Winter Flight

December 22, 2011

The five-week series of David Puttnam’s fine “First Love” films wraps up this week with Winter Flight, which has the distinction of being the longest and most serious of the bunch. It’s also the most problematical.

While the earlier films, especially my favorites, Sharma and Beyond and Forever Young, managed a careful blend of good cheer and seriousness, Winter Flight tips more toward the serious, as suggested by its Bergmanesque title. And yet the somber tone is almost too much for its slim plot, which, though it presents a grave enough situation, seems stretched a bit too far.

It’s about a virginal 19-year-old British serviceman, Mal (Reece Dinsdale), whose primary social activity is reading the encyclopedia. The first time he ventures into a military bar, he is humiliated by the toughs who regularly hang out there.

But his humiliation draws out the compassion of Angie, the bartender (Nicola Cowper), who soothes his wounds and begins dating him. It’s his first romance.

It’s not quite hers, as evidenced by the discovery that she’s pregnant, but can’t remember who the father is. Mal knows it isn’t him, but he assumes the stiff upper lip and resolves to do the right thing by her.

This situation is nearly identical to Preston Sturges’ classic 1944 comedy The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. In that film, Betty Hutton saved the day by delivering sextuplets, thus vaulting into celebrityhood. Winter Flight has a surprise ending, too, although of a different kind.

This ending, in fact, provides the most original moment in the film, which spends a little too much of its length arguing whether the couple should give the child up for adoption. the movie is sensitively told, Roy Battersby’s direction is unfailingly decent, but the script by Alan Janes does tend to meander.

The birth of the child is intercut with an attack on the RAF base where Mal is stationed. It’s a peculiar sequence, since the film has prepared us for the possibility that the attack may be a real one by the Soviet Union, although logic tells us it is more likely a war game. It even sets up some slapstick, as Mal runs around the hospital with his gas mask flopping on his face. It’s an interesting comic try that doesn’t quite jell.

Winter Flight is still a good, often moving film (especially the ending). But it doesn’t achieve the plateau of some of the others in the series. That’s the problem with doing exemplary work; you’re always expected to keep up with yourself. These “First Love” movies have been so uniformly excellent, I think we can forgive one of them for being merely good.

First published in the Herald, February 1986

On the off chance that anybody else remembers these “First Love” movies, I will say that it surprises me to read that my faves were Sharma and Forever Young; Sharma yes, but I thought Kipperbang and Arthur’s Hallowed Ground were my other choices. Sean Bean was also in this one.

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Sharma and Beyond

February 28, 2011

That's right: giant VHS box. You try finding an image for this movie.

The Crest theater’s series of filmed-for-British-television “First Love” movies continues this week with another charmer: Sharma and Beyond, from writer-director Brian Gilbert and executive producer David Puttnam.

From its mysterious opening sequence, during which the camera glides down an empty English country road while the soundtrack soars with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, there’s the feeling that a confident presence is in control behind the camera. The rest of the film confirms this feeling.

Sharma and Beyond is about the adventure of Stephen (Michael Maloney), a young science-fiction writer. Actually, he’s a would-be science-fiction writer, although he labors over his lengthy novel every day. To make ends meet, he works in a school teaching foreigners to speak English.

He whimsically drags his students out to the country house of his idol, the reclusive author Evan Gorley-Peters (Robert Urquhart). Stephen knows the writer’s classic Sharma Trilogy practically by heart, and he’s always dreamed of meeting the man. While they stand outside the grounds and look around, a young woman rides up: Natasha (Suzanne Burden), Gorley-Peters’ daughter, out exercising her horse.

She and Stephen speak, he calls her later, and a date is set. But when Stephen arrives at her house for lunch, he seems more interested in meeting the great author than in wooing Natasha, who’s not too pleased about the turn of events. Neither, for that matter, is Gorley-Peters, an aloof gentleman who greets Stephen’s babbling conversational sallies with bemused disbelief.

For Stephen, this period of ingratiation is leading up to one crucial moment, when he will ask his hero to read his rough-draft manuscript. This becomes the central event in the film.

Gilbert’s directorial touch is light and sure (in the production notes, Gilbert cites Francois Truffaut as a stylistic inspiration, and you can see the influence here). It’s easy to get caught up in Stephen’s excitement, but at the same time Gilbert doesn’t let you forget the touching Natasha, who sometimes gets short shrift from Stephen.

Above all, it’s a marvelous trio of actors that holds our attention. Maloney is bright-eyed and buoyant; Burden is sad-eyed and moving; Urquhart is just what you’d expect a remote scribe to be: magisterial, distant, interested in details (he quizzes Stephen about the current costs of the London subways).

I was so captivated by these people and their situation, it didn’t even matter much to me that Gilbert’s script gives them perhaps too little to do. And the movie remains resolutely modest, which appears to be the hallmark of the “First Love” series. They’re gems, but intentionally small ones.

First published in the Herald, April 25, 1986

In its own way, and maybe partly because of its obscurity, this movie is one of my most fondly-remembered films of the 1980s. And its level wasn’t unique in the Puttnam-produced “First Love” series, which included Michael Apted’s splendid Kipperbang and also Arthur’s Hallowed Ground, a movie about a groundskeeper who has meticulously maintained a cricket pitch for many decades—exactly the kind of movie you’d expect to be the only directing project from David Lean’s cinematographer, Freddie Young. But Sharma is just lovely, and I remember it gave my twentysomething self a hint of “If I made movies, this is the kind of movie I would make” (Gilbert liked Truffaut too, after all, it said so in the press kit). Maybe that’s why I take it as a personal disappointment that Gilbert’s film-directing career has not quite reached its promise, despite the odd title of interest. (Plus I used to confuse him with Brian Gibson, a Brit who did What’s Love Got to Do with It, and who I’m sorry to say died in 2004.)

There were movies that used the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh before this one did, and as The King’s Speech proved, it’s still a go-to piece. I can’t argue with that, although it might be nice if they came up with something else. IMDb says that Tom Wilkinson is in the cast. Sharma was a rare lead for Michael Maloney, who does such excellent work as a second-level player in movies (he played Rosencrantz and Laertes for Mel Gibson’s and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlets, respectively; he’ll probably be old enough for Polonius when Justin Bieber gets around to his version). On stage Maloney gets to do more. I saw him play Prince Hal to Robert Stephens’ Falstaff on stage, and he was in full command. In fact, the second-tier status of the people behind Sharma and Beyond fits the movie’s feel just perfectly.