Bran the Blessed and Jim Gandolfini – gigantic heroes!

Feeding the Cauldron of Regeneration
Feeding the Cauldron of Regeneration

I was not long back from the Mabinogion Festival weekend in Aberystwyth, banjaxed by the depth, richness, emotional power of this sequence of Welsh medieval tales, and knocked out by the courage, skill and brio of the six storytellers. It was an eight hour marathon, presented here in English and Welsh with evolving illustration provided by artists. This time I was particularly affected by the second tale, of royal siblings, Bran and Branwen, here transmitted with passion and precision by a team of three women, Christine Cooper, Cath Little and Fiona Collins. It is a story of about war and the horrors of war. It has all the features we see everyday in our news – revenge killings, valiant efforts at peace-making, the suffering of innocents, bloodbaths, torture and the devastating effects of post-traumatic stress on the survivors of these horrors. It features the giant-king, Bran, or Bendigedfran, who spawned the Welsh saying ‘he who would be king, let him be a bridge’ when he lay down over the river Shannon so that his men could cross it and rescue his sister. It is the head of Bran, cut off at his own instruction, which is buried under the White Tower in London to protect these islands from invasion.  Those ravens are his birds.

I was so flaked out when I got home that I slumped on the settee and watched the end of series five of The Sopranos, which I just received from Lovefilm. No escape from being harrowed here!

Jim Gandolfini
Jim Gandolfini

There he was, Tony Soprano, played by the brilliant late James Gandolfini, stumbling down a story arc remarkably similar to that of Bran. Not only that, but Gandolfini was actually a giant of a man, big with the brooding power of a monster-giant drawn by a child, but also possessing rare sensitivity and subtlety as an actor, and thereby lending mob-boss Tony Soprano the stirrings of a moral sense. Unlike some of his more psychopathic followers.

In the Bran story, Bran’s half-brother, Efnisien, horribly mutilates the king of Ireland’s horses, in a vicious act of revenge. To keep the peace, Bran should kill him, but, because he is is a close relative, he does not, and Efinisien goes on to commit further horrors and destroy all chance of peace between the two countries – the Island of the Mighty and the Island of the Blessed. Meanwhile in the Sopranos, Tony makes the mistake of being soft on his cousin, also called Tony, who has a ‘rage problem’ and has killed outside the rules, including a woman and the son of a fellow mobster. Although Tony Soprano does the necessary in the end, it is not before relatively innocent people have suffered and seeds of future troubles sown.

In the Mabinogion story, Efnisien, having perpetrated heinous acts, is finally smitten by remorse and makes the redemptive act of jumping into the cauldron of regeneration and splitting it into smithereens – so that the Irish can no longer renew their fighting men. This allows seven British men to survive, including Bran. I haven’t seen the end of the Soprano series so I don’t know how Tony’s arc develops, but I do know that both the medieval tale and the contemporary TV drama have something extraordinary and special: an understanding of the grim realities of power.  Although Bran is a good king, he cannot save his kingdom from defeat and ruin – though he can keep hope alive by the burying of his head. Tony Soprano struggles with his good and bad angels to make himself a soul but becomes irretrievably isolated by the responsibilities of his position as a mob leader and trapped in a world where no-one is to be trusted and there is no way to escape into a good and innocent life. He even has to order the death of his nephew’s pathetic girlfriend because she has been embroiled with the FBI. It’s going to haunt him, I know that, because he actually really liked her… I could hardly bear to watch the moment where she realises she is to die.

The two stories are still haunting me.

Top tips for film-makers from seven new British films

Top tips for film-makers from seven new British films
Comfy seats at Booths
Comfy seats at Booths

 

I spent the weekend cootched up in my favourite seat (middle row, left-hand side, with a nice breeze from the A/C) in Richard Booth’s comfy little cinema in Hay-on-Wye, watching the best new British independent films at the Festival of British Cinema (big thanks to those who set up this event!). I saw seven films, all good: Dark Horse, Leave to Remain, The Falling, Electricity, Still Life, X+Y and finally Dan y Wenallt! Details here, since I am not going to review them all, just ask myself the question: what did I, as an aspiring feature film-maker learn from them?

Agyness Deyn in 'Electricity'

1] Some actors are just so compelling. In Electricity (about Lily, a young woman with epilepsy who goes off to search for her long-lost brother) that’s the beautiful, lanky Agyness Deyn who is completely credible and touching in the role. But you don’t have to be beautiful: in Dan y Wenallt (Welsh language version of Under Milk Wood) Rhys Ifans plays a crusty, milky-eyed Captain Cat with heart-rending poignancy and holds this hallucinatory trip into the murky crab-infested depths of DylanThomasland together brilliantly. X+Y is about an on-the-spectrum boy who loses his dad in a car-crash and becomes a maths champ – nearly. Asa Butterfield projects the lad’s sufferings and struggles with rare subtlety and maturity, making this a most absorbing and rewarding film (except for the syrupy romantic ending!) Eddie Marsan is of course impeccably good in Still Life.

What did I learn from this?   Your main actor has to have that riveting quality, and its usually to do with their eyes.

Asa Butterworth
Asa Butterfield

2] The scenes which made me cry or moved me deeply were: in X+Y when Luke (the excellent Jake Davies),who is much further along the spectrum than our hero, tries to get in with his peers at the maths camp by re-telling the Monty Python dead parrot sketch – with a shrimp. They watch him with sneering or embarrassed faces. Heart-rending. In Electricity it was the moment when the cockney guy Lily has just slept with drops her off from the ambulance after she’s had a fit and melts away without coming in with her. Or was it when her long-lost brother, now irretrievably damaged, smashes up her friend’s flat? In Still Life it was the final scene, which I can’t reveal without spoiling it for you, but it’s a gentle coup de theatre. In Leave to Remain it was when Abdul tries to stuff a whole lamb (which he has nicked) into the oven to cheer up the African girl who reminds him of his mum. Strangely some of the more obviously heart-racking moments in the films did not stir me so much.

So, what did I learn from this?  Emotion is the fuel of a good film but it’s got to feel real, not a wind-upLess is more with emotion in films , and often the best moments are the fruit of a careful build-up and some skilful restraint.

I think the ‘less is more’ rule could be usefully applied to The Falling directed by Carol Morley (who made the wonderfully compassionate Dreams of a Life.) This is about a group of girls afflicted with fainting hysteria and associated emotional/perceptual wobbles in a sixties girl school. It is sensual in a sweatily oppressive way, which is no doubt an intended effect but I longed for a lighter touch and a shorter duration.  The case would have been stronger if not over-stated.

But all in all, these films all have big hearts and strong dramatic power, including the again slightly over-long Dark Horse, a documentary about a valleys community which bands together to buy and raise a race horse. And please don’t miss Dan y Wenallt, which has the cheek and guts to turn away from the Dylan Thomas adulation industry and grab the mood, the characters, the sacred ENGLISH WORDS of Under Milk Wood for its own dark Welsh purposes.  It’s dirty, sexy, funny, tranced-out and deeply Welsh in the way that Gavin and Stacey was. ‘They’re filthy the Welsh’ as Smithy says to his plumbing mate. Fair play, I say, I loved it.

Rhys Ifans in Dan y Wenallt
Rhys Ifans in Dan y Wenallt