Tricia Youlden

I, Daniel Blake
★★★★★ MA

From long-time collaborators writer Paul Laverty and director Ken Loach comes this gut-wrenchingly realistic film about the institutionalised lack of compassion and empathy engendered by the cost-cutting and privatisation of welfare services in Britain. With more children than ever before living below the poverty line in Australia, this issue is particularly relevant here too.

Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower. Having suffered a severe heart attack, he has been off work and on a sickness benefit allowance but has received notification deeming him no longer eligible for these benefits. His telephone conversation with “health care professional” Amanda, played over the opening credits, might be amusing were it not so palpably frustrating.

Because his doctor reiterates that a premature return to work would kill him — in fact, he might need to have a pacemaker-defibrillator fitted — Daniel clearly has to appeal the decision. Yet, in order to receive any money while he is waiting indefinitely for his appeal to be heard, he must apply for a job-seeker allowance even though he can’t take a job should he get one.

This Catch-22 situation is further layered by the requirement that such applications have to be made online. Daniel does not have a computer, nor can he use one. Although his attempts to use public computers are comical, the stress of his predicament negates the humour of the situation. With the help of his IT-savvy neighbour, Maximilian, Daniel is able to at least complete the various applications.

Unfortunately, each time he clashes with a bureaucrat, Daniel’s situation worsens. During one of his visits to the employment support office, Daniel observes a young single mother who is encountering similarly unfeeling treatment. Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two children have had to move to Newcastle from London in order to get accommodation. He befriends her and the children and, despite the sheer awfulness of their respective plights, they look out for one another. Katie, Daisy and Dylan become the family that Daniel and his wife never had.

Unfortunately, the inescapable facts are that he is a sick man applying for non-existent jobs while Katie cannot adequately clothe or feed her children. Having both fallen foul of the system, neither receive any support allowance and each must resort to desperate measures to survive.

Even though it portrays with devastating clarity the dilemma of the unemployed, elderly, ill and impoverished members of society, I, Daniel Blake is an inspiring film. “They’ve picked the wrong one if they think I’m going to give up," Daniel says. His indomitable spirit infuses the film throughout.

As he wrote in the speech that he prepared for his appeal hearing, “I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen — nothing more, nothing less.”

So far, this film has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2016 and the Prix du Public at the recent Locarno International Film Festival.

★★★★ M

Adriana Ugarte (left) as the young Julieta with her mother, Sara, played by Susi Sanchez

In this film, Pedro Almodovar explores the complexity of love, the fragility of human life and the devastation of losing a loved one.

When we first meet middle-aged Julieta (Emma Suarez), she is packing to leave Madrid for Portugal with her partner, Lorenzo Gentile (Dario Grandinetti). Then a chance encounter in the street with Bea (Michelle Jenner), her daughter Antia’s childhood friend, unleashes a flood of painful memories and emotions. Oblivious to the fact that Julieta and Antia have been estranged for many years, Bea tells Julieta that she has seen Antia, who is married with children and living at Lake Como.

Stunned, Julieta decides to stay in Madrid to deal with the past. After Lorenzo leaves, she moves back to the atmospheric old apartment building where she and her daughter had lived. She begins to write a letter to Antia, telling her about her late father, Xoan (Daniel Grao), a fisherman from Galicia.

Almodovar takes us back to Julieta’s and Xoan’s first meeting and subsequent romance several decades previously. After Antia’s birth, they live happily in picturesque Redes for 12 years.

Xoan’s housekeeper Marian (Rossy de Palma), a veritable “Mrs Danvers” character, has never really accepted Julieta (played in these younger years by Adriana Ugarte). She intimates that Xoan has been unfaithful. This sparks an argument between him and Julieta that results in his untimely and tragic death.

Julieta and Antia (Priscilla Delgado) are both devastated but unable to discuss their feelings with each other. As well as their mother-daughter relationship, Almodovar gives us glimpses of Julieta’s relationship with her own parents and her friends. The complexity of all these characters and their relationships precludes Julieta from being classifiable as melodrama. Similarly, Alberto Inglesias’ restrained, delicate score underplays rather than heightens the emotions.

Just as his close-up shots capture the finely nuanced emotions of the characters, Jean-Claude Larrieu’s camera deftly captures both the minute detail of the colourful costumes and set design, and the expansive, picturesque scenery of coast and city.

As usual, Almodovar provides us with much to contemplate and relate to in our own lives.

The Beatles 8 Days a Week — The Touring Years
★★★★ M

Whether or not the Beatles’ music was an integral part of your youth, this superlative documentary directed by Ron Howard, with the cooperation of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, is well worth a look. Footage of live performances from their early days at the Cavern Club in Liverpool through to their final performance in San Francisco, is intercut with archival footage of newsreels, interviews, home movies and photos.

Despite a punishing touring schedule, their wit, youthful exuberance and sheer bemusement at their popularity are omnipresent. Throughout these early years, their attitude is best summed up by quips such as, “We could have quite a run. It could all end tomorrow” and “This is not culture — it’s a good laff.”

Even so, as Whoopi Goldberg remembered, many parents considered the Beatles and Beatlemania to be a menace to society. Apart from the hysteria of their fans, which could be a little alarming as I experienced at their Sydney Stadium concert in 1964, the Beatles were talented, intelligent songwriters and musicians. How we Baby Boomers adored them!

It is hard to believe that, back then, they travelled with just two roadies and minimal equipment. At Brooklyn’s Shea Stadium they played to an audience of 56,000 using only the venue’s loudspeaker system (unfortunately, the filmmakers were legally prevented from including footage from this concert).

If The Beatles 8 Days a Week — The Touring Years is not still playing in a cinema near you, beg, borrow or buy a DVD copy. It’s fab!

★★ MA

Directed by Paul Verhoeven and filmed in Paris by Stephane Fontaine, Elle looks great. Appearances, however, can be deceptive: this is a thoroughly disturbing film. David Birke’s screenplay is based on the novel by Philippe Djian.

From the opening scene in which she is brutally raped by a masked intruder, Michele Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) is presented as an increasingly contradictory character for whom one’s early sympathy rapidly decreases. Ironically, Michele and her close friend, Anna (Anne Consigny), run a company that develops video games, in which monsters sadistically rape and pillage. Red herrings abound as Michele guesses at the identity of her assailant. Is it dour, tattooed Kurt, whose unsavoury video game is repeatedly featured? Or is it meek, mild Kevin, Michele’s adoring acolyte?

Michele is having an affair with her friend’s husband, Robert (Christian Berkel), although she divorced her husband Richard (Charles Berling) for infidelity. She blatantly flirts with Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), her stockbroker neighbour, whose wife is ultra-religious.

Despite her mother’s entreaties to visit her father, Michele has not seen him since his imprisonment for committing mass murder when she was 10 years old. Because he is now seeking parole, his gruesome past has resurfaced in the media. Perhaps Michele’s rape was some twisted vigilante act linked to this? Meanwhile, to Michele’s obvious distaste, her mother is threatening to marry a much younger man. Could he be her assailant?

Although Huppert’s technique is admirable, not even she can make this supremely narcissistic character credible. Michele regards women as competitors who she must put down. On the one hand, she plays the femme fatale, exploiting her sexuality to manipulate the men in her life. On the other hand, she plays the vulnerable victim, wielding pepper spray.

Then, having discovered the identity of her rapist, she deliberately places herself in harm’s way. Rather than report his identity to the police she develops a sadomasochistic relationship with him, with Anne Dudley’s creepy music telegraphing every nasty moment.

Irritating inconsistencies in plot and character are compounded by the absence of humour throughout. Elle is over two hours long — and feels it. According to IMDB, five actresses had reportedly rejected the role of Michele before Huppert accepted it. Hmmm ....

The Light Between Oceans
★★★ M

Having lost both their sons in World War I, Bill and Violet Graysmark (Garry Macdonald and Jane Menelaus) are apprehensive when their wilful daughter Isabel (Alicia Vikander) announces that she intends to marry Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender), a former soldier turned lighthouse keeper. After his wartime experiences, Tom relishes the fact that on the island there’s no one to hurt.

Despite initially revelling in the solitude of Janus, the spirited Isabel becomes depressed after experiencing two miscarriages. When a boat is washed up after a storm with a dead man and a healthy baby girl she begs her husband to let her bring the child up as their own child.

When, inevitably, the child’s true identity is eventually discovered, Isabel finds it hard to accept the harsh reality that the little girl is not hers. Tom, however, finds himself torn between his love for Isabel and the child, and his empathy for the child’s real mother (Rachel Weisz). There cannot be a happy ending to this tragic little tale.

Despite Adam Arkapaw’s exquisite cinematography, Alexandre Desplat’s lovely score and the gorgeous sets, locations and costumes, The Light Between Oceans fails to fully satisfy. The main fault, I feel, lies with the character of Isabel, whether as written by M.L. Stedman, or as adapted by screenwriter / director, Derek Cianfrance. The mélange of accents is also rather disconcerting. Nevertheless, it remains an interesting film.

The Jewish International Film Festival is playing in Sydney until November 23. I have seen and highly recommend Monsieur Mayonnaise (Trevor Graham’s documentary about Philippe Mora’s amazing parents Georges and Mirka) and Gregory Monro’s documentary, Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown. I hope to see more of the other 66 films assembled for the festival by artistic director, Eddie Tamir.

Tricia Youlden teaches drama at Willoughby Girls High School