Bronagh Gallagher, Bob Goody and Mackenzie Crook in Jamie Stone's Orbit Ever After.
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Bafta Shorts 2014: Eight small wonders, stocked with infinite space

The short film, unlike the short story, is a stray with no home - which is why a cinema release of the eight short films that competed at the Baftas is a joyous subversion of the norm.

The short film is a form all its own, with different rules and pitfalls from its feature-length cousin. It can act as both calling card and initiation, as it has done for some of today’s visionary British film-makers (Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold spring to mind). What it can only rarely do is be shown. Short stories are routinely rounded up into anthologies but the short film is at best a stray whose sole hope of adoption in the market is to go viral, or win an award.

A cinema release for the eight shorts that competed at the recent Baftas – five in the live-action category and three in animation – is therefore a happy anomaly. Crystal-ball-gazers are too late to speculate on the winners. For anyone interested in playing a long game, though, a flutter could be had on the probable identity of the next Ramsay or Arnold.

Jane Linfoot occupies the same approximate milieu as those film-makers: Sea View is a tart picture-postcard from a seaside B&B where a gruff bruiser arranges a tryst with a teenage poppet who is as babyish and breakable as a Farley’s Rusk. Some of the details are wince-making (the landlady mistaking the couple for father and daughter; the prosaic shifting of an interloping table before shunting the single beds together). The film peters out slightly, but even that tailing off feels faithful to the subject, with its inbuilt guarantee of anticlimax and curdled dreams among the scratchy blankets and UHT milk.

A different sort of coastal claustrophobia is given a screwball spin in the lively Island Queen, in which a tour guide, Mim (Nat Luurtsema, who also wrote the film), decides to jazz up her life with motherhood. The rapport between Mim and her pal (Sam Pamphilon) is almost too winning; we quickly realise what they don’t – that they’re made for one another.

Those shorts are vignettes, whereas some in the programme have the feel of potted pictures unsuited to the abbreviated running time. Keeping Up With the Joneses is the slickest film here but it is also the one that most ignores the demands of the short; watching it is like stumbling in on the final reel of a 90-minute thriller. Maxine Peake is superbly coiled as the wife of an MP whose business deals have landed him in serious bother with a pair of thugs. When they take her hostage, her integrity works its magic on at least one of them. The other, whose explosive temper provides an excuse for some passé Tarantino-style comic violence, is beyond hope. The director, Michael Pearce, a National Film and Television School graduate, has control and cunning but he hasn’t embraced the short format so much as made a dry run for a feature.

Orbit Ever After also has the swagger of a much bigger picture. Set on a drifting spaceship where people mingle with farm animals among junk-shop bric-a-brac, it feels like a junior Gravity but its plot is at least tailored to the miniature. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the love-struck scamp who evaded airport security implausibly at the end of Love Actually, is now a love-struck teen swooning over a female astronaut who’s making eyes at him across the cosmos. His family doesn’t approve but he is determined to take the leap – literally. The film has the cluttered look of early Terry Gilliam and a mordant punchline that drops out of the blue like an asteroid.

Detail is the key in the short animations. Everything I Can See From Here, in which a football lost in a dun-tinted watercolour landscape is returned by a Day-Glo alien with a floodlit smile, scores aesthetic points only, as does I Am Tom Moody, about a musician with a personality disorder, where form (moist, twitchy stop-motion) is more sophisticated than content. Both lost the animation Bafta to Sleeping with the Fishes, a love story that brings together a fishmonger and her trout-like suitor. The distinction between the species is academic, the tone an unlikely mix of the wistful and the macabre.

The live-action winner was also a work that respects the confines of the form properly. Room 8 brings some Twilight Zone alchemy to a pocket-sized tale set in a prison cell. Its location is deceptively cramped but hidden in the narrative are compartments of infinite physical and philosophical space. And if you are searching for a definition of the sort of advantage that a short film can have over a feature, I just gave it to you. That was my best shot.

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 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle