:— Backtothe


Writer-director Stephen Poliakoff talks to Alan Morrison about Century.

‘E.M. Forster he’s a wonderful

novelist, but he saw things through his own specific lens. And because of things like The Importance OfBei‘ng Ernest. we tend to think of that high Victorian/Edwardian period as people sitting in grand costumes having cucumber sandwiches, and that world as being one long summer until the First World War shattered it. But it wasn’t like that at all. It was absolutely teeming with ideas. and you can see that in the art that was done in Europe and the music that was written and the way it was moving away from staid Victorian morality. I wanted to show characters moving through a period where the place was abuzz. as opposed to most period films which happen in pockets, rather isolated. with a love- sick person in a great house who can’t quite get it together.‘

It shouldn't come as a surprise that when Stephen Poliakoff— a writer- director very much known for his stage and screen analyses of the modem world turned his hand to a period drama, the result wouldn‘t sit comfortably in the Merchant-ivory class. Century is that very rare thing: a British movie set in the past that

Century: ‘a British movie set in the past that actually looks forward'

' actually looks {Oiward The narrative

centres on Paul Reisner (Clive Owen),

an ambitious young doctor who comes

to London tojoin a medical research

' institute headed by the charismatic

Professor Mandry (Charles Dance). The two become friends until Paul is banned front the institute for criticising Mandry's views on genetic engineering and stilling his fellow doctors’ discoveries. This whole area of

E millennium. Since the resurgence of

racism in Europe. it seemed to me important to show that these ideas were

; around at the turn of the century. We

know that people advocated sterilising

. people and. in one or two cases. killing

; people in England in 1900. so what

1 happened in Germany in the 30s was

i not like a big. black thunderstorm that suddenly appeared out of nowhere.‘

tampering with nature and reproduction . Roriianian Jewish extraction ~~ Scottish.

still touches raw nerves almost a

hundred years on. given the recent

outcry over the potential use of eggs from aborted foetuses.

‘Some of the thoughts have an eerie echo for us.’ agrees Poliakoff. ‘eugenics and genetic engineering. the idea that you could breed better people and get rid of the underclass by stopping certain people from breeding. The optimism and the darkness. that play of light and dark. 1 thought had a resonance for us as we get towards the

An interesting twist on the Paul Reisner character is that he is a Scot of

claims l’oliakoff. because of the country‘s great medical tradition. and from an immigrant family due to the director's own family background. llis

i father‘s family came from Russia to settle in Britain in the l920s in order to

flee Stalin. although his grandfather

had visited London at the time the film is set.

Poliakoff first made his name as a playwright. with his first play. A Day With My Sister. premiering at the

Traverse Theatre in l97l when he was eighteen. By the mid-70s be had notched up a couple ofWest End hits. Although he is still active in the theatre his I992 play Sienna Red toured the UK before opening iii London he has become more involved with writing for the screen since his l977 Michael Apted-directed BBC film Stronger Than The Sun. lti I987. he made his debut as a film director with Hidden (it); a politically-tinged tale of secret information and film reels stashed deep below the streets of London. and followed it with Close My Eyes. which saw a brother/sister incestuous relationship play out against a long. hot English summer. But when it comes to describing the differences between working for theatre or cinema. he explains himself in a rather unusual way.

‘If you ptit a live sheep alone in a black space on the Barbican stage. whether it stays still or wanders around. it becomes disquietening.‘ he reckons. ‘Wliereas if you do that on film even if you put it in a zany place like a

; shopping mall or amongst concrete

sheep near St Paul‘s * you may be making a comment. but nevertheless it's still a sheep photographed in an odd

place. It doesn‘t have the same capacity for metaphor that the theatre has. ()n

the other hand. it is much easier to be

5 evocative and poetic on film. so when

you have that wonderful combination of the right acting. the right mood. the

. right image and all the right music. you ; have that incredible sense ofthe power ofcinema.‘

Century opens a! the (i/osgoii' Film

Theatre on Fri 4 Feb and the

. Edinburgh Frbnhouse on Mon 28 Feb.

_ Kangaroo court

It’s an education, this movie business thing. Take writer-director Leslie Megahey, for instance. Four years ago, he was nestling in his office as the BBC’s Ilead of Music and Arts, but having given it all up to pursue an independent filmmaking career of his own, his first project has taken him deep into one of medieval history’s murkiest backwaters: the wonderful world of animal trials. After a friend sent him a book on the subject, he was soon wading through the kind of academically documented absurdities that instantly lit up a few creative light-bulbs, and thus the screenplay for his Middle Ages murder mystery, The Hour Of The Pig, was set in motion.

Itere, basically, was evidence of pre- ltenaissance Europe’s determination

from cats and dogs to goats and even the odd errant swarm of locusts, if they at all misbehaved themselves. One story from Germany, transported to provide a suitably dotty opening scene for the film, revealed the divergent verdicts when a peasant farmer’s illicit passion for his donkey


22 The List 28 January-l0 February I994

to put any living creature in the dock

brought them both before the courts -

a hanging sentence for the ruddy- ; faced son of the soil, acquittal for his éfour-legged former consort, an


innocent obviously corrupted by an older partner. Without losing sight of the ludicrous

i nature of in the material, Belfast-born } Megahey proves just the man to

explain the reasoning that lay somewhere behind such apparently

wayward activity. ‘If a pig, which was

ranked lower in the natural order of things, killed a human, from the higher rank,’ he elucidates, with some degree of earnestness, ‘then this disturbance had to be formally dealt with. The pig went to court and received proper legal counsel. Very learned men

The Hour Of The Pig: ‘salubrious detail’

argued the case. Justice had to be seen to be done. You couldn’t just bash the thing over the head and be done with it!’

Such is the situation faced by hotshot Parisian lawyer Richard Courtois, an enlightened chap (well,

in today’s cinema audiences and made

the piece a challenge at the scripting

stage. ‘I think the success of films

like The Name Of The Rose and The

. Return Of Martin Guerre has to do with 3 putting modern thriller plots in quite

3 distant historical backgrounds, and I

think we’ve pretty much done the same thing. I wanted elements in the story that people would recognise as

identifiable human trailties.

Nostalgic for the days when you could ‘have a wild idea, then go away

= and write it, shoot it and cut it on your

' own’, Megahey’s relished the : opportunity to work on “the larger

canvas of the cinema screen’,

'- assembling a cast of characterful 5 English thesps (Ian Helm, Nicol

Williamson and newly-honoured Donald Pleasence) and applying his

trademark sense of richly-textured ; authenticity in even greater and yet

more salubrious detail.

by 15th century standards) who arrives

in a rural French community determined to tight injustice and promptly discovers that his first case

. is to defend a pig on a murder charge.

Little does Courtois know the quagmire of seigneural corruption, forbidden sexuality, and ethnic tension he’s just strode right into but, as adeptly played by Colin Firth, his character represents exactly the kind of proto-modern overview that draws

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‘There’s BBC money in the film, so

they’ve got it for transmission in three

years’ time,’ he adds, ‘and the stuff

r they found most difficult wasn’t the nudity but the language in the scene with the travelling players. In the

. Middle Ages, they had a much more

robust attitude towards matters sexual

- and lavatorial, so we actually toned 1 down our script a heck of a lot from

the original. (Trevor Johnston)

; The Hour Of The Pig opens at the 3 Glasgow and Edinburgh Odeons on Fri 14.