My Summer of Love (15)
Many years ago I watched a Newsnight feature about Accrington in East Lancashire. The reporter was looking at voting intentions for the forthcoming General Election but, to increase viewer interest presumably, he ventured forth to the sound of Western film music and imitation gunshots; East Lancashire as ‘the wild west’, a strange and, by implication, uncivilised place of curious natives. At the end Jeremy Paxman remarked to the effect that ‘they’ wouldn’t be bothering ‘us’ again for a long time to come. Discussing the feature with my students we, all living in the area at the time, felt lightly patronised and firmly dismissed.
There are many things to like about this movie. Just one of them is that the Polish director, Pawel Pawlikowski, senses the same strangeness that our Newsnight reporter did, but becomes fascinated by and absorbed in the eerie beauty of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Indeed Pawlikowski working with a tight budget was so determined it should be precisely this place that he filmed there despite being offered extra funding if he filmed in Derbyshire. In some of the reviews the location is described as the ‘expanses of the Yorkshire Dales’. But it isn’t the chocolate box pretty dales it’s the scrappy, unloved, steep and hidden valleys on bleak ‘tops’ beyond Hoddlesden, Darwen, and Mythromroyld, to Todmorden and Hebden Bridge. Valleys with ‘dark satanic mills’, a landscape, as Pawlikowski says, ‘messed up’ by human beings, beauty besmirched by industry. But it is also a curiously resonant, evocative place because the modern world, the industrial revolution, was born in the factories of these valleys. The pools and streams Mona and Tamsin, our young heroines, bathe in powered the first looms of the first textile mills. But Capitalism is now making the air unbreathable in Shanghai not Accrington and what do we then do with these ghostly places of smudged beauty?
For Phil, the last of our three central characters, the valleys can be as they were for John Wesley, the site of titanic struggles between good and evil. Pawlikowski picked up on a strong ‘religious vibe’ and Phil tries to make this presence of the divine the ultimate reality of the valley. The film thinks a lot about symbols, pictures, images, visual and verbal, and how we strive to hold on to reality through them. But as we see, even the Cross, can be idolatrous.
Unlike her brother Phil, or her glamorous lover and friend Tamsin, Mona has no illusions about herself, nor the life of underclass futility she is likely to end up living; described with ironic relish in one marvellous speech by Mona herself. But she, like the other characters could be much kinder to each others’ illusions. Maybe that Newsnight reporter wasn’t so off beam after all. Easier to imagine the Wild West than feel the strange intensity of those semi-abandoned hills and valleys.
Pawel Pawlikowski | UK | 2004 | 86 minutes | 15