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Film reviews: Emily; Hallejuah: Leonard Cohen, a journey, a song; The Devil’s Trap

by
28 October 2022

Stephen Brown views Emily, Hallelujah, and The Devil’s Trap

Warner Bros

Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë in Emily

Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë in Emily

BEFORE considering the film Emily (Cert. 15), let’s recall what we know about the Brontë sister who wrote Wuthering Heights. Accounts mostly agree that she was shy, dutiful, and devout. Perceptive about human relationships, she seems not to have had many herself.

In an imaginative, if imaginary, treatment of Brontë’s short life, the writer-director Frances O’Connor (best known for acting) depicts a passionate affair with William Weightman. He was her father’s curate at Haworth from 1839 till dying from cholera in 1842, aged 28. There’s no evidence that he (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) was the bodice-ripping hunk of this over-the-top and yet remarkable movie. Tender, dramatic, and eerie in turn, the film in many ways transforms Emily into Catherine, the protagonist of her great novel. It is as if all the things that she didn’t (couldn’t) bring herself to do in real life found their expression in the writings.

Emily reverses it, envisaging how this particular Brontë might have behaved but for the social and religious norms of the time. It is probably no accident that O’Connor’s Roman Catholic background kindled interest in a conventional churchgoer who displayed a wildness of spirit which questions faith when the latter freezes our humanity. The film counters the stern religion of characters such as Aunt Branwell and Wuthering Heights’ Joseph with the liberating beliefs and behaviour of Emily and William.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen as the Revd William Weightman in Emily

At first, it is a case of Weightman’s French lessons becoming a neat subterfuge for indulging in the language of love. There is an interesting change in the balance of power when discussing religion. He, the theologian with social status as a cleric, is forced to concede that her objections (also in French!) have validity. Emma Mackey gives a beautiful performance as the iconoclastic misfit. By and large, Emily and her sisters Charlotte (Alexandra Dowling) and Anne (Amelia Gething) rub along together, but sibling rivalry also raises its head from time to time.

Line of Duty’s Adrian Dunbar is Patrick the overbearing father to his children, while nevertheless retaining at least with Emily’s siblings that touch of warmth which we know so well. And Branwell, the often wayward son, is here a source of inspiration to Emily in Fionn Whitehead’s moving account.

In the novel, Catherine reluctantly chooses deathly domesticity in marrying Edgar Linton. Heathcliff is the life-affirming alternative. The film is in some ways a great What If of a picture. Just suppose Emily Brontë, aided and abetted by Weightman, strove to reconcile passionate lovemaking with Christian beliefs. Like the book, the untamed Yorkshire landscape captured by Nanu Segal’s cinematography is a character in its own right, reflecting or even dictating the way its human subjects behave. Brontë’s frequently troubled persona is played out against backdrops equally disturbing. And what, we’re being asked, lies behind the masks we all wear? O’Connor portrays this very literally in a chilling scene where covering the face represents those oppressive cultural norms. The only release for all three sisters is to put their emotional turmoil into writing. Passion, no longer bookish, encompasses its complete range of meanings in this film — from heights of sexual ecstasy to crucifying suffering. We should be grateful.

In cinemas.

 

Sony PicturesLeonard Cohen in an image from Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a journey, a songTHOUGH many other songs feature in the documentary Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a journey, a song (Cert. 12A), only his most popular recording, “Hallelujah”, is given serious scrutiny. The co-directors, Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, have strung together interviews and film clips in an effort to describe the singer-songwriter-poet in terms of this one composition.

The song was first heard on the 1984 album Various Positions, one that Columbia Records decided not to release in the United States. The film equates this rejection with the artist’s struggle to remain creative. We learn through all manner of people, from Judy Collins to John Cale, of the song’s career and ultimate popularity. It becomes clear that Cohen, like Bob Dylan, is a spiritual seeker, in whose search music plays a vital part. “The real song where that comes from, no one knows”, he tells an interviewer. “That is grace. That is a gift.”

His rabbi, Mordecai Finley, speaks of something called the Bat Kol in the Talmud: the feminine voice of God which extends into people. She arrives, and you’re in her service. You write down what She says. The opening words of the song “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord That David played, and it pleased the Lord” are a direct reference to this. There’s also an element to singing which Cohen, echoing the axiom attributed to St Augustine, acknowledges as the means of praying twice.

For Cohen’s admirers, there is little in the film that they don’t already know. We learn that between 150 and 180 verses of “Hallelujah” were composed, including some that are completely secular. Several artists have combined instances of both. This would be entirely in keeping with Cohen’s outlook on life, that the sacred is often expressed through the libidinous. Whether one is trying to return to God or a lover, this requires repentance. He finds difficulty in doing so. It’s both a broken and a holy “Hallelujah” that he utters.

Cohen’s Jewish background is explored. Born into an affluent family in Montreal, he extensively studied the scriptures with his grandfather, who was a rabbi. Cohen himself has opened his arms both to Christianity and Zen, spending half a dozen years in a Buddhist monastery. Their influence can be clearly heard in much of his music, but this isn’t touched on in the movie. In a nutshell, he will remain one whose heart is restless till he finds his rest in the Lord. And he knows it. “You look around and you see a world that seems impenetrable, that cannot be made sense of. You either raise your fist or sing Hallelujah. I try to do both.”

His was a spiritual journey inwards, but also outwards. At a concert in Ramat Gan Stadium, near Tel Aviv, he made a plea for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. Raising his arm, he gave the priestly benediction in Hebrew: “May the Lord bless you and guide you.” There is a strong sense of coming home. Or, as Cohen put it, “I’ll stand right here before the Lord of song With nothing, nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”

In cinemas, and will shortly be available to download and rent on digital.

 

Miroslav Machácek as Probus in The Devil’s Trap“FROM ancient times, many a tale has been told about our land. It can hardly be coincidental that in each and every one of them the devil toys with human destiny.”

This voiceover, intoned alongside a burned-out statue of the crucifixion, opens František Vláčil’s1962 classic The Devil’s Trap. It has been spankingly restored in a Blu-ray release from Second Run. It was the first in a trilogy of Czech New Wave films, and a historical perspective reminds us that the more things change the more they stay the same. This was as true of the Communism under which Vláčil operated as of how Church and State behaved in earlier times.

The 18th-century story set in Bohemia depicts power and ideology walking hand in glove to suppress opposing views. Spálený (Vítězslav Vejražka) is a miller whose grandparents’ home was torched by Swedish soldiers in the previous century. They providentially escaped, and rumours spread that they were in cahoots with the devil. At the time of the present story, these suspicions linger on, despite the popularity of Spálený and his son Jan (Vít Olmer), clearly presented as good men and true.

The father has some natural (or supernatural?) abilities to divine water in dried-out places, thus assisting drought-ridden villagers. He also manages to enrage the Regent (Čestmír Řanda), informing him that where he intends building a barn is unfit for purpose. The landowner decides to enlist Probus (Miroslav Macháček), an Inquisition chaplain, to investigate and undermine Spálený’s high regard in the community.

The priest, however, is resolute that his task is not to assist the Regent’s plans, but to root out any manifestations of devilry. He’s very subtle in the way in which he goes about it, appearing genuinely interested in the work of the miller and his son. Who exactly is the devil trapping? Probus may genuinely believe that he is doing God’s work, but are he and his superiors unwittingly in thrall to the wiles of the demonic? Whether it’s Christianity or Communism, their organisations have fallen victim to what the sociologist Max Weber described as the routinisation of charisma.

The film has been likened to a Western such as High Noon or High Plains Drifter, in which most townsfolk are too scared to resist figures leaning on them. This is true in as much as it replays the ironies of how the presence of a few godly individuals rather than the villains poses a threat to their existence. The Devil’s Trap is by no means a crude attack on the Church. People eloquently espouse Christian values all too easily lost sight of, whatever the regime.

It is a tale well-told, not least through stunning black-and-white cinematography. Extreme close-ups, fast zooming, and selective handheld camerawork all add impact. Likewise, skilful editing juxtaposes discrete images that, combined, create new meaning. The director stated that this bordered on the poetic, as with two adjacent verses yielding up significances hitherto unthought of.

Added to all this is Zdeněk Liška’s soundtrack, which aptly employs natural sounds along with folksongs. All in all, the film is a fearful warning that supping with the devil requires a long spoon.

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