The Boys Are Back

This article was first published on © Tony Watkins, 2010 The beginning of a new year is a time to pause and reflect on things in our lives that need to change. We long to jettison old habits and replace them with new, healthier ones. Most of us, though, fail to achieve a fraction […]

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Image courtesy E1 Entertainment © 2007 As we gear up for another round of seasonal warmth and good cheer, it’s time once again to embrace what our culture calls ‘the true spirit of Christmas’. Most people define this as some anodyne wish for peace and goodwill, a result of the pressure to keep any religious […]

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An Education

This article was first published on © Tony Watkins, 2010 What is life really all about? That’s the question which troubles Jenny – played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan – when she finds her life being pulled in two different directions. She is a very bright 16-year-old schoolgirl who is destined for Oxford University, but […]

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Good films to discuss

I often lead film discussions, and equally often I'm asked to recommend films that are good for talking about. So here's a list. It's nowhere near exhaustive, merely a bunch of films that I've either used or that I'm confident would be great. I"ll add to this list as other things occur to me and as new films come out. The Culturewatch website, for which I am Managing Editor, is a great place to find discussion guides - around 500 of them, though they're not all on films. I'll try to link some of the title below to their discussion guides when I get a moment.

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Image courtesy Icon Film Distribution © 2009 This article was first published on © Tony Watkins, 2010 Today sees the release in UK cinemas of Creation, marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Husband and wife Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly give beautifully nuanced performances as Charles and Emma Darwin experiencing a difficult […]

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Roger Ebert on Jason Reitman's Up in the Air

It was two years ago on Saturday night that Jason Reitman's "Juno" had its world premiere here at Toronto. The standing ovation that night was the most spontaneous and joyous I can remember. Still vibrating, Reitman stood on the stage of the Ryerson Theater and vowed, "I'm gonna open all of my films right here […]

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Darwin film 'too controversial for religious America'

Creation, starring Paul Bettany, details Darwin's "struggle between faith and reason" as he wrote On The Origin of Species. It depicts him as a man who loses faith in God following the death of his beloved 10-year-old daughter, Annie.

The film was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has its British premiere on Sunday. It has been sold in almost every territory around the world, from Australia to Scandinavia.

However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution. [...]

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Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince

This review was first published in Evangelicals Now (August 2009)

Harry, Hermione and Ron have grown up a great deal in the last few years. So have the films. The sixth Harry Potter film is a far cry from the stiff acting, shoddy effects and inferior direction of the first two films. While the quality has improved, each instalment is darker than the one before as J.K. Rowling’s epic story builds towards its incredible climax.[...]

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Review of Creation by Fionnuala Halligan - ScreenDaily

Released on the bi-centenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th publishing anniversary of On The Origin Of Species, Creation opts to view the naturalist through a domestic prism; struggling to bridge a gulf of faith with his wife while preparing to publish the theories which will rock the religious establishment. . . .

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New Canadian distributor acquires 'Creation' rights

8 September, 2009 Start-up Canadian distributor D Films has picked up all Canadian rights to Jon Amiel’s TIFF opener Creation. The Toronto-based company was launched in August by distribution veterans Jim Sherry and Tony Cianciotta. The deal was negotiated by Sherry, president of D Films, and Cianciotta, vice-president of acquistion, with Tim Haslam, CEO of […]

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CREATION tells of Darwin's war between science and love

Nev Pierce has written a piece about Creation in the LA Times. . . . Darwin's continuing relevance is one reason why "Creation" has been selected to open Toronto, which usually kicks off with a home-grown picture. "It's a bit of a tradition for us to open with a Canadian film, yes," said festival co-director […]

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Resources for churches and communities: Creation movie

Charles Darwin: eminent scientist, loving husband, grieving father. The film Creation explores the different sides to the man who some believe had ‘the biggest single idea in the history of thought’. Even today, Darwin’s legacy is at the centre of contemporary debate about our understanding of who we are and what it means to be human. This film explores the implications of Darwin’s theories, and the way that tragic events in his family life influenced his doubts about God.[...]

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'Tarantino is morally empty'

Johann Hari has written a very perceptive piece in today's Independent about the problems with Quentin Tarantino's use of violence. He quotes Tarantino's evaluation of screen violence:

“Violence in the movies can be cool,” he says. “It’s just another colour to work with. When Fred Astaire dances, it doesn’t mean anything. Violence is the same. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s a colour.” He scorns anyone who tries to see simulated violence as having meaning. With a laugh, he says: “John Woo’s violence has a very insightful view as to how the Hong Kong mind works because with 1997 approaching and blah blah blah. I don’t think that’s why he’s doing it. He’s doing it because he gets a kick out of it.” Praising Stanley Kubrik’s direction of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, he says: “He enjoyed the violence a little too much. I’m all for that.”

As Haris points out, to see violence on screen in these terms is to trivialise all violence and human suffering by making it merely something to entertain. Screen violence, he says, 'involuntarily activates our powers of empathy' which is 'most civilising instinct we have: to empathize with suffering strangers'. And that shouldn't be treated quite so lightly. To do so, to make it something which is about mere style or which is just to generate a laugh, is to minimise the importance of this instinct within the human heart. Every time it happens the instinct is weakened a little, the reflex blunted a fraction more. Hari is not arguing that violence on screen causes violent behaviour: 'I’m not saying it makes people violent. But it does leave the viewer just a millimetre more morally corroded. Laughing at simulated torture – and even cheering it on, as we are encouraged to through all of Tarantino’s later films – leaves a moral muscle just a tiny bit more atrophied.' He gives the chilling example of Quentin Tarantino's unfeeling response to 9/11 because he'd seen something similar on screen.

Hari's verdict on Tarantino is, as far as I can see, spot on: 'Tarantino is morally empty, seeing a shoot-out as akin to dancing cheek-to-cheek.' He insists that there is a 'moral conflict underpinning the aesthetics; by denying it is there, Tarantino is wilfully misunderstanding the effect of his films on their audiences.'

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Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Charles Darwin has massively influenced the modern world. 200 years after his birth, his struggles leading up to publishing On the Origin of Species are explored in a new film, Creation, starring Paul Bettany as Darwin.

The title is surprising but apt, since the film is partly about the creation of his book and partly about his doubts that God directly created every distinct species. But above all, it is the story of Darwin’s struggles over one particular aspect of creation: suffering.

Creation doesn’t tell the story in chronological order, indicating Darwin’s inner turmoil. His disquiet is partly intellectual. His meticulous explorations in the natural world have led him to conclusions that don’t mesh easily with the predominant views of his day.[...]

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Coco Before Chanel

This article was first published on © Tony Watkins, 2010 Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel is arguably the most influential fashion designer of the twentieth century. She revolutionised French style early in the twentieth century, bringing a simple, fluid modernist approach in place of the stuffy extravagance of late nineteenth-century fashions. Coco Avant Chanel (dir. Anne […]

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) has grown up a great deal in the last few years. Since he first stepped into the Great Hall at Hogwarts School, his wide-eyed wonder and innocence has been ripped away. He has faced the harsh realities of a world in which evil is finding new strength, and is focusing that strength on destroying him. The difficulties Harry experienced living with the Dursley family are nothing compared to the dangers, anguish and loss he has endured since. His friends have stuck by him throughout, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emily Watson) remaining fiercely loyal despite their disagreements. The three of them have learned more about the world than they cared to, and have developed skills which have been tested in the most extreme circumstances.

Harry has also grown tremendously as a result of being mentored by the greatest wizard of the age, Professor Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). It’s a wonderful relationship. As well as giving him wise advice, the old man’s trust in Harry gives him confidence to act courageously and to lead others. It empowers Harry to fulfil his potential. The protectiveness which the Order of the Phoenix members feel for the young wizard means that Harry is in the fortunate position of having a group of good adult friends, who are totally committed to his safety and well-being.

As Harry has changed over the years, so have the films. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a far cry from the stiff acting, shoddy effects and sloppy direction of the first two films, which strived too hard to be faithful to the books. Later directors (Alfonson Cuaran, Mike Newell and David Yates) have had much more freedom to make the films work well on their own terms, partly helped by the simple impossibility of putting the entirety of much larger books into two and a half hours. While the standard of the films has improved, each instalment is darker than the one before as J.K. Rowling’s epic story builds towards its astonishing climax.

Dumbledore needs a crucial memory in his efforts to defeat Lord Voldemort. He has a version which has been tampered with, but he needs the real one from former potions master Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). Since Slughorn is preoccupied with comfort, security and the status that results from having taught famous wizards, he is easily lured back to Hogwarts by the promise of a bigger office and, especially, teaching Harry Potter. With Slughorn teaching potions, Snape (Alan Rickman) takes over teaching Defence against the Dark Arts, to Harry’s distress. The advantage for Harry and Ron is that the exam requirements for taking Slughorn’s classes are lower than they would have been if Snape was still teaching potions. This means they have arrived without textbooks, and when Slughorn suggests they take old copies from his cupboard, Harry discovers the tatty copy he receives is full of notes written by its former owner, the Half-Blood Prince. In their first potion-creating task, he discovers that the notes in his book are corrections to the recipes, and they work much better than the printed ones.

Storm clouds continually loom over this film, both literally and figuratively. The wizarding world, which at our first encounter seemed so exciting and vivid, is dark, grey and forbidding. So many scenes are gloomily monochrome that the few bright ones come as welcome relief. Many of these concern the adolescent romantic turmoil of Harry and his friends. Harry is beginning to see Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) in a new way, but she’s going out with Dean Thomas; Hermione, somewhat perplexingly, has developed a bit of a thing for Ron, but he’s entangled with Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave). The combination of raging hormones and a powerful love-potion ending up in the wrong stomach provides much-needed humour to lighten the chilling central plot line. But there is perhaps a little too much of it, resulting in a somewhat uneven, episodic feel, although it will appeal to the teenage target market as much as the rest.

The darkness keeps reminding viewers of the pervading sense of menace facing the wizarding world, caused by the resurgence of the Dark Lord and his Death Eaters. Harry’s life is in particular danger from Voldemort, but everything good is under threat from this unspeakable evil. LIberty is curtailed, security is fragile and trust is ebbing away. Those who stand up for virtue, truth and freedom – in particular, members of the Order of the Phoenix – endure the destruction of their homes, physical attacks and even death.

Nevertheless, Dumbledore and his allies are resolute in their determination to fight evil, whatever the personal cost. They are all grimly aware of the risks, but the peril is such that there can be no triumph without great sacrifice. Their courage in resisting evil, and their willingness to lose their lives for their friends are inspiring. We live in a society in which it has been rare for many years to be in such extreme circumstances. Members of the armed forces face them, of course, but the situation in the wizarding world is much more like that faced by Christian communities in several places around the world where churches and homes have been destroyed and thousands of Christians have been killed in recent years – all without the western news media paying much attention.

As the odds they face seem increasingly insurmountable, Dumbledore in particular is driven on by a deep conviction that good will ultimately triumph over evil. This assurance springs from a belief that, as in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, there is a deeper, good magic that powers of evil cannot comprehend or conquer. Harry was saved from Voldemort’s attempt to kill him by his mother’s self-sacrifice for him, and sacrifice will eventually be what brings about the Dark Lord’s destruction. Meanwhile, Harry and his friends are driven on by the certainty that goodness and truth and freedom are so overwhelmingly important that personal comfort, even life itself are worth expending in order to achieve them.

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Optimum celebrates 10 years with Tolstoy film

Optimum Film Releasing is ten years old today, according to ScreenDaily. It has an impressive track record of distributing very interesting independent films in the UK. Rudo & Cursi is currently on release and the charming Coco Before Chanel is due on 31 July. Optimum has just announced that it has acquired the UK rights to a film I'm really looking forward to: The Last Station, which is the story of the final year in the life of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) and his marriage to Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren). The film is written and directed by Michael Hoffman, and also stars James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti and Anne-Marie Duff.

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Some recommended books on film and faith

At the risk of being seen as a shameless self-promoter, I would suggest that my own book, Focus: The Art and Soul of Cinema, is a key read for any Christian who wants to think about film and worldviews.

Some other books I recommend highly (in alphabetical order, by author, not in terms of merit):

Peter Fraser and Vernon Edwin Neal, ReViewing the Movies: A Christian Response to Contemporary Film (Focal Point) (Crossway, 2000).
Brian Godawa, Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom & Discernment second edition (IVP, 2009)
Jeffrey Overstreet, Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies (Regal, 2007)
Nick Pollard, Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult: With Study Guide (IVP, 1997)
William D. Romanowski, Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture, second edition (Brazos Press, 2007)
James W Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue (InterVarsity, 2004)

I will update this page with further recommendations and some comments when I get chance.

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Looking forward to An Education

An Education is to be released in UK cinemas on 30 October 2009, and I'm very much looking forward to it. It went down very well at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. My fear is that, being the kind of independent film it is, it will only end up in the small independent cinemas like the wonderful Harbour Lights in Southampton or have very short runs in the multiplexes. I hope UK film distributors E1 (and Sony Pictures Classics in the USA) will give it a good push. It won two prizes at the Sundance Film Festival easlier this year: World Cinema Audience Award: Dramatic and the World Cinema Cinematography Award: Dramatic.

Carey Mulligan, who for Doctor Who fans is unforgettable as Sally Sparrow in 'Blink', stars as a brilliant teenager who is set to go to Oxford, when she falls under the spell of a wealthy, urbane older man. The cast also includes Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, and Dominic Cooper. Perhaps even more exciting that this impressive line-up is that the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby. An Education is directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig. I confess I knew nothing about her until yesterday, but what I've read suggests she's very talented.

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David Tennant to be in St Trinian's II

Filming started in London yesterday (6 July) on St. Trinian’s II: The Legend Of Fritton’s Gold.
As a boy I loved the original St. Trinian's films, especially the first three: The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954), Blue Murder at St. Trinian's (1957) and The Great St. Trinian's Train Robbery (1966). I have no recollection of director Frank Launder's other two in the series, The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's (1960) and The Wildcats of St. Trinian's (1980). When Oliver Parker's new version, simply called St. Trinian's, in 2007, I didn't want to watch it because it was unlikely to be good enough to compare with my childhood memories. And the reviews were not, on the whole, very positive.

I'm hoping Parker and co-driector Barnaby Thompson will do a better job of this new one, not least because it will be starring David Tennant. Rupert Everett will return as the headmistress, Miss Fritton, and it will also star Colin Firth, Gemma Arterton, Talulah Riley, Jodie Whittaker, Juno Temple, Tamsin Egerton, Celia Imrie, Fenella Wollgar and Montserrat Lombard.

Screen Daily reports:

The film see the girls embark on a rollercoaster-style treasure hunt for the legendary Fritton’s Gold, which sees them face the villainous Pomfrey, played by Tennant, and his sidekicks from the women-hating secret society known as AD1.

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Sunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning, directed by Christine Jeffs (2009). This article was first published on Culturewatch, and is republished here by permission. © Tony Watkins and Pete Hartwell, 2009 The Lorkowskis are a dysfunctional family. Rose (Amy Adams) is a thirty-something single mother who works as a cleaner and is having an affair with her old high […]

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Looking For Eric

Eric Bishop, brilliantly played by Steve Evets, is an unassuming, introverted postman in Manchester, who is burdened with a great deal of emotional baggage. Director Ken Loach describes him as, ‘an intelligent man who suffers from panic attacks and it's really interfered with his ability to stay in a relationship. His response to it is just to put his head in the sand, go out with the lads, go to the games, have a drink and not deal with it.’

When his life goes into meltdown, he has little in the way of inner resources to cope. After a panic attack one day, he ends up driving round and round a roundabout the wrong way, eventually being halted by an inevitable crash. His friends at work rally round to support him, led by Meatballs (John Henshaw) who turns to self-help books from the library in an attempt to build Eric’s self-esteem. It’s not enough, though, because his problems spring from a broken heart.

Thirty years ago, Eric fell in love with Lily (Stephanie Bishop) when they met at a dance. They were devoted to one another, but once they were married and had a baby, Eric found himself struggling with the responsibility, as well as with relentless pressure from his overbearing father. At the baby’s christening, he suffered his first panic attack, and a short while later he walked out on Lily and baby Sam, and never returned. Somehow, Eric maintained contact with his daughter, and they have a good relationship, but Eric and Lily have not seen each other in years. Now Sam (Lucy-Jo Hudson) is a single mother herself and needs Eric’s help with looking after her baby, Daisy, while she completes her studies. The trouble is, this means collecting Daisy from Lily. It’s too much for Eric to handle, having spent the intervening years feeling torn apart by his feelings of guilt, and the love for her which he still feels so strongly.

To add to the complication of his life, he has another failed marriage behind him. Chrissie walked out on him seven years ago, leaving him with two boys from her previous relationships, Ryan (Gerard Kearns) and Jess (Stefan Gumbs). Eric has brought them up on his own, but now both of them are testing his patience to the limit. Loach emphasises that, ‘because at heart [Eric is] a very generous person, when they were younger he did have a reasonable relationship with them. But as they’ve become teenagers they do what teenagers do, which is if they see a weakness they exploit it. They destroy him. He's left with a big house that he can’t manage, and of course chaos breeds chaos.’

The panic attack brought on by seeing Lily brings Eric to the brink of despair. Screenwriter Paul Laverty says, ‘He not only feels he is losing control of everything around him, but much more terrifying he feels he can't even rely on himself. When Little Eric looks himself in the eye he confronts a lost man, heading for the precipice.’ Eric smokes a spliff and addresses his life-sized poster of his great hero, Eric Cantona: ‘Flawed genius, eh? Flawed postman, me. . . . Have you ever thought about killing yourself? Who loves you? Takes cares of you? . . . Have you ever done anything you’re ashamed of?’ Eric is astounded when Cantona appears in his room to give him advice and build his self-belief. This apparition may be a figment of Eric’s imagination, but it nevertheless enables him to begin to straighten out his thinking, get life back into perspective and find the courage to act.

One of the key challenges for Eric is to take risks in order to move forward. This starts with Cantona encouraging Eric to confront the past, no matter how fearful of doing so he may feel. ‘Without danger, we cannot get beyond danger,’ comes the gnomic advice. Eric takes his first step by opening a trunk containing mementoes of his time with Lily, and the two men reflect on how beautiful memories can be some of the hardest to deal with. They don’t talk about why this might be. Part of the reason, in Eric’s case at least, is that great memories throw the mistakes, unkind acts and conflicts of the past into even sharper relief, and drive home the sense of what has been lost or squandered. Eric’s fear is created by his sense of shame over the way he has acted, letting his one true love – and eventually everything else – slip through his fingers. He confesses that, ‘a lot of mistakes have been made; A lot of water has gone under the bridge.’ The real issue, however, is not mistakes, but failing to deal with them. He has made things so much worse by his refusal to communicate, to ask for forgiveness or to seek help. For Paul Laverty, this is at the heart of the film:

Past mistakes may fester; hurt and blame can tumble over each in an endless cycle that can still cast a shadow on our present. I thought about our fantastic gift of memory that can make 30 years ago burn with the intensity of yesterday. I reflected on how we can get 'stuck', what makes for change, and what a complex endeavour it is to understand each other. What is hidden, and what is just too painful to confront? I wondered about our capacity to forgive, not just the other, but ourselves.

Eric’s past is a festering sore because he has never dared to endure the pain of confronting it in order to resolve it. Again and again, Cantona pushes him to take risks, with aphorisms like, ‘He who is afraid to throw the dice, will never throw a six.’ When the great footballer speaks about his own fear – that the chanting of his name by sixty thousand fans would stop – Eric is astonished. His realisation that his hero is just an ordinary man, who was prepared in game after game to deal with his fear and take risks, seems to empower Eric to begin to take control of the direction of his life. He take tentative steps towards Lily, and attempts to bring some order to his home. Gradually, with some major setbacks, he begins to recover a long-lost ability to act, rather than merely react.

Eric is longing for redemption: for forgiveness and acceptance from the woman he has always loved, for freedom from fear and panic attacks and for a sense of well-being that comes from a life at peace rather than in chaos. Love, freedom and well-being are fundamental aspects of an integrated human life. It perhaps sounds trite for me, as a Christian, to suggest that Eric really needs to look further, to an even deeper redemption that comes only from God. Yet that is precisely what someone like Eric does need. The longings that he experiences are reflections of more profound yearnings which lie deep in every human heart because we are created to be in intimate relationship with him. If that is so, our lives are incomplete while that potential is unrealised.

What stands in the way of Eric finding limited redemption is the same as what prevents him finding ultimate redemption: himself. It is ironic that, even though Eric has problems with his self-esteem, he has a problem with pride, just like everyone else, which holds him back from doing the right thing. The core issue is that fears rejection. His logic is twisted by his emotions, but he seems to feel that as long as he avoids seeking reconciliation with Lily, he has only his sense of guilt and loss to live with, and he fears adding to that the certainty of being rejected.

He also fears risking any approach towards Lily because he never trusted her to forgive him. Although after Eric left her, she sent him a card with a dove of peace on it, expressing her complete love for him, he evidently could not imagine that her love would be great enough to forgive him. It suggests a deep sense of personal inadequacy, due in no small measure to his father. It is not until he is prepared to humble himself to seek Lily’s forgiveness that he will discover how real, how unconditional, her love for him still is, and in the process he will find himself. If that is true in human relationships, it is even more true of our interaction with God. Indeed, God sent not merely a token of his love for us, not a sign of peace, but came himself in the person of his Son. He stepped into our world, not as an imagined hero dispensing enigmatic advice, but as a real man. He came to make peace with us, despite all our weaknesses, failures and hostility, through dying on a cross and rising again. Eric’s story, like so many stories of human love amid our brokenness, echoes something of this greater story.

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Telstar is the powerful, often funny, but finally tragic story of Joe Meek (Con O’Neill in an extraordinary performance), an unorthodox, pioneering record producer in the early 1960s. Having already made a name for himself as a sound engineer, he set up a studio in a three-story flat above a luggage shop at 304 Holloway Road, London, where he invented many new recording techniques which revolutionised the music industry. With musicians and backing singers recording in different rooms, including the bathroom, it was frequently chaotic. The film starts in 1961 with songwriter and pianist Geoff Goddard (Tom Burke) arriving to meet Meek for the first time, and to record ‘Johnny Remember Me’ with television idol John Leyton (Callum Dixon) and Meek’s house band, The Outlaws. Geoff is shy, but is also in awe of Joe Meek. He feels a particular connection with him, partly because they share an interest in spiritualism. Joe claimed to have predicted the date of Buddy Holly’s death, and Geoff believes that his new song has come from Buddy Holly beyond the grave. Joe invites Geoff to a séance at which a Ouijah board apparently predicts that the song will be number one.

It quickly becomes clear that Meek is the centre of a whirl of activity, and that his energy and enthusiasm enables him to bring together talented aspiring musicians and produce great results from limited means. It is also evident that he has a hair-trigger temper, and can switch from being ebullient and cheerful one moment, to being angry and vitriolic the next. Joe is immensely talented and inventive, but so confident in his own abilities that he sees himself right and everyone else as wrong. When Brian Epstein rings up, wanting Meek to record his new band, The Beatles, Meek refuses, claiming that ‘they’re rubbish’. This self-confidence shades into self-obsession, and becomes increasingly problematic as he wants everything to revolve around him.

In bed one night, after watching a television news item about Telstar, the first communications satellite, a tune comes to Meek, which he eventually persuades his new band The Tornados and Goddard to record. It becomes an enormous hit, not only reaching the number one spot in the UK, but also in the USA – the first time for a British band and only the fourth time a British single had achieved this.

Central to The Tornados, at least for Joe Meek, is Heinz Burt (JJ Field). Joe is smitten with him, and before long the two begin a homosexual affair, arousing the jealousy of Geoff Goddard. But the other members of The Tornados resent, even despise, Heinz, contributing to rising tensions in Joe’s world. Meek’s life is becoming increasingly out of control. He is so desperate for homosexual encounters that he brings rent boys to the flat, and engages in casual sex on Hampstead Heath and in public toilets. In 1963, he is arrested for importuning for immoral purposes, which makes the front-page news and results in public shame for Meek, his social circle withdrawing from him, and blackmail. It begins to take its toll on Joe’s fragile state of mind.

He is well down a path to self-destruction; several of them, in fact. As well as his reckless pursuit of sexual gratification, his work life becomes ever more frenzied and he is increasingly given to angry outbursts. At the same time he is drawn further into occult practices, and comes to believe that he is possessed (though the film does not make this clear). He is also taking drugs, ‘some to help [him] think’ and ‘some to stop [him] thinking’. All of this is driven by his self-absorption, and it is little wonder that he becomes more and more paranoid. He suspects Decca of bugging his studio and accuses people of betraying his secrets, notably Clem Cattini (James Corden). When a French composer sues him for plagiarism on ‘Telstar’, his royalties are frozen, leading to spiralling debts. Joe seems increasingly intent on alienating everyone around him, despite the advice of his business partner Major Banks (Kevin Spacey) to, ‘Look after your men, Joe. They’re the only thing looking after you.’ He tells Geoff, ‘You’ve always been an embarrassment to me,’ and Heinz leaves him and finds a girlfriend.

Director/co-writer Nick Moran (who also co-wrote, with James Hicks, the West End stage play on which the film is based) flags up the downward trajectory of Joe’s life throughout the film with flash-forwards to his psychotic destruction of his world. Yet although we know where it’s all leading – perhaps because we do know – the degeneration into madness of this accomplished man is shocking and increasingly distressing. Meek seems to be a man who is intent on destroying everything in his life. Which raises the question, why?

There’s an incident in his childhood which he seems to see as defining him. When out playing in the woods he came across some phosphorus, left by the military it seems. He discovered that putting a little into his hands and clapping would produce a puff of smoke, but then he got too much on and his hands were badly burned. It’s a good metaphor for Joe’s life. He repeatedly goes too far and pays the price. But the significance of this incident goes further than simply being a metaphor. At the hospital, his hands are attended to by a kind, handsome doctor, and young Joe seems to have developed a crush on him. It is not uncommon for boys to go through a phase of developing or crushes on men or other boys. It is usually a brief phase which is connected with preadolescent awkwardness in relating to the opposite sex. But two factors in Joe’s early life make this much more significant. One which is not mentioned in the film is that Joe’s mother wanted a daughter and brought him up as a girl for the first four years of his life, resulting in him being isolated from most of his peers and feeling persecuted. The second is that Joe’s father was injured during the war, suffered from shell-shock and, it seems, became somewhat incapable as a father. So as well as having a confused sense of identity, he lacked the affirmation from the same-sex parent which is so important in normal development. And the good-looking doctor who gives Joe his full attention has a big impact on the boy, which finally sets the course of his sexuality.

This doesn’t explain everything about Joe Meek, of course, but his sexuality and his persecution complex are central to his life. The music business is one of the few areas of life in the 1960s where he could be somewhat open about his homosexuality, but he still feels the constant need to prove himself: to show that he is right, and that he can produce what nobody else can. He is deeply resentful of others constantly wanting things from him without giving anything back, though that is exactly what he does himself. At one point Joe complains that Heinz is the only one who loves him for himself, not for what they can get out of him, though we later discover that Joe is mistaken in this too. Towards the end of the film, Geoff Goddard laments, ‘This place used to radiate. . . . We created miracles here. . . . [but Joe] sucks out everyone’s energy like a vampire. I can see where he’s going: it’s dark . . . I fear it may cost him everything.’

While Joe Meek’s self-destructive slide into psychosis is exceptional, in some ways it is just a more pronounced form of tendencies which exist in all of us. All of Joe’s outward behaviour ultimately springs from his most fundamental problem, which is idolatry of himself. He comprehensively centres everything on himself: his yearning for gratification, his need to be right and to be in charge, his drive to be at the forefront. There is no room for God in Joe Meek’s life because it is full of him; he has ignored the first of the ten commandments – ‘You must not have any other god but me’ (Exodus 20:3) – and what Jesus identifies as the greatest commandments – ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:35–40). Instead he worships himself and puts his heart, soul and mind into pursuing money, sex, power and success. This is the most fundamentally destructive behaviour there is, since it is a wholehearted rejection of the God who alone can offer us meaning, purpose, fulfilment, peace, unconditional love and, crucially, redemption. All of us, like Meek, long for these things, but we look in all the wrong places. And unless we discover them in the right place – in God himself – we will miss out on redemption just as completely, though perhaps less spectacularly, as Joe Meek.

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Greg Jesson on showing the Good in films

It is easy to portray human brokenness and the dismantling of the human soul cinematically. Indeed, the world is overflowing with such films. However, what is rare and exceedingly difficult to portray is the wonder of human redemption, the power of unconditional love, the presence of genuine goodness, the reality of hope and the boundless […]

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© Tony Watkins, 2020
The Tony and Jane Watkins Trust oversees and supports the ministries of Tony and Jane Watkins in Christian training, education, and communication. It is a charity registered in England and Wales, no. 1062254.
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