The Swimmer

The Swimmer

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 May 2003

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Director: Frank Perry

Writers: Eleanor Perry

Based on the story by: John Cheever

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule

USA 1968

95 mins

This article contains spoilers.

A Hollywood oddity from 1968, The Swimmer stars Burt Lancaster as an upper-class suburbanite who, standing by the side of his friends’ pool on a summer afternoon, decides to swim home through all of the neighbouring pools. Based on a 1964 short story by John Cheever, it was adapted by Eleanor Perry and directed by her husband Frank Perry, with one scene helmed by an uncredited Sydney Pollack, brought in by the befuddled producers. The latter had trouble grasping the symbolic nature of the tale: through the central conceit, The Swimmer is really about a man in the midst of a mental breakdown slowly forced to face the reality of what his life has become.

At first, Lancaster’s Ned appears happy and at ease among his wealthy friends. But as he progresses from pool to pool, more details about his life gradually emerge until the terrible truth about his situation is finally revealed in a heart-breaking finale. The progression from pool to pool is an allegory for Ned’s life, from youth to old age, and from success to failure. The possibilities of youth are evoked in the first scene through the recollection of blissful, carefree swimming in the mountains with his childhood friend. From there, he moves to a pool belonging to his teen love, which prompts wistful musing over what could have been. At the next house, he convinces a young girl who used to babysit for him to come along with him. At first, it is an exciting adventure, full of laughter and youthful physical exertion, until Ned falls, spraining his ankle, and upsets the girl by becoming inappropriately, intensely, protective. Limping through the rest of the film, a now weary and vulnerable-looking Ned meets antagonistic people who reveal the extent of his decline and fall.

As Ned’s change of social status becomes clearer, the world around him becomes increasingly hostile. Welcomed at the first houses he visits, he is called a gate-crasher when he arrives at the pool party of vulgar nouveaux riches neighbours he probably used to - maybe snobbishly - look down on, and he is eventually thrown out. As he tries to cross a busy road, cars beep and swerve aggressively around him. When he wants to swim in the communal swimming pool, he is initially turned away by the employee because he doesn’t have the 50 cents required, then humiliatingly made to wash his feet twice by the attendant, before attempting to cross an insanely busy pool in which he is assaulted by chaotic bodies, floating objects and loud noises. When he reaches the other side, he is confronted by disgruntled shop-keepers whose bills he hasn’t paid, and who reveal more unsettling truths about his family. It is that scene that makes you realise how bare he is. Lancaster spends the whole film wearing only a bathing trunk. Initially, it is a positive thing: Ned looks handsome, powerful, athletic. But gradually, it becomes a poignant image for the fact that he has lost everything: he has literally been stripped bare, physically, emotionally, financially, socially. Ned starts like the picture of success - an idle upper-class suburbanite whiling away a bright summer afternoon by the pool - and ends a failure shunned by all.

We are never told if Ned lost everything as a result of misfortune, or as a consequence of his own actions, although the scene with his beautiful ex-lover suggests he may have been at least partly responsible, his infidelity possibly one of the causes of his predicament. With scathing bitterness, Shirley recalls how he broke up with her because of ‘his duties as a father and a husband’. But when he puts sun cream on her back, she visibly responds to his touch. And when he shivers with cold she puts a towel around his shoulders. The spark is still there and Ned tries to reignite it, but Shirley angrily resists the pull of past love, the hurt obvious underneath the lies she tells him to push him away. As with the nouveaux riches or the shop-keepers, Ned is lost and confused, unable to comprehend why she rejects him so violently.

Ned is indeed incapable to face the reality of his life, and keeping on swimming through the pools until he gets home is a way of pretending things are still the way they used to be. In a key scene that is the heart of the film, Ned comes across a lonely little boy who sells lemonade on a wall outside his absent parents’ mansion. Ned wants to swim in their pool, but the parents have emptied it because the boy is not good at sports. As they sit by the empty pool, Ned tells the boy that it’s better not to be picked for a sports team because ‘it makes you free’, and it’s clear that he’s thinking about life in a more general - and typically American - way. He then decides that they will swim anyway and teaches the boy how to swim as if there was water in the pool. ‘If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you,’ he tells the boy. What happens next shows that the boy is mature enough to understand the limits of make believe. Ned, on the other hand, remains pitifully self-deluded until he is faced with the crushing reality of his situation at the very end.

Like Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Samurai (1967) - which inspired The Driver - and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), The Swimmer reduces his main character to one single action/function. Confronted with the intolerable reality of living, the Swimmer, like the Samurai and the Driver(s), has a minimalist and mechanistic approach to life: the only way of coping is to keep repeating the same unique action over and over again. An action that is a physical projection onward, a constant need for movement: keep on driving, keep on swimming, keep moving forward to escape from the past, from one’s self, from life.

This article was first published on Darren Hayman’s Lido Music blog.

Virginie Sélavy



Format: Cinema

Dates: 14 September 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Guy Maddin

Writer: George Toles, Guy Maddin

Cast: Jason Patric, Isabella Rossellini, Udo Kier, Kevin McDonald

Canada 2011

94 mins

Full disclosure: I produced Guy Maddin’s first three feature films, lived with him as a roommate (I was Oscar Madison to his Felix Unger - Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple sprang miraculously to life on the top two floors of a ramshackle old house on Winnipeg’s McMillan Avenue), continue to love him as one of my dearest friends and consider his brilliant screenwriting partner George Toles to be nothing less than my surrogate big brother.

Most importantly, I am one of Maddin’s biggest fans and refuse to believe I am not able to objectively review his work. Objectively, then, allow me to declare that I loved Keyhole.

What’s not to love?

Blending Warner Brothers gangster styling of the 30s, film noir of the 40s and 50s, Greek tragedy, Sirk-like melodrama and odd dapplings of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, it is, like all Maddin’s work, best designed to experience as a dream on film. Like Terence Davies, Maddin is one of the few living filmmakers who understands the poetic properties of cinema, and this, frankly, is to be cherished as much as any perfectly wrought narrative.

This is not to say narrative does NOT exist in Maddin’s work. If you really must, dig deep and you will find it. That, however, wouldn’t be very much fun. One has a better time with Maddin’s pictures just letting them HAPPEN to you.

The elements concocted in Keyhole to allow for full experiential mind-fucking involve the insanely named gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric as you’ve never seen him before - playing straight, yet feeling like he belongs to another cinematic era), who drags his kids (one dead, but miraculously sprung to life, the other seemingly alive, but not remembered by his dad) into a haunted house surrounded by guns-a-blazing.

Populated with a variety of tough guys and babe-o-licious molls, Ulysses is faced with ghosts of both the living and the dead, including his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini - gorgeous as always and imbued with all the necessary qualities to render melodrama with joy and humanity), her frequently nude father (the brilliant Louis Negin - perhaps one of the world’s greatest living character actors, who frankly should be cast in every movie ever made), chained to his bed, uttering the richly ripe George Toles dialogue, and Udo Kier (the greatest fucking actor in the world), whose appearance in this movie is so inspired I’ll let you discover for yourself the greatness of both the role and Udo himself.

Keyhole is, without a doubt, one of the most perversely funny movies I’ve seen in ages and includes Maddin’s trademark visual tapestry of the most alternately gorgeous and insanely inspired kind. For movie geeks, literary freaks and Greek tragedy-o-philes, the movie is blessed with added treats to gobble down voraciously.

Like all of Maddin’s work, it’s not all fun and games. Beneath the surface of its mad inspiration lurks a melancholy and thematic richness. For me, what’s so important and moving about the film is its literal and thematic exploration of a space. Strongly evoking that sense of how our lives are inextricably linked to so many places (or a place) and how they in turn are populated with things - inanimate objects that become more animate once we project our memories upon them - or how said places inspire reminiscence of said objects which, in turn, inspire further memories, Keyhole is as profound and sad as it’s a crazed laugh riot.

Of all the reviews about the movie that I bothered to read, I was shocked that NOBODY - NOT ONE FUCKING CRITIC - picked up on the overwhelming theme of PLACE and the SPIRIT of all those THINGS that live and breathe in our minds. It was the first thing to weigh heavily upon me when I first saw the movie. It has seldom been approached in the movies - and, for my money - NO MORE POIGNANTLY AND BRILLIANTLY than rendered by Maddin, Toles and their visionary young producer Jody Shapiro.

All the ghosts of the living and the dead (to paraphrase Joyce), the animate and inanimate, the real and the imagined, these are the things that haunt us to our graves, and perhaps beyond. And they all populate the strange, magical and haunting world of Keyhole - a world most of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, live in.

We are all ghosts and are, in turn, haunted by them.

Greg Klymkiw

Whistle and I’ll Come to You

This year the BFI is making all 12 of the classic BBC films from A Ghost Story for Christmas series finally available on DVD. The first two volumes, each containing a double bill of chilling tales, including Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You (1968), were released on 20 August.

Two more volumes - each containing three tales - are released on 17 September. The films are: Lost Hearts (1973), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) and The Ash Tree (1975) - all directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark and all containing newly filmed introductions by him; The Signalman (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1976) Stigma (Lawrence Gordon Clark, 1977) and The Ice House (Derek Lister, 1978) - with new introductions to The Signalman and Stigma by Lawrence Gordon Clark.

Comic Strip Review by Tony Hitchman
For more information on Tony Hitchman’s book Using Comic Art to Improve Speaking, Reading and Writing, please go to Amazon.



Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 September 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: New Wave Films

Director: Miguel Gomes

Writers: Miguel Gomes, Mariana Ricardo

Cast: Teresa Madruga, Laura Soveral, Ana Moreira

Portugal/Germany/Brazil/France 2012

118 mins

Breaking classic genre conventions in the most apt and eloquent way, while consistently subverting them with bold narrative choices and a beautifully dreamlike style, Miguel Gomes’s Tabu combines the story of an impossible love affair with a quirkily surreal, poetic view of colonial history. The film is formally divided into two narrative parts - one set in contemporary Lisbon (‘A Lost Paradise’), the other in Mozambique in the 1960s (‘Paradise’) - but revolves around one central heroine: the elderly Aurora (Laura Soveral), a compulsive gambler with a mysterious past.

Before we are introduced to Aurora, however, Tabu starts with an enigmatic prologue, which in itself offers a superb small film within a film that follows an intrepid explorer, still haunted by the death of his beloved wife some time ago, roaming the harsh planes of Southern Africa. As the camera follows his every step, the gentle voice of a narrator informs us about the true meaning of the explorer’s expedition, and the destiny he is hoping to fulfil. In the end, the image of a sad, melancholic crocodile with a woman from the past - who form, as we are told, an inseparable pair united by a mysterious pact - creates the perfect transition into the ingenious, poetic, grotesque and often brilliantly witty world that makes Tabu such a unique and compelling cinematic experience.

As the film enters its first chapter, ‘A Lost Paradise’, Aurora is about to pass from this life. Apart from her next-door-neighbour Pilar (Teresa Madruga), who spends most of her day doing good deeds, and Santa (Isabel Cardoso), a black woman whom Aurora treats like a housemaid when she is not accusing her of witchcraft or tyranny, there is no one else left to visit her or come to the rescue whenever the elderly lady - incited by the hairy monkeys and other creatures that frequently populate her dreams - feels the urge to gamble her belongings in the local casino. Aurora is a woman tormented by mysterious memories of her past, and it is only after she is rushed into hospital that she quietly agrees to disclose the secret of the tragic love story in her life. She asks Pilar to find a man called Mr Ventura, who, at Aurora’s funeral, sheds light on the events that took place 50 years earlier on the ostrich farm that she used to own in Africa, at the foot of a certain Mount Tabu.

To say more would be giving away the magic that suffuses the wonderfully scripted and staged second half of the film, ‘Paradise’. With a lighter, but perhaps more darkly cynical touch, Gomes here creates not only a visually stunning, tragic tale of love and loss, but also an enduringly fascinating tribute to silent cinema.

Taken as the sum of its equally dazzling and perplexing parts, Tabu is a bold, impressive film that attempts to break away from the narrow scope that has characterised much of recent art-house filmmaking. Elegantly weaving together colonial history, past cinema and personal memories, it unashamedly touches the heart – as we learn in the film, the most ‘insolent’ muscle of the human anatomy.

Pamela Jahn

Rumble Fish

Rumble Fish

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 27 August 2012

Distributor: Eureka (Masters of Cinema)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Writers: S.E. Hinton, Francis Ford Coppola

Based on the novel by: S.E. Hinton

Cast: Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane

USA 1983

94 mins

‘Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see, when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.’ – Benny

Rumble Fish is a film dominated by time. Clouds race across the skies, shadows drip from walls, clocks slice through the seconds in the foreground, hang on every wall and a soundtrack by Stewart Copeland ticks and bangs with the percussive anxiety of time running out. ‘Biff Wilcox is looking for you Rusty James, says he’s gonna kill you,’ Midget tells Rusty James (Matt Dillon) at the beginning of the movie. Rusty James is trapped in the wrong time, missed his moment. The gang fights he’d love to bring back finished when he was 11 years old. Then his older brother, the Motorcycle Boy, was a gang president and local hero, but the Motorcycle Boy is gone, leaving a younger brother with a hankering for former and imagined glories, getting his kicks from his girl Patty (Diane Lane) and hanging out with his pals. The fight is a rare moment of interest, a re-enactment, and Coppola has it choreographed as a dance scene, giving Mickey Rourke, as the Motorcycle Boy, an entrance to kill for. With Motorcycle Boy’s return to the family home - complete with a beautiful performance from Dennis Hopper as the ‘lawyer on welfare’ sot of a father - Rusty James hopes for a return to the good old days, but he’s been wounded by Biff and his life looks to be falling to pieces as he realises his own limitations and, more poignantly, the limitations of his obviously damaged brother.

But how has time treated Rumble Fish? My friends and I, as teenagers, watched and rewatched Rumble Fish so many times that if Mickey Rourke was ill one day and couldn’t make it, we could have played the role. Of course, we knew we were actually Rusty James wanting to be Motorcycle Boy, and we feared that in actual fact we were Steve (Vincent Spano), Rusty’s goofy nerd friend who harbours a rage against the Motorcycle Boy: ‘I don’t know why someone hasn’t just taken a rifle and blown your head off.’ When we watched it, I remember being uncertain of when the film was set. The black and white (and the sound design) take their cue from the Motorcycle Boy’s colour blindness and intermittent deafness - ‘like watching black and white television with the sound turned down’ - but it also has the effect of making the film seem like something from the 50s or 60s. The glimpse of a Casio keyboard or a modern motorcycle jars. The film is a dream vision, smoke and fog drift across the screen and nothing is ever quite what it seems, with hallucinations and out of body experiences. Watching it now I realise it’s actually an ageing man’s view of youth. Youth is not exhilarating and carefree; it is already in a process of deterioration. Poor Rusty James can hardly walk by the end of the film, he’s so battered and beaten. All that he’s got going for himself is his wilful ignorance against Motorcycle Boy’s experience: ‘he looks really old, like 25’. Rourke’s otherworldly performance, his quietness that had the technicians dub the film ‘Mumble Fish’, his occasional willingness to use vicious violence, his brilliantly delivered ponderings - ‘Even the most primitive societies have an innate respect for the insane’ - creates that most elusive thing: a convincing portrait of cool.

Given what happened to Rourke through the subsequent two and a half decades, not to mention Coppola, who is currently capping his career with a horrendous so-bad-it’s-sad Val Kilmer piece, watching Rumble Fish persuades me that time … time is a very peculiar item.

John Bleasdale

The Imposter

The Imposter

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 August 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Picturehouse/Revolver

Director: Bart Layton

Cast: Adam O’Brian, Frederic Bourdin, Carey Gibson

UK 2012

99 mins

The Imposter tells the story of Frederic Bourdin, a French-Algerian drifter who compulsively impersonates children, and who managed to pose as missing American teenager Nicholas Barclay, convincing both authorities and the boy’s family, and returning with the latter to live in San Antonio, Texas. The film employs techniques more often associated with tabloid television than with theatrically released documentaries: dramatic reconstructions buoyed by histrionic, tension-laden music; to-camera interviews, cinematically lit and shot, in which the subject’s emotions spill forth; and a gradual build-up of suspense, with a slow and well-timed release of important details.

But there are a number of parodic techniques and moments that seem to sabotage or undermine the suspenseful mood and the emotionally heightened story. Sometimes, when Bourdin relates telephone calls he made, a tinny telephone effect is added to his voice. Sometimes his voice synchs up with the lip movements of the actor playing him in the reconstruction. The film demonstrates Bourdin’s expectations of the American authorities by using a brief montage of TV cop shows, including Telly Savalas as Kojak.

Some of the characters, too, appear as movie archetypes, most notably the grizzled private detective with a wild hunch that no one else quite takes seriously. He doggedly pursues Bourdin, babbling to anyone who’ll listen about how Barclay and Bourdin don’t have the same ears. Also, there are numerous implausible details that gradually accumulate (no one challenged Bourdin when he suddenly dyed his hair and got tattooed two days before the Barclays arrived to meet him), which add to the uneasy sensation that Bart Layton’s film is an ‘impostumentary’, an elaborate fake. Even the murky NTSC news footage could be convincingly manufactured, as Chris Morris proved with certain segments of his The Day Today. Indeed, some of the film’s more bathetic moments seem to have a touch of Morris’s unsparing mockery about them.

Yet Bourdin is a real phenomenon, the subject of countless news reports and of a lengthy New Yorker profile in 2008. As his story unfolds, one gets the uncomfortable sensation that a joke is being played. But on whom? On the God-fearing Texan rubes who think that Spain is ‘along the country somewhere’ and are desperate to reclaim their missing boy? Or on the marginalised outsider, unloved from birth due to his mixed-race lineage? On the uncritical credulity of the new emotionalism, the uncritical empathy for the next emotional rollercoaster? Or on the guffawing cynicism that assumes everything is a ‘fake’ or a witting joke that they are hip enough to be let in on?

John A. Riley

F for Fake

F for Fake

Format: Cinema

Release date: 24 August 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Orson Welles

Writers: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar

Cast: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar

France/Iran/Germany 1973

88 mins

In Richard Linklater’s film Me and Orson Welles (2008) we get an image of cinema’s great auteur as a self-important egotist and an ambitious womanising tyrant. His character is reminiscent of the spoilt brat from his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons‘ George Amberson (played by Tim Holt), whose irritating selfish behaviour leads the town’s people to wish he’d get his comeuppance. The lauded boy-genius Welles was certainly to get his. After two classic (although commercially unsuccessful) films for RKO, Welles’s career stalled. He found himself a washed-up has-been at just 27. The studio’s subsequent motto ‘Showmanship in place of genius’ was surely a personal slight.

His meteoric rise was followed by a steady decline during which he struggled to put together a messy (although occasionally brilliant) body of work - Shakespeare adaptations shot over several years with money from his acting work; a similarly financed but unfinished Don Quixote (1957-1985); an almost finished film - The Other Side of the Wind (1970) - confiscated by the Iranian government following the fall of the Shah; and at least one classic B-movie-noir. This sporadic filmmaking career was to end with F for Fake (1973).

It is ostensibly a film about the Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory, who claims to have painted many of the Modiglianis or Matisses still housed in top galleries, and de Hory’s biographer Clifford Irving, who himself faked an ‘authorised autobiography’ of Howard Hughes. Welles spent a year editing together footage from a documentary on de Hory by Franí§ois Reichenbach with scenes of himself telling stories and doing magic tricks (also shot by Reichenbach). Welles, of course, can’t resist talking about his own former glories as a faker. The famous story of his War of the Worlds radio broadcast (1938), which panicked America, is retold over re-edited footage from the 1956 sci-fi classic Earth vs the Flying Saucers (directed by Fred F. Sears).

It certainly poses illuminating questions about authorship. De Hory asks what it is that makes his paintings inferior to the originals when no expert can tell them apart. But perhaps more interesting is what the film adds to the debate on cinematic authorship - being made by perhaps the studio system’s most undisputed auteur. Stylistically it doesn’t look like a Welles film - there are none of his trademark directorial flourishes, no deep focus or elaborate crane shots - but it is undoubtedly a personal film. My favourite version as to how Welles came to make the film is that he was asked to provide the voice-over for a documentary about the art forger - Welles’s rich sonorous voice was much in demand for voice-over narrations - and took it over to make a film about himself.

Welles was to claim, ‘I believe a work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it’ and, by that standard, F for Fake must be a masterpiece. However, the picture of the creator is much less critical than in Linklater’s film. One suspects it is merely presenting us with Welles as he would like to be seen: the cape-wearing, entertaining storyteller/magician who appeared on TV chatting to Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett or Johnny Carson. Perhaps the film that best reflects its creator (and in the least flattering light) is Chimes at Midnight (1965), where Welles surely recognises himself in that great corpulent braggart, Falstaff.

It somehow seems fitting that the great auteur’s career should end with him cutting up someone else’s film and making something truly personal out of it; but that this personal vision made with total freedom from studio interference should result in endless shots of his new starlet/paramour Oja Kodar’s bottom and an urbane monologue about himself is a little disappointing.

Paul Huckerby

Secret Number

Secret Number

Format: Internet streaming

Website: Secret Number

Director: Colin Levy

USA 2012

15 mins

Secret Number may be driven by the idea of a scientific conspiracy theory but its presentation is completely transparent. Not only is Colin Levy’s award-winning student film viewable in its entirety online, there are also accompanying diary films, recording the production process. The film is an adaptation of a short story by Igor Teper, which challenges our everyday perceptions by proposing that there is a secret number between three and four. The suggestion comes in the form of a conversation between troubled mathematician, Prof Ersheim (played by Tom Nowicki in the film), and his psychiatrist, Dr Tomlin (played by Daniel Jones). The more Ersheim insists on the existence of the number, named ‘bleem’, the more Tomlin is forced to question basic assumptions about the world around him. Perhaps Ersheim and ‘bleem’ itself are being hushed up much in the same way as Galileo’s support of heliocentrism was condemned as heresy during his lifetime. Perhaps those in power have much to gain from keeping ‘bleem’ secret from the population at large. The idea throws open some interesting questions about our individual experiences of reality (and sanity), suggesting that there is subjectivity to what is accepted and propagated as the norm.

Levy does an accomplished job of handling the material, creating a sustained air of menace and un-reality, assisted by skilful post-production visual effects. Indeed, Secret Number is an extremely well shot and nicely edited work, especially for an emerging director. However, it is a shame the film does not rise above being a straightforward drama to become a more unusual work in its visual representation of how numbers shape our understanding of the world. There are a couple of scenes in which Tomlin and Ersheim try to imagine or communicate ‘bleem’ (usually through the medium of scattered jelly beans!) but these could have been pushed further visually to produce imaginative effects and allow the audience more space to consider the existence and meaning of numbers in our everyday lives.

Rather than exploring this element, Levy made the choice to supplement the basic conversation of Igor Teper’s short story and create a more involved narrative, uniting the two men in a flashback sequence focusing on an accident experienced in Tomlin’s childhood. The addition can be interpreted as direct proof of the existence of ‘bleem’ (the victim of the accident is not identified, hinting at some sort of cover-up) or alternatively as a product of Tomlin’s increasingly confused and paranoid state. By the end of the film, there is growing ambiguity about the roles of doctor and patient. While the ending succeeds in emphasising how thin our grasp of reality can be, the accident scene also feels like the necessary twist of a more conventional thriller and, as such, slightly disappoints. Still, these reservations aside, Secret Number demonstrates a great deal of technical promise and Levy’s ability to create a tight, well-paced narrative structure.

Eleanor McKeown

Prisoners of War

Prisoners of War

Format: DVD box set (TV series)

Release date: 16 July 2012

Distributor: Entertainment One/Arrow

Director: Gideon Raff

Writer: Gideon Raff

Original title: Hatufim

Cast: Ya&#235l Abecassis, Mili Avital, Adi Ezroni, Ishai Golan, Yoram Toledano

Israel 2009-2012

495 mins

Prisoners of War/Hatufim, the 2009 series written and directed by Gideon Raff, opens in the moment when the release of three prisoners of war is secured in tense, high-level negotiations. Seventeen years after the army reservists were taken prisoner in the midst of the Israeli-Lebanese war, the men - two alive, one nothing more than unidentifiable remains - are set free as part of a prisoner swap. During the years of their captivity, the men became icons in Israel, with their youthful faces, frozen in time, appearing on billboards and banners everywhere. But the men, brutally beaten and tortured during their imprisonment, are now shadows of their former selves.

They are reunited with their families at the airport in a perfectly executed scene, fraught with tension. Nimrod (Yoram Toledano) has a passionately loyal and devoted wife, Talya (Ya&#235l Abecassis), who spent 17 years fighting for his release, sacrificing her own life in the process. Nimrod also has a rebellious daughter who has an addiction to sleeping with older men, and a son he’s never met, who is about to be called up for military service. Uri (Ishai Golan), on the face of it, returns to nothing: his fiancée, Nurit (Mili Avital), beautiful, and demonised by the Israeli media and public for her lack of faith, gave up hope of his returning alive, married Uri’s brother and had a son. But the real mystery in Hatufim surrounds the fate of the third prisoner, Amiel, who leaves behind a distraught, grieving sister, Yael (Adi Ezroni), to try and come to terms with the death of her beloved older brother.

The men are given only a day after to spend with their families, before they are ‘debriefed’ at a special facility by Israeli intelligence agents, who believe not only that the men are hiding information about Amiel, but that they may have been ‘turned’, posing a threat to national security. Rather than being treated as victims, the men are suspects, interrogated and spied upon by their own government, even after they are allowed to finally return to their impossibly alien homes.

It’s a slick, gripping series, with some terrific performances, especially by Toledano and Golan. Made while Gideon Shalit was still being held captive by Hamas, the series was also prescient, and must have been incredibly resonant when it aired in Israel. But the problem with Hatufim is the sense that Raff tried to make it mean something to too many people. The promise of a tense, political thriller contained in the first episode never quite materialises; instead, Hatufim develops into more of an emotional, sentimental drama as the prisoners, racked with complex feelings of guilt, seek to re-connect with their families. Many of the episodes contain moments that dissolve into unsettling tearjerkers. Even the storyline involving Iris, an intelligence agent who ‘befriends’ the vulnerable and damaged Uri in order to gain information, turns into something of a love story. This melodrama can sometimes seem like a distraction from the most compelling and mystery-tinged elements of the series (while it’s hard to know just what to think of the storyline involving Amiel’s ‘ghost’).

Raff does a brilliant job evoking the problems that POWs face when returning to their families after captivity; it just feels at times that Hatufim is never sure if it wants to be a domestic drama or a thriller. In the end, it’s hard to shake the feeling, after watching the final scene of the first series, that the entire 10 episodes leading to that moment are nothing more than an elaborate set-up, a teaser, to the most compelling storyline in Hatufim. It’s only then that we get a glimpse at what really happened to Amiel. Series two is promised for later this year.

Sarah Cronin