Three of the all-time great directors. From each, one of their most under-appreciated films. Between them, two Oscar nominations and fewer than $7 million in certified worldwide grosses. You are likely to have seen at least one film from one of these directors, but have you seen these ones? If you haven't, get onto it!
THE BOSTONIANS (1984) - JAMES IVORY
It took many years for the world to realise what talent lay in the hands of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. It was only when they turned to filming adaptations of classic English-language literature that people (specifically, members of major voting bodies) took serious notice. The Bostonians was made in 1984, the year before they made A Room with a View, the biggest breakthrough of their collaborative career, and it is a typically stirring, evocative, exquisitely-crafted film from this legendary trio. Henry James' novel, concerning a young woman who joins the Suffrage movement in 19th Century Boston, has been adapted with such respect and delicacy, but also with vigour and vivacity, and artistic flourishes which Ivory gently streams throughout, creating an intoxicating atmosphere, elevating the film from rote page-to-screen Oscar bait (if anyone ever less baited Oscar than these three, though...) to a work of singular beauty. The emotional turmoil, the struggle between right and romance, rather than right and wrong, the startling ending, fraught with futility and suppressed fury, and Vanessa Redgrave's magisterial performance as Olive Chancellor, a remarkable character personified to the fullest by one of the greatest screen actors.
But who are the other directors whose films are featured this week? Here comes the cut...
Ingmar Bergman's second film in colour, and his third consecutive film starring Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow as a couple in the lead roles. It was recognised by the major American critics associations upon release, but today is not one of Bergman's most popular films, despite being far from his weakest. Certainly, in comparison to his outright masterpieces, it is a tad forgettable, but there is no denying its searing strength upon viewing. von Sydow's Andreas has been desolated by the failure of his marriage, and via troubled couple Eva and Elis (Bibi Andersson and Erland Josephson), he meets Anna (Ullmann), who has also been bereft of late, with the deaths of her husband and son. It reads terribly grim, doesn't it? It reads terribly Bergman! But no-one has ever yet done depicted the breadth and depth of human despair with such insight nor such precision as Bergman so frequently did, and The Passion of Anna is one of his richest films in that regard. Unlike the more stylised (but equally brilliant) cinematography of some of his other work, Sven Nykvist's impression of the Swedish islands in colour is an eery contrast of glowing golds, stinging reds and translucent greys, which combine to give the image an almost-mystical sheen on nubby film. Unexpected instances of gore and violence only make a hostile experience even less comforting, but even more striking and original.
SPIDER (2002) - DAVID CRONENBERG
The sombre, claustrophobic style of David Cronenberg has rarely been put to better use than in this ugly tale of memories and madness. The setting is contemporary London, but it could just as easily have been post-war London. The colours, from the peerless Peter Suschitzky, are various shades of grey, green and brown, the smoky air, the sodden pavements, the dampening walls, the grubby clothing, and the sickly peach bathwater, guaranteed to be as dirty and lukewarm a bath as you'll ever take. Miranda Richardson, in a triple role, is sensationally good, as good as she's been in any film, and Lynn Redgrave is perfectly cast as the fearsome Mrs. Wilkinson. For all the rot and the callousness, the oppressive air of melancholy in which the film is steeped, there's a touching poetry, in the beautifully mounted progression toward a devastating climax, and in Ralph Fiennes' performance. He's not quite naive nor childlike, he seems thoroughly aware of each gruelling step backward though his painful ordeal, but perpetually shocked by stirring up details of a past he had forgotten he even had.