By David Elliott
APPETIZER (reviews of Dark Horse and Dheepan)
Fortunately, Dark Horse is not about John Kasich, Ben Carson or Martin O’Malley. You can get fractious politics off your mind by going to a vividly spirited horse movie, a documentary from director Louise Ormond. Radiating equine love, it’s like an improved surge of desperado Sterling Hayden’s fixation on Kentucky horses in The Asphalt Jungle, with Kentucky replaced by Wales. In grim but plucky Cefn Fforest, a coal town almost strip-mined of vitality, Janet Vokes had a crazy-fine idea.
Vokes was a wife, bar maid and grocery employee who decided to become a race horse owner, always the niche of royals and moneyed bluebloods (there’s a nip of Welsh whimsy; Jan’s father “used to breed show budgies”). She formed a syndicate with 30 other locals, each contributing ten pounds a week. They found a humble mare, paid a 3,000 pound stud fee for a low-ranked stallion, and then had the scrawny offspring trained, named Dream Alliance, and entered for races (both flat and steeplechase runs). No bookie took the steed seriously, then he gained fourth place in his first race, won his fourth race, had a fallow period, then a crisis, then a comeback that made “Dream” the Ben Hogan of equestrian courage.
If you want film style, you’re on the wrong turf here. Reliant on re-stagings and TV racing footage, the movie is most rich in beautiful horse images. Dream truly stars, with his white blaze on a pale chestnut hide, and above his hooves four white “stockings.” Around him are the thrilled owners and adoring fans, some of whom show a deficit of dentistry, but none of spirit and loyalty. If you miss some words, never mind. Every whinny and snort and pounding hoof is a call to satisfaction, from a huggable horse.
Only a French director – to be specific, Jacques Audiard – would make a tense survival story drawn from living events, while also drawing inspiration from the Baron de Montesquieu’s cross-cultural satire Persian Letters (1721) and, from exactly 250 years later, Sam Peckinpah’s bloody film Straw Dogs (1971). Trace those influences if you wish, but Dheepan succeeds on a direct level of empathy. Antonythasan Jesuthasan (I assume the name reveals a Christian upbringing) plays Dheepan, a war-sickene\d soldier from the Sri Lanka civil war that pitted the Hindu Tamil minority against the Buddhist Ceylonese majority, one of many current demonstrations that religion can be a toxic matrix for violence.
Abandoning his role as a Tamil fighter (in effect a terrorist), the burly, pensive Dheepan makes it to France, along with a widow who isn’t his wife and an orphaned girl. Pretending to be a family, they find menial work as caretakers in a dreary banlieue, one of those degradations of modern mass architecture and welfare bureaucracy that ring French cities. It’s a Third World “refuge” largely controlled by North African drug gangs. Dheepan burrows in as a cagey civilian, always wary, his military training held in reserve if needed. Of course, it’s needed (here comes the Straw Dogs element). Audiard handles it with potent realism; forget Liam Neeson or Jason Stathem.
Dheepan won the Palme D’Or last year at Cannes, which seems a touch too much (a kind of World Relevance Award might be more on target). This is a soberly moving film, a work of honorable attention, not just about the crisis of the refugee diaspora swamping Europe but about utterly specific people. Its stable keel and appeal are in the balanced, vulnerable performances of Jesuthasan and his “wife,” Kalieaswari Srinivasan. “Kali” and “Sri” indicate Hindu roots. The story, which eclipses religious branding, is universal but not abstract.
SALAD (A List)The Ten Best Horse Movies, at least on my ranch: The Black Stallion (director Carol Ballard, 1979), Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939), Buck (Cindy Meehl, 2011), National Velvet (Clarence Brown, 1944), Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959), Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959), The Wonderful Country (Robert Parrish, 1959), The Red Pony (Lewis Milestone, 1949), The Horsemen (John Frankenheimer, 1971) and Dark Horse (Louise Ormond, 2015).
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)Citizen Welles is a great creative hero, but John Baxter offers an interesting view of his acting: “The character of this suave philosopher-criminal (Harry Lime, The Third Man) fitted Welles like a Savile Row suit. In a 50-year acting career, he never played a hero. Rather, his tastes ran to men as flawed as they were flamboyant – the murderous Renaissance grandee Cesare Borgia in Prince of Foxes, obsessed and suicidal Ahab in his stage Moby Dick, a roistering but finally pathetic Sir John Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight, and of course Charles Foster Kane, so desperate for love that he exhausts and alienates everyone who might provide it.” (From Baxter’s intro to the 2010 reissue of Orson Welles’s noir novel Mr. Arkadin, or Confidential Report.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)“In The Producers, Kenneth Mars found his classic role as Liebkind. For immigrant Franz, the goosestep years were goose paté. On the roof with his pigeons (a short flight away from Terry Malloy’s aviary in On the Waterfront), Franz wears long Johns and a Wehrmacht helmet, to which Mars added bird drop stains. He never grasps that his visitors are Jewish, and wishes ‘to clear the Fuhrer’s name!’ Dustin Hoffman was set to do Liebkind, but left for Los Angeles and his big bingo, The Graduate.” (From the Zero Mostel/The Producers chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Kindle and Nook.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter (United Artists, 1955; director Charles Laughton, cinematographer Stanley Cortez)
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