Historic shots

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Tomorrow Never Dies (12). Keep the Aspidistra Flying (12). Eisenstein Season (NFT)

Robin Buss looks at seasonal film offerings, and a Russian classic set before the revolution

In the days of the Cold War, there was some rationale behind the James Bond movies, even when the villain was an independent master criminal trying to play one side off against the other. The postwar Bond rushes around in a slightly less meaningful, more fantastic world.

The latest in the series, Tomorrow Never Dies, has Bond trying to thwart the ambitions of a media mogul (Jonathan Pryce) who wants to make the news as well as report it: he thinks that a war between China and the United Kingdom would provide good copy for the launch of his television satellite and give him access to the Chinese media market. He intends to pursue his goals with the usual array of ballistic missiles and other weaponry, and has to be dissuaded by a combination of human ingenuity, martial arts (Bond has a Chinese female agent on his side this time) and his remote-controlled, rocket-firing car.

One attraction of the Bond films is that they give you what you expect: parents can tell that there will be a lot of violent action and falling bodies, but little apparent suffering - so the "12" certificate is about right. For younger children, this holiday, we have had Home Alone 3 (PG); the Arthurian fantasy Prince Valiant (PG), which emphasises the fairytale qualities rather than the grimmer aspects of the Dark Ages; and a cinema version of the American cartoon, George of the Jungle (U), about a Tarzan figure brought up among the animals, with more than enough adult ironies and jokes to make it an all-family film. Lots of enjoyment, but few surprises in any of these.

There were not enough surprises, either, in the film chosen to open this year's London Film Festival, and released shortly before Christmas. George Orwell's 1936 novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a sour satire on English life, based on the author's own experiences; Robert Bierman's adaptation (scripted by Alan Plater) is a fine piece of film-making, dripping with period detail and desirable locations.

The central figure, Gordon Comstock (Richard E Grant) is a poet who leaves his job in advertising to live by his art, while at the same time trying to persuade his respectable girlfriend (Helena Bonham-Carter) to go to bed with him. In the end, Bohemia proves unattainable and the irresistible pressures of middle-class British life drive him back to where he started.

The problem is that, like Comstock himself, the film is engaged in an unwinnable struggle against conventions: you just can't make an English heritage film that is also a polemic against the cosiness of English life. Moreover, Helena Bonham-Carter has ornamented so many of these well-made literary adaptations (she is back again, this month, in The Wings of the Dove) that she would define the genre of the movie, even if the art department had stinted on the meticulous period details; and Richard E Grant, allegedly penniless, but always dressed in an immaculate suit, is bound to remind us of his roles in Withnail and I and How To Get Ahead in Advertising (it might have helped if Orwell's character had been an accountant). Like James Bond, the film seems to have outlived the struggle that gave it meaning.

Sometimes it is not enough to recreate the place; there are certain films that can only be made close to the time of the events they depict. This month sees the release of a new print of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, the story of the mutiny of Russian sailors against their conditions of service in 1905.

One of the masterpieces of world cinema, it was once considered so powerful a piece of propaganda that screening was banned or restricted in several countries, including Britain. There is a story that the French novelist and film critic Robert Brasillach, a convinced fascist (he was shot for treason after the war), wept with frustration when he was unable to get into a cine-club screening of the film.

This year sees the centenary of Eisenstein's birth, and the National Film Theatre is holding a complete retrospective, with screenings, lectures and seminars. Tears of frustration can be avoided by ringing the NFT box office (0171 928 3232) for details of the films in the season.

What Brasillach wanted to see at first hand was Eisenstein's use of montage: the classic example is the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, which lasts around 260 seconds and contains 155 different shots, orchestrated in such a way as to sweep the spectator along at an accelerating tempo, to convey the implacable advance of the soldiers as they descend the steps, firing into the crowd.

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