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DVD Reviews: The Ornithologist and The Limehouse Golem

20 April 2018

Stephen Brown views recent DVD releases

Paul Hamy as Fernando in The Ornithologist

Paul Hamy as Fernando in The Ornithologist

FROM legends of antiquity to Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, myriad stories feature our need to get lost before finding ways forward. The Ornithologist (Cert. 15), now out on DVD from Matchbox Films, is a contemporary riff on how St Anthony of Padua’s ship, by being blown off course, triggered innumer­able blessings.

Fernando (Paul Hamy) — St Anthony’s name before he became one of St Francis’s friars — is study­ing the habits of the black storks of northern Portugal. For a good 15 minutes, we are treated to very beautiful footage of these birds soaring above Fernando’s kayak. Too absorbed, he fails to see approaching rapids, which break up his boat and leave him seemingly lifeless in shallow waters adjacent to a dense wood. He is rescued by Chinese Catholic pilgrims, Fei (Han Wen) and Lin (Chan Suan), bound for Santiago de Compostela and as off-route as he is.

The director, João Pedro Rodrigues (The Last Time I Saw Macao), begins his film with a quotation from a homily that St Anthony delivered at Pentecost in 1222: “Whoever approaches the Spirit will feel its warmth, hence his heart will be lifted to new heights.” Ah yes, but, as far as Rodrigues is concerned, it is by way of a long and winding forest track.

Fernando, sceptical about God and the devil, is tied up by the pilgrims who fear that St James has abandoned them to this atheist. He escapes only to have further weird experiences, aided and abetted by the director’s surrealist scenario. The film inverts or reinterprets events associated with St Anthony. His banishing of demons becomes a narrow escape from exotically dressed marauders speaking Mirandese, a near-extinct Portugese language. The miraculous appearance of the Christ-child to the saint turns into Fernando bearing Jesus (Xelo Cagiao), a deaf and dumb shepherd, in his arms during a life-and-death struggle.

Perhaps the most innovative of Rodrigues’s simulations is when, instead of preaching, like St Anthony, to fish, Fernando questions them. Why, like birds, who are free to roam, do you continue to inhabit the darkest of waters within this forest? All of these scenes are comments on aspects of the human condition.

At another time, Fernando is fired at by huntresses resembling the maiden goddesses Diana, Minerva, and Vesta. Paradoxically, while deer were considered sacrosanct by these mythological figures, their latter-day counterparts are intent on shooting them. Instead of woods possessing the sacred characteristics of Greco-Roman legend, we are presented with an enchanted forest fraught with danger.

Fernando takes refuge by a ruined chapel in which Stations of the Cross figures have fallen into disrepair. The Ornithologist is a lament not just for people, but those earlier beliefs and values currently in danger of being lost. One cannot help liken­­ing the whole piece to the beginning of Dante’s Inferno where he sets off just before Good Friday “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (“halfway along our life’s path”) and gets lost in a dark wood. Counteracting such pessimism is the visual leitmotif of a dove forever inviting Fernando to approach, feel its warmth, and lift up his heart. Like St Anthony, Fernando strives to recover lost things.

Nick WallBill Nighy (centre) as Inspector Kildare in The Limehouse Golem

PETER ACKROYD’s story Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994) was an interesting variant on Ripper legends. It’s set in 1880, eight years earlier than the Whitechapel murders and relocated to a neigh­bouring district of the East End. The film The Limehouse Golem (Cert. 15), now on DVD (Lionsgate), reflects on the utter mystery of why such evil occurs.

The Jewish population dub the serial killer a golem after the malevo­lent figure posited by Rabbi Loew in 16th-century Prague. It is not so far-fetched a notion: the magazine Punch, given the Ripper’s elusive, apparently shape-shifting composition, later depicted him as a phantom, one defying capture. For more than a century, films have used the Golem to represent a supernatural dimension to evil.

It isn’t just the view of a gullible mob. The police tacitly agree that the case is beyond human powers to resolve, almost willing Inspector Kildare (a sombre Bill Nighy) to fail in matters that suggest a demonic component to these grisly murders. The tale is a mixture of the factual and fictive. The music-hall star Dan Leno, the philosopher Karl Marx, and that novelist George Gissing, as well as a made-up character, John Cree, are all suspected at one time or another.

The common link is the British Library, which they frequent, and particularly Thomas de Quincey’s On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts. This satirical work high­lights our general fascination with the aesthetic ingenuity behind violent deaths. Sickening examples of the “Golem’s” dark art have been scrawled over the essay. “The public wants blood,” Kildare says. “The Golem provides it”. A victim’s entrails are used to daub a wall in Latin “He who observes spills no less blood than he who inflicts the blow”.

Paralleling and gradually taking over Kildare’s enquiries is the trial of Cree’s wife, Lizzie (Olivia Cooke), accused of poisoning her husband. She is a successful performer in Leno’s troupe. Kildare, with something close to an obsession, seeks to prove her innocence; for he is convinced that her husband, a failed writer, was the Limehouse Golem who diverted his quest for creativity into the slaughter of impoverished victims. Even these were in no sense the original work of a mad artistic genius. They are, in actuality, imitations of murders attributed to a John Williams in 1811, referred to in de Quincy’s essay.

Like its Prague progenitor, the “golem” displays no creativity whatsoever. Evil (to enlist St Augustine’s term) is “privatio boni”, an entire absence of good. Nothing mitigates it, Kildare says, even when it mas­quer­ades as godly generosity.

The director, Juan Carlos Medina, shows us a shadowy world in thrall to grievous sin. He and his cinematographer Simon Dennis paint a picture of London which is strongly reminiscent of Atkinson Grimshaw. Kildare is a light shining in the darkness, and his face is often the only section of illumination in the frame. He has his own golems haunting him (who hasn’t?) but exposes them for the non-beings that they are. He faithfully pursues truth, dispelling gloom as best he can.

Metaphysically, The Limehouse Golem is a powerful examination of how evil prospers when we reject our divine calling.

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