Mysteries of Lisbon (PG)

Intricate storytelling has never looked so good.

Mysteries of Lisbon (PG)
dir: Raúl Ruiz

Ordinarily, I scribble notes when watching a movie. The work of the Chilean director Raúl Ruiz, who died in August this year, demands a more flexible approach. In the case of his pen­ultimate film, Mysteries of Lisbon, I gave up on the note-taking and instead drew Venn diagrams, flow charts and curved arrows to keep abreast of: a) what was happening, b) which character had deigned to tell us about it and c) what their relationship was to everyone else in the film. Closely following the feverish jottings in my notebook, I should now be able to build a jaunty lean-to or a rocket to the moon.

Carlos Saboga adapted Mysteries of Lisbon from the 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, but I wonder if there wasn't a phalanx of uncredited scribes or script doctors behind the scenes. All the signs point to a crack screenwriting squad of Russian dolls. Stories nestle within flashbacks, which are secreted deep inside other tales. Voice-over is passed around the cast: man hands on mysteries to man.

The film is narrated initially by a sorrowful-sounding fellow looking back on his childhood at a Portuguese boarding school. We discover that he was an orphan and that his name is João. These apparent facts are then shown to be nothing of the sort. Identity and reality are provisional: many of the film's characters have two or more aliases, and the recurring motif of a toy puppet theatre (think Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander) invites us to remember that it's only a story.

The school's priest, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), introduces young João (João Luis Arrais) to the mother he thought was dead and then reveals in depth how he chanced on this privileged discovery. To recap: the adult João, who is not really called João, is recalling the time Father Dinis, who was not always called Father Dinis, told him the story of his parentage, which he learned when Don Pedro da Silva (João Baptista) told him (Father Dinis, that is) how he came to impregnate the marquis's daughter Ângela (Maria João Bastos). Do keep up.

That covers roughly the first 30 minutes of this four-and-a-half-hour film, which has been trimmed down from a six-hour miniseries. Not for the last time, we may gaze upon the counts, countesses, marquises and dons and feel some kinship with the scallywags stumbling around the boarding school in a never-ending game of blind man's buff.

The plot contains more forks than a cutlery drawer. Detours include a lengthy flashback to the hedonistic youth of an old monk and an encounter with a conspicuously scarred killer ("My name is Heliodoro but everyone knows me as Knife-Eater"). How do such things pertain to João? All in good time. Ruiz defers our understanding without dampening our interest. It's easy to get swept along by the storytelling, with its elements of fairy tale, soap opera, potboiler and bodice-ripper, or to forget that each subplot is part of a larger canvas, a whole tapestry, even, until Ruiz applies the last brushstroke, the final stitch.

Central to the picture's success is André Szan­kowski's cinematography. Vermeer interiors, Constable landscapes - he does the lot. Most hypnotic are the elaborate ballets that his camera performs to prolong the life of a shot, rendering almost redundant the editor's scissors. Where so many modern films suffer death by a thousand cuts, Ruiz and Szankowski favour the unbroken shot that weaves and dances around the actors. The fluid camerawork preserves the flow of real time and goes some way towards smoothing over the episodic plot.

There are also plenty of Ruiz's characteristic visual distortions - faces exaggerated by their proximity to the camera or an actor talking while the close-up that is rightfully his goes to his reflection in a cup of coffee. One startling effect leaves a crowded ball depleted as though the extras have been vaporised, the better to isolate the protagonists on the dance floor.

The connections between far-flung characters and events emerge over several hours without ever extinguishing the film's enigmas. The sen­sation Ruiz evokes can be compared to a suc­cession of pennies dropping individually, like a fruit machine paying out its jackpot one gleaming coin at a time.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit