Thursday, 31 July 2014

Svengali (2013) & The Selfish Giant (2013)

I once managed a band...for all of one night. Securing them their first gig, the singer and guitarist decided to have an argument and then a full blown fight on stage before decreeing their career together in music to be over. It's therefore with some amusement and a rueful shake of the head that such a scene also features in Svengali. Seems that kind of thing is par for the course.

Svengali may not be the most original film on the block - in fact its rather redolent of a lot of those 'follow your dreams where the streets are paved with gold' films of the late 60s and early 70s, the likes of which captured the murky cruel lie of London as the swinging city started its downward motion - but it's done with so much charm that you'd have to be the most hard hearted of sceptics to not allow yourself the ride.

Jonny Owen is the film's star, writer and producer, developing the film, I believe, from a series of webisodes he had previously made. A familiar enough face in supporting roles on TV, specifically Welsh productions, he thoroughly embraces his chance to shine here playing Dixie, a likeable Welsh chancer who dreams of being the next Epstein, Malcolm McLaren or Alan McGee. Utterly hapless in most departments, he is nonetheless blessed with 'golden ears' and through a mixture of chance, good luck and a willingness to go the extra mile, he secures the obscure but promising new band The Prems and sets about getting them to the top in the dog eat dog London music scene.

Owen chooses to show and tell very little with The Prems, a smart move as its always an uphill struggle to convincingly portray a talented hot young band. Equally smart is his congregation of famous faces in the cast including the likes of McGee playing himself, Martin Freeman, Maxine Peake, Matt Berry, Morwenna Banks, Michael Smiley and - as the leading lady, Dixie's girlfriend Chelle -  Vicky McClure, Owen's real life girlfriend. It's a great casting coup; for one, McClure's star is on the ascent and for another, the real chemistry and affection she shares with Owen is beautifully palpable throughout.  Only the deeply unfunny Katy Brand proves to be the film's weak link in a comedic Eastern European landlady role, whilst former Flying Picket Brian Hibbard as Dixie's ailing father adds much poignancy knowing that he died not long after the film's completion.

Svengali is a very peppy film that wears his heart on its sleeve with an unabashed pride and commitment. As Dixie's innocence and goodwill becomes slowly eroded in the big bad city it could be argued that some of that pep gets lost but its integral for the narrative and remains a satisfying watch.

* * *

If Ken Loach has decided that Jimmy's Hall will mark his leave from the world of fiction film making then I think we can safely say his style of storytelling will continue regardless because, on this evidence, the mantle has been passed to Clio Barnard.

Only her second film, following the deeply impressive debut feature The Arbor which detailed the life of Andrea Dunbar in an experimental documentary fashion, The Selfish Giant places us firmly and literally in the muck and brass world of scrap metal in deeply scarred post Thatcher/Blair Bradford.

Using the language of Loach, Barnard skilfully cultivates a tale which is in some ways similar to his own Kes using two juvenile non professional leads, Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas. They are exceptional finds and give the tale an ever present, ever beating heart. You may well know where the narrative is taking you, but it doesn't soften the impact one iota - this is bleakly beautiful stuff. Assured film making from one of this countries most promising writer/directors.

There's just not enough words to explain how brilliant this film is; just watch it!

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