The Wicker Man

Devout Christian police officer Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) receives an anonymous letter telling him that a young girl, 12 year old Rowan Morrison, went missing a year ago and hasn’t been seen since. Armed only with the letter, a photo and his unbreakable religious beliefs, Howie sets out to the secluded island of Summerisle, where he is met by hostility from the locals, who do not approve of a mainlander on their soil, and all deny any knowledge of Rowan’s existence. As Howie investigates further, he is met by obstructions at every turn, and discovers the islands inhabitant’s rituals and ideology may have a more sinister cause for Rowan’s disappearance than the policeman could ever have imagined.

First things first, I’ve not seen the 2006 Nicolas Cage remake, so I can’t really discuss that film here, which is fine, because this post isn’t about that film, it’s about the 1973 original. I have seen a few of Cage’s clips online, and I was glad to see that at no point did Edward Woodward (who, by the way, has the greatest name ever, I can’t stop saying it) explode into a torrent of “How’d it get burned?!?”, have a cage of bees strapped to his head, or perform a running punch whilst dressed as a bear. I had, however, seen this version before, but I now realise it was a heavily edited-for-TV cut, as although I watched it some years ago, I cannot remember nearly as much of the frankly disturbing goings-on that occurred in this film.

Even though it is essentially about a cult, and it’s seen through the eyes of an outsider, there is a lot of this film that’s difficult to fully come to terms with, particularly the downright infuriating manner in which the children of the island are taught. For example, with their forthcoming May Day celebrations, the lessons focus on the maypole, and how it symbolises the penis. Strips of flesh are hung by gravestones, one of which reads ‘Protected by the Ejaculation of Serpents’. Oh, and graveyards are apparently appropriate places to breastfeed children. The children are also encouraged to sing, which I’ve got no problem with, unless the lyrics contain such gems as “On that bed, there was a girl. And on that girl, there was a man. And from that man, there was a seed. And from that seed, there was a boy.” Bear in mind these children are all pre-teen, maybe even by a fair few years in some cases. 

Oh yes, the singing. I’ve decided that if I ever revisit my Top 5 Films That Should Be Musicals, this film is a prime candidate for the sub-list of ones that already pretty much are ones. There are far more songs here than I had expected, and their diversity was something of a surprise. You’ve got a group of naked women prancing around a stone circle singing about pregnancy, and elsewhere there’s an impressively impromptu pub-wide rendition of The Landlord’s Daughter, which must have taken rather a lot of choreographing, seeing as no-one steps on anyone else’s lines. Britt Ekland, who plays Willow, the aforementioned innkeeper’s spawn, even gets her own solo (though I think she was dubbed by someone). Her song, creatively named Willow’s Song on the soundtrack, plays out like a pornographic music video, as Ekland, naked of course, sings directly to the camera as she gyrates ferociously around her room, slapping herself and beating on the wall in an effort to entice the neighbouring Howie to come and attend to her. Understandably, this is one of the more memorable of the film’s scenes, but the breaking of the fourth wall was distracting, and it felt like it went on for far too long.

I very much approved of how we as the audience are kept as much in the dark as Howie is as he goes about his quest, only realising something’s up when he does, at which point of course it’s too late. Woodward also does a good job with Howie’s character, establishing a hero who is something of a dick, and definitely not a people person. I don’t want to get into a debate about religion (in short, it’s not for me), but I’m glad that I’ve never met someone who is quite so steadfast in their beliefs as Howie, who is utterly appalled when he discovers the island education system doesn’t contain anything to do with the teachings of Jesus, as the only religion he even acknowledges the existence of is Christianity, proving he is possibly just as obsessed or bigotted as the islanders themselves.


Even with so many distubing aspects – the thought of the beetle slowly crawling around the desk until it strangles itself still upsets me a little – I can’t help but appreciate this film as being a thoroughly engaging mystery, with an enrapturing plot that, even though I had an inkling of a memory as to what the ending was, I couldn’t wait to see pan out to find out exactly what was going on. Also, Christopher Lee is generally brilliant in anything, here appearing as the charming Lord Summerisle. I’d have appreciated a little less music and a lot less insanity, but I’m still very pleased to have seen it again. Oh, and I’m fairly sure the Salmon of Knowledge was from a lost Monty Python sketch.

Choose film 7/10

Hugo

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield, one of the kids from Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang) lives inside the clockwork at a train station in 1930s Paris. He spends his days maintaining and fixing the clocks, stealing only the pastries and milk that he needs to survive and avoiding the child-hunting station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen). A run-in with station shop-worker Georges (Sir Ben Kinglsey) results in Hugo having to work for the toymaker, all the while building a bond between Jugo and Georges god-daughter, Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). 

On the surface, this doesn’t appear to be a typical Martin Scorses project. For starters, it’s a kid’s film, not something you’d generally associate with the director of Goodfellas, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. There’s nary a gangster to be found, nor a grisly death or vicious killer. Hell, it’s not even set anywhere near New York. But once you get past the halfway point of the film, and the story switches from that of a young boy trying to eke out an existence on his own to a tale about the history of the beginnings of cinema, it becomes clear just what Scorsese saw in this story. It’s no secret that the great director is a passionate man, especially when it comes to the medium of movies, so seeing an opportunity to make a film dedicated to films themselves would have been an opportunity he jumped at. Fortunately, it helps that it’s a captivating story, filled with vibrant characters and plenty of heart, without too much schmaltz. Wihtout the secondary cinematic storyline, this would have felt far more like a Spielberg picture than a Scorsese.
I didn’t have the opportunity to see this film in 3D, but I get the feeling that if you are able to, you should give it a shot. This may come as a surprise to many of you, given my usual stance on the current trend of shamelessly, and often needlessly, opting to add a third dimension to films that really don’t benefit from it, but there are many scenes here where it would probably not only have fit, but benefitted the viewing experience. 3D works best when there’s lots of little things flying in the air, for example the dandelion-thing scene in Avatar, or the lantern scene in Tangled, and in Hugo we get at least two opportunities for this, first with snow and then later with flying pieces of paper, both of which I’m sure would have looked fantastic in 3D. There’s also a lot of forced deep perspective and carefully considered samera angles, making this possibly the first film I’ve seen where the 3D was probably justified.

There’s great camerawork elsewhere too, particularly in a Goodfellas-esque extended tracking shot through the inner-workings of the train station that is positively mesmerising. It’s clear that almost every shot has been digitally enhanced to make it look older and more French – the colour scheme is rich and everything has a sepia tone, seemingly even the air. At times this felt a bit too stylised, and often took me out of the film with how fake everything looked, but it’s nowhere near as bad as many of the films that use so much CGI that they may as well be videogames. 

The kids aren’t bad, but they are overshadowed the tremendous supporting cast, including the likes of Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer and Richard Griffiths in relatively miniscule parts around the train station (I was half expecting them to break into a rendition of ‘Who Will Buy?’ from Oliver). Kingsley is superb in a role that requires moments of seriousness, compassion, pity and wonder, but Sacha Baron Cohen does have a tendency to over-act now and then, presumably a result of his more comedic past. He is by no means bad, but reigning his performance in a little, to be less of a caricature, would have been better in my eyes.

I think the people that will get the most out of this movie are film fans, especially those with an interest in the beginnings of cinema. Fortunately I am such a person, and I also appreciated Michael Stuhlbarg’s character, as one of history’s first film nerds. There are many references to classic early and silent films like La Voyage Dans La Lune, L’arrivee and Safety Last, featuring the classic image of Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock face, eventually recreated by young Hugo himself, and I was engrossed at the details of how effects were created before more traditional editing processes were invented, with actors remaining frozen in place whilst explosive charges were set around them. The old technology and equipment was fascinating to me too, appealing not only to my love of cinema but my mechanical background, with a hand-cranked projector required to watch something now available on YouTube.

Scorsese has created that most marvellous of films, a successful, inventive children’s picture, that just happens to have an informative and educational semi-biopic of one of cinema’s founders wrapped up inside it. It’s beautiful, engrossing, perfectly cast and just plain delightful. And there’s a robot!

Choose film 9/10