured pace and the reflective observation of his patient camera is in tune with the movement of seasons and the cycle of crops, rather than the rush of urban life carved up into deadlines. It’s also in tune with the austerity of their surroundings and the quality of their spiritual lives. They are not a simple people, which sounds more like an insult than a description, but a community of people who seem to take the time to experience every moment, whether it is silent prayer over the breakfast table or a family bath in an outdoor pool.