Friday, 26 August 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 3: A Run for Your Money

With the less than auspicious poster tagline (visible on the left) 'A Spree with a harp and a harpy,' this is one of Ealing Studios' lesser known comedies, a light farce that relies too heavily on awkward stereotypes and thinly drawn characters, and never feels coherent or convincing.

When two naive Welsh miner brothers win a competition (for coal shovelling, no less), they leave their small mining town for a trip to the bright lights of London, to collect their £200 prize and see the England-Wales rugby game. Hi-jinks, naturally, ensue, but they are largely predictable and not surreal or different enough to raise this film above the crowd. There's plenty of mileage in a good fish-out-of-water narrative, but this squanders a strong cast (including an energetic lead in Dai Jones, played by Donald Houston, and strong support from Moira Lister and Ealing stalwart Alec Guinness) in a tale of Welsh cliche, con artists and inconclusive running around.

The film also doesn't look particularly different from many low budget British films of the period (late 1940s/early 1950s): the lighting is mostly flat, only really coming to life in the early underground pit scenes, where cinematographer Douglas Slocombe uses shadows and the dark angles of the coal face and machinery to offer real depth of image. In fact, the night scenes towards the end of the film also contain more interesting composition, but don't reach the creativity of those opening images. As ever - and this is a recurring feature in all three Ealing films I've watched to date (and others I can think of) - the location work is impressive, featuring Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, Fleet Street and Twickenham. There's also some nice back projection work going on, an impressive (if largely ignored) technical side to Ealing's films.

Despite my criticism of the film overall, there are some good ingredients: the two central performances (the brothers) are solid, but the plot doesn't really have a lot for them to do. They are Welsh largely because it allows the film to throw some Welsh (and English) stereotypes around - leeks, drinking, singing etc. It's not a negative depiction - the brothers are innocent, not stupid, and they technically *win* the day - but it lacks any nuance and often feels like a lot of pointless movement without purpose. Equally, Alec Guinness isn't given much to work with as the reporter Mr. Whimple - he does what he can with Whimple's growing sense of frustration, the only sane man in the midst of mayhem (a gardening columnist asked to chase around after two Welshmen). His initial introduction suggests a more interesting laconic, callous figure, but that disappears in the face of misunderstandings and chases. He is simply a figure to be buffeted by the winds of the plot, a position summed up by his closing line, requesting a quiet police cell for the night so he can write up his story.

Continuing my focus on female performance from Train of Events, the stand-out performance here is probably Moira Lister, who brings a lightness of touch to Jo, the female con artist trying to fleece Dai. Her performance is energetic, bright, and works well opposite Houston, but is laden with one of those abrupt character decisions that is motivated by plot, and has little justification on the screen or in dialogue. This hard-as-nails schemer spends a day with Welsh innocent Dai, then suddenly decides to abandon her life of crime? That this turn isn't entirely risible is largely due to Lister's performance, particularly her transformation when trying on an outfit in an expensive dress shop and, later, in her flat with Dai (who tells her of the wonders of Wales) - Lister lets some of Jo's hard edge drop and seems to reveal a softer side... but still manages to leave the audience questioning how much was real, and how much was an act for dopey Dai.

In terms of the comedy, there are some nice visual and verbal gags: most notably when older brother Twm (Meredith Edwards) and Huw (a Welsh harpist friend he meets in London) drunkenly attempt to board a Piccadilly line tube train. At separate doors, they dart forward and back, in and out the doors, trying to spot each other and stopping the doors from closing - it runs long enough to be funny, particularly as Huw is dragging a huge harp around with him. This also leads to a strong moment of community bickering where, on the tube train, Twm asks for directions to Twickenham. The various representatives of different classes offer advice, which descends into full-blown argument about the best route (the upper class woman suggests a taxi, which is met with much venon and discussion of bus routes). Given Ealing's interest in community (seen in films such as Whisky Galore! and Passport to Pimlico - the poster for which has a cheeky cameo towards the end of the film) it might be important that this temporary London community is more about chaos and disagreement than the loving, supportive community of the Welsh village that Dai and Twm long to return to.

All in all - I haven't even mentioned the final act running around or the strange effect Twm and Huw's talent show double act has on the London audience - this is an interesting curio, but its individual parts just don't add up to anything coherent or significant.

No comments:

Post a Comment