The White Ribbon

Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s superb new film The White Ribbon is a stark and gripping period drama about a German town on the eve of WWI plagued by a series of violent incidents that act as a dark omen of the horrors to come.

The story, narrated by the film’s central character, a young schoolteacher (Christian Friedel), is structured around a string of misfortunes that befall the citizens of Eichwald, a rural village in Protestant Northern Germany. Half of the townspeople are dependent on the thunderous Baron (Ulrich Tukur) for work and the other half take their spiritual sustenance from the church minister (Burghart Klaussner), who wields the power of the pulpit with understated force.

The film opens as the local doctor (Rainer Bock) is thrown from his horse by a tripwire, strung between two trees outside his home, and is badly injured. It was obviously no accident, but the culprits cannot be found. Not long after, a woman working in the Baron’s mill falls through a splintered wooden floor and is killed. Then, over a period of weeks, several children are taken from their homes and found severely beaten in the woods. Later, the Baron’s hay barn is set on fire. Who is behind these troubling events, and what possible motive could they have for destroying the peace? Carefully placed in between these horrors are glimpses of the daily life of the village: the brutal punishments handed down to the children for the slightest infractions, a little boy questioning his nanny about the nature of death, a boy nursing an injured songbird back to health, a sun-dappled courtship between the teacher and a sweet-natured girl (Leonie Benesch).

Photographed in lustrous black and white and stunningly composed with a rigidly static camera, Haneke constructs his story with surgical precision, revealing the dark spots of human behaviour with a delicate scalpel. The White Ribbon is like The Village of the Damned rewritten as Greek tragedy, except the Greeks had a reason for everything. Haneke’s story is not so much a whodunit as a ‘who didn’t’ that contains elements of fable, morality tale and thriller. Like his earlier film Cache, Haneke steadfastly refuses to solve the mystery at the heart of his film. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The White Ribbon is an audacious parable about the psychology of fascism, a portrait of a dysfunctional society, built on mistrust, injustice and fear, which is headed for the chaotic destruction of the First World War. The society these characters have created will not survive the war, but Haneke’s film is about the world that follows after the defeat. Thier children will go on to create an evil and unjust society, built on arrogance, hatred, greed and violence. Where did they learn that from?

Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, The White Ribbon is a bold and troubling film that exerts a powerful narrative hold. It’s extraordinary energy and exactitude confirms Haneke as one of contemporary cinema’s most provocative and perceptive minds.

Bright Star

Bright Star, writer-director Jane Campion’s first film in six years, tells the story of the English romantic poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his relationship with Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). Their love affair was short and unconsummated, cut short by the poet’s death from tuberculosis in 1821, at the age of 25. She was just 18. Loosely based on Andrew Motion’s biography of the poet and the 40 surviving letters he wrote to Fanny, Bright Star is a sublimely lush and tender film about star-crossed love bolstered by a delicate treatment and exemplary acting performances.

His first book having been published to general indifference, the penniless Keats arrives in a leafy corner of Hampstead to stay at the house of his friend and patron Charles Brown (Paul Schneider). Fanny, the girl next door, is a quick-witted young woman who lives with her mother (Kerry Fox), younger brother Samuel (Thomas Sangster) and darling little sister Toots (Edie Martin). Fanny’s beauty and wit offers the young poet respite from days spent sitting in dark, smoky rooms narrating his poems in a near-trance to Brown. Dark-eyed and wan, Keats is lost in melancholy, distraught by the death of his younger brother and by his perilous financial situation. Fanny recognises his anguish and makes a determination to get to know him, and his work, arranging lessons in appreciating poetry and having him eat at her table. But Brown, who is footing the bill, sees Fanny as an unnecessary distraction, a nuisance whose incautious flirting will deprive the poet of the time he needs to write. At the same time, Fanny’s mother regards Keats as a charming houseguest, but without any means, an unacceptable match for her eldest daughter.

The standardised treatment for a literary biopic would be to concentrate on the poet’s struggle with his muse. Campion does something far more interesting with the material, she makes Fanny the focus of her story. The film opens, not with an inky quill crossing paper, but with a scene where Fanny sits at her bureau embroidering a piece of cloth. The young woman is a 19th century fashionista; a dedicated amateur seamstress who delights in clothing and style and boasts that hers is “the only gown with a triple-tiered mushroom collar in the whole of Hampstead.” When a jealous Brown offers a snide remark about her self-designed clothing (“It’s the well-stitched Miss Brawne”), she mentions that at least she makes some money from her craft.

Nothing of Fanny’s correspondence with Keats has survived, so the director is free to create a woman who would be, within the restrictions of the time she lived in, as inspired by fashion, stitching and needlework as her poet love is by words. Her emotional journey becomes the engine of the film, as the poet and his poems fill the wondrously detailed background. This delicate treatment extends to the intimate pacing, which is carefully graduated to allow the chaste lovers to come together naturally. We know their love affair will not last, but Campion presents their joy in each other in such a precise and vibrant manner, that knowledge doesn’t intrude on the story.

There are poetic graces too in the telling, with Campion’s static camera searching out stolen frames of everyday life in the household, piling on the detail to create an immersive world. These moments are counterpoised with grand dramatic sweeps that climax in heaving gulps, a sun-dappled kiss, a heavy loss, a long separation. Campion favours a striking image to a page of dialogue, so conversations are short and sparse. Saying that, there is a fascinating scene early in the story where Keats responds to Fanny’s sincere questions about the proper understanding of poetry that seems to capture the meaning of the film itself. “A poem needs understanding through the senses”, the poet tells her. “The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought”. It’s not being overly lyrical to suggest that the same is true of Bright Star.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Writer and director Wes Anderson rebounds from the back-to-back commercial disappointments of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Ltd with his first animated film, Fantastic Mr Fox, made in the directors signature fastidious manner using old-fashioned stop-motion techniques. Roald Dahl's 1970 children’s book about a family of wily foxes and their woodland friends eluding the predatory attentions of the local humans has been transformed by Anderson, co-writer Noah Baumbach and a team of dedicated animators into an idiosyncratic, charmingly hand-crafted tale of family dysfunction and middle-class tedium.

The second talking-fox movie this year, following Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Fantastic Mr Fox opens at the same pace it maintains throughout, breakneck. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) and his beloved vixen wife (Meryl Streep) are out hunting chickens when they are caught in a trap. She chooses the opportunity to tell Fox she is expecting their first cub, and makes him promise to give up his dangerous, chicken-stealing ways and settle down. Twelve “fox-years” later, their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is a weedy, self-conscious teenager, further embarrassed by the arrival into the den of a talented, athletic cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, the director’s brother).

In deference to his wife’s more refined tastes (she’s wears an apron and dabbles in landscape painting) Fox has foresworn his hunting instincts and taken a job as a newspaper columnist. But Fox’s instinctive appetite for pullet-poaching has returned. With the help of a dim-witted opossum (Wally Wolodarsky), Fox plans his “one last big job”, robbing the three nasty farmers, Boggis and Bunce and Bean (Michael Gambon), “one fat, one short, one lean”, who live on the opposite hill. Tired of the impudent fox raiding their supplies, the farmers resort to increasingly desperate measures to capture and kill him, eventually putting all of the woodland creatures (including Bill Murray’s Badger and Willem Dafoe’s Rat) in danger.

This being a Wes Anderson film, much of the joy comes from tuning into the director’s unique visual sensibility. Unlike the seamless, polished image-making of the computerised animations, Fantastic Mr Fox pursues a roughly-hewn aesthetic that gives enormous energy and wit to proceedings; as stylized and inventive as anything Anderson has done previously. The stitch-perfect costuming, brilliantly textured character design and gloriously autumnal backgrounds aside, there are a plenty of highlights: Mr Fox and his chums burrow through geologically precise soil strata, our woodland chums hide from the humans in a vast cider-bottle warehouse, they stage their climactic shootout in a gorgeous facsimile of an Olde Worlde British village, complete with sushi bar and courier service.

It might be a cartoon, but Mr Fox is still a Wes Anderson film, through and through with the same attention to detail, eclectic soundtrack, airily witty dialogue and chaptered storytelling that have delighted his fan base in the past. They should be delighted again, even if younger audience members might find much of the precious chatter about existentialism, crème brulees and yogic meditation unfathomable. Incidentally when I met Anderson during the publicity tour for The Life Aquatic, he was wearing the same copper-coloured corduroy lounge suit that Foxy sports in the movie. If you share the director’s taste for fine retro tailoring, you might just like Fantastic Mr Fox.