In this week's NS I'll be reviewing Ballast and Submarine, two films from first-time directors. Coincidentally, this week also brings new movies by a pair of respected veterans -- Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger and Ken Loach's Route Irish.
Between them, Allen and Loach have been directing for cinema for a combined total of 89 years. They made their film debuts within a year of one another. Allen's first directing credit was for What's Up Tiger Lily?, his 1966 redubbing of an existing Japanese spy movie, with his first original picture, the mockumentary Take the Money and Run, arriving three years later. Loach moved to cinema from television (a medium to which he has returned consistently ever since) with Poor Cow in 1967.
Both have seen their critical and commercial fortunes fluctuate, and it's instructive to consider their new films through the prism of the sort of expectations (high or low) engendered by artistic longevity. Only those who have never seen anything by Loach or Allen can possibly come to their latest work without years of hardened preconceptions. The consensus with Allen, at least in Britain, is that he has long been in decline -- depending on how charitable you feel, that decline began with The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), which Allen considers to be his worst movie, or Small Time Crooks (2000), or maybe even Mighty Aphrodite (1995), which began a run of calcified, often downright nasty pictures interrupted by the occasional encouraging fluke (Deconstructing Harry, Sweet and Lowdown).
It's interesting that US critics, notably the New Yorker's David Denby and Richard Brody, have taken an admiring view of the London-set pictures made since 2006 -- Match Point, Scoop (which never made it to UK cinemas), Cassandra's Dream and now You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. These are generally regarded in this country as a collective nadir in Allen's oeuvre. Part of the problem may be that UK audiences can't see or hear past the inauthentic cadences and phrasing, and the tourist's-eye view of London. But it's also the case that the moral quandaries and symmetrical dilemmas set up by Allen the screenwriter are poorly served by Allen the director.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger has an elegant construction -- four intertwining plots spark off one another, with each one resolved (or not) in its own deliciously ambiguous ending -- but it's hellish to watch under-directed actors, so stiff with one another that they might have been introduced mere seconds before Allen called "Action", left to flounder on screen. Brody tweeted this week that the film "is not comic romance but noir: it ends with the suggestion of three or four murders to come" -- a brilliant (and accurate) observation, but one which says more about his skill as a critic and interpreter than Allen's as a dramatist or communicator. It's fitting that Allen's recent work should be so strong on structure and so unconvincing in execution, since he directs like someone who never leaves his typewriter. He can't hear how real people speak, and he doesn't see when his actors are bogus.
On the other hand, the few instances of vitality in the new picture come from some of the cast -- in particular the brilliant Lucy Punch, who's stuck with one of those roles (the vulgar, unsophisticated and embarrassing younger woman) that Allen writes in bile, not ink.
It's been the case for a while now that distributors consider it prudent to omit Allen's name from the posters for his own films (see Whatever Works and Vicky Cristina Barcelona), making him the marketing department's equivalent of "the Scottish play." The only way they can get audiences in to see his work is by pretending he wasn't involved; if he can only be persuaded to hire another director to shoot his screenplays, we might be getting somewhere.
Loach's latest film, Route Irish, is no less stilted than Allen's, but its awkwardness arises from a different source. This is Loach and his screenwriter Paul Laverty in thriller mode, with lots of exposition to convey while sustaining a paradoxical atmosphere of realism and improvisation. There has been no protracted decline in Loach's work; he's still exhibiting the same strengths and shortcomings that he always has. In Route Irish, which concerns a private security contractor in Iraq who investigates his best friend's death, or Hidden Agenda (the director's 1990 retelling of the Stalker affair), the demands of genre compromise the freshness that is one of Loach's defining characteristics.
The best of his work has a verité immediacy that spills off the screen, as befits a director adverse to the artifice of film-making. "If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would," observed Trevor Griffiths, after collaborating on the 1986 film Fatherland. "He wants the actors to just be themselves so that everything looks as though it has just happened." On Carla's Song, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle the barest bones of preparatory tips for his character: "Your name's George and you drive a bus. Maybe it would be a good idea if you learned to drive a bus."
That process, designed to insulate freshness, starts to break down when what we see on screen becomes subordinate to plot. Route Irish raises some important questions about the carte blanche formerly afforded to private contractors in Iraq. But in the fusion of Loachian authenticity and the conspiracy thriller format, both come off looking bruised.
To take an example, the scene in which the main character extracts information from the villain (and Loach's film is as rigid in its moral delineation as any Hollywood blockbuster) by subjecting him to an improvised bout of waterboarding in a Liverpool lock-up is both thematically right and dramatically ridiculous. In other words, the symbolic justification for the scene doesn't make it any more plausible. Loach and Allen don't have much in common, but it's striking to note that their new films share a fatal flaw: the failure to translate ideas into drama. They're good on paper, but dead on screen.