Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Brothers and Sisters (1980)

Brothers and Sisters, Richard Woolley’s 1980 film, is perhaps best exemplified by the strap line from its poster; 'one man killer her, but all men were guilty.'

It’s a rare example of a genuinely good, meaningful piece of advertising that is not only utterly in keeping and satisfyingly cohesive with the film itself, but it also serves as an accurate primer to the audience with regards to what the film is about and what to take from it.

Woolley’s previous work was, by his won admission, unashamedly stylised; belonging totally to the art house genre. Blessed with a bigger budget from the BFI and the chance to shoot on 35mm, Brothers and Sisters allowed him to work in an arena that could be best described as approaching the mainstream and, taking that opportunity, he devised a story whose principal subject matter is the murder of a prostitute in the Chapeltown area of Leeds and the course of the subsequent investigation of potential suspects. It is purposefully therefore an accessible narrative for widespread audiences that are predisposed to movies which serve simply as entertainment and one that came with an immediate cache of topicality and notoriety, given that Woolley delivered his film at a time when The Yorkshire Ripper was on the loose. His bloody rein across the mid ‘70s to the early ‘80s, and how it impacted on the genders, was certainly and clearly a deliberate influence on Brothers and Sisters

However, Woolley takes the subject matter and sets about working within it with his usual distinctive art aesthetic. the film isn’t really concerned with its whodunit trappings, it’s concerned far more with creating an intelligent dialogue on the themes of sexual politics and how the patriarchal society views – and uses – women. As the strapline suggests one man may have killed her but Woolley is preoccupied with the root cause of the problem, not the symptom. This approach means that he thankfully avoids the sensationalism other ambulance-chasing productions would otherwise be determined to capitalise on, and considers the premise with both intelligence and sensitivity. It’s also worth pointing out that Woolley himself was a Chapeltown resident at the time of the Ripper murders, and so he experienced at first hand the suspicion that was fell onto him in that anxious, fear ridden community solely and specifically because of his gender. It’s this personal experience that not only justifies Woolley’s desire to make a film with what could have been a potentially contentious subject matter, but also places him in a particularly unique vantage point to address – once again, as the strapline suggests – the guilt of all men.

It is this distinctive approach that actually puts Brothers and Sisters in the awkward, yet interesting position of having a foot in both camps; it’s subject matter and broad appeal makes it too mainstream to be solely arthouse, yet its defiance to follow the traditions of the genre and narrative it sets itself means it is too arty to work purely as a piece of satisfying populist entertainment for the masses. With that conundrum in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising the film is largely and unfortunately unknown beyond certain circles.

Naturally, at the heart of Brothers and Sisters is the sibling relationship. Carolyn Pickles plays both Jennifer Collins, the unfortunate sex worker, and Theresa, her sister who works as a nanny to the family of James, a stuffy and elitist army major played by Robert East. Like the sisters, David, the officer’s brother (Sam Dale) is seemingly the complete opposite of his sibling in that he is more ‘right on’ than right wing; being active in leftist politics, supporting good liberal causes and living in a communal house with his partner Tricia and two others. However, it slowly becomes clear that David is a confused young man struggling to live by his own beliefs. He is constantly irritated and appalled by the attitudes of his wealthy family, specifically the obnoxious James who views women as little more than ornaments; with his wife and the mother of his children to be handled rarely and like delicate porcelain, and prostitutes as receptacles for his sexual needs. David’s life is further muddied by the affair he is conducting with Theresa, believing himself to be ‘trying to work out new codes of sexual behaviour’ – an excuse so hollow it’s clear that David doesn’t even truly believe it himself; he just wants to appease his natural libidinous desires whilst continuing to consider himself as a liberal and progressive who believes women are his equal. In short, he’s having his cake and eating it, but the repercussions of giving in to such desires and living in his self-denial about doing so are in fact eating away at his conscience. As Theresa remarks at one point, both brothers are bastards, but at least James is an obvious, honest one. Interestingly, Woolley somewhat bravely admits in the interview that serves as a DVD extra to placing himself front and centre in the plot of Brothers and Sisters, citing the self-indulgent and sanctimonious David as his fictional alter-ego.

In the same interview Woolley discusses the reaction to Brothers and Sisters upon its release, remarking that the film was too highly praised in some circles who were naturally biased to his aims and themes, specifically the radical feminist and lesbian contingent. He relates how they applauded, literally in some screenings, the message the film was trying to get across however, I must admit to being less confident at the method in which Woolley conveys the injustice of the patriarchy. For a start, too much of what the film has to say is delivered from the mouths of men, not women; specifically the increasingly unreliable David. Granted there are authentic rejoinders from the women in the film, such as the politically astute and feminist Tricia and also from Theresa, but it’s worth saying that any film made nowadays that attempted to tackle the issues Woolley explores here would give far more prominence to its female characters in accordance with the Bechdal test. Viewed in 1981, this would have been deeply progressive, but viewed on today’s terms it is not without its – admittedly forgiveable – errors.

What it does do successfully however is depict just how astute and assured the female characters are, despite the patriarchy. Just as David’s partner can see his feet of clay, the noticeably less educated and less politically aware Jennifer and Theresa are equally capable of seeing men for what they truly are. For the working girl Jennifer, this insight is born from witnessing their carnal natures at first hand and she has no time for the lies they tell both her and themselves to assuage their guilt. Theresa possesses the same insight from witnessing the hypocrisies of both brothers and proves herself to be a natural maternal figure – far more than James’ cold and immaculate wife. These dual roles are played brilliantly by Carolyn Pickles who invests in their personality enough differences to be distinctive – a flat and low, no nonsense vocal register for Jennifer and a higher, warmer and sympathetic one for Theresa – whilst their similarities are naturally expressed through the fact that the same actress is playing both characters.

Returning to James’ wife, we see a woman who, unusually and just like her husband, prefers to keep herself aloof to the desire of her children. When discussing Theresa’s future with the family, she remarks that, whilst she is good with the children, she is concerned that she spoils them – presumably because she’s happy to read them bedtime stories and, at one point, openly disagrees with James’ parenting style. If anything it is Theresa who has spoiled her employers; putting the job before her own life and even her own grief as she continues to work in the aftermath of Jennifer’s death. Overall, James and Richard’s family is one that is determined to keep one another at arm’s length and play by society’s stifling, petty conventions, as best exemplified by the peculiarly formal way in which James is sometimes referred to by family members as ‘The Major’ rather than say, ‘my brother’, ‘my husband’ or ‘my son’.

Artistically, Woolley is an interesting director. Feeling the film was about how men view women, Woolley employed a deliberately voyeuristic method of shooting. Many scenes are shown from POV meaning that we become the character; this is relatively innocuous enough when it’s a simple scene of similarly innocuous conversation, but it takes on something else when we are invited to become the eyes of the unseen killer, stalking his prey in a series of long tracking shots. The camera is also prone to turning its attention to seemingly banal detail whilst pivotal conversation occurs elsewhere and, in the film’s opening minutes, he steadfastly refuses to show David’s face for some time, placing the camera at waist level, behind his back or up above and even, at one point, blocking his features with the strategically placed arm of another character. 

The film plays out in a non-linear fashion, with scenes occurring before, during and after the fateful night Jennifer is murdered. This disjointed nature means that, as a viewer, you have to keep your concentration levels up to pinpoint just where you are, with only the impersonal, blunt narration of an unseen reporter or policeman introducing the characters as they appear or coldly reporting the events and incidents leading up to the murder to serve as our guide. There’s also a good deal of dry, subversive humour at play too; the film opens with the kind of melodramatic score we associate with the thriller genre, but it is quickly revealed to be the soundtrack of a trashy film of that ilk playing on TV, there’s also a long tracking shot across Jennifer’s blank, mouth agape expression that initially leads us to believe the crime has taken place…only for her to break off with a yawn. Later, as she makes her last phone call in a deserted Leeds street, the camera hones in on the sticker upon its window; “This phone box can save lives. Preserve yours now”

Brothers and Sisters is just one DVD in a box set of Woolley films I purchased on a whim entitled An Unflinching Eye. Going off this, I think I have some interesting treats in store for me.

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