17 July 2005

Summer is Icumen In

Until Friday, despite having been an adolescent male in Britain post-1973, I'd never seen The Wicker Man. One of the things I did during my Day Off was to remedy this deficit.

It's bloody good, isn't it? And I don't just mean Britt Ekland's erotic dancing. There are a great many "cult" films, particularly from the 70s, which turn out on actual viewing to have been almost completely pants. But The Wicker Man is excellent, combining an intelligent and lucid script with cleverly ominous direction and mostly fine performances (particularly from Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee). Even the songs are fantastic. (Has anyone ever turned it into a West End musical? Why on earth not? If they can do it for The Witches of Eastwick, then this one seems a natural.)

I don't know anything about Anthony Shaffer's other work -- I've never seen or read Sleuth, for instance -- but I studied his twin brother Peter Shaffer's plays as an undergraduate, and I was struck by the similarity. Peter Shaffer's work is notable for its use of music and pageant (see Amadeus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun respectively), and for its awareness of drama as ritual, including its use in religious liturgy and psychotherapy (see particularly Equus). The same kind of sensibility permeates The Wicker Man.

I suspect that most modern neo-pagans find the film either hilarious or deeply offensive (depending on where on the po spectrum their faces happen to reside), but I thought the drama's analysis and use of the trappings of ancient paganisms was extremely well done, particularly in its drawing of the parallels as well as the contradictions between paganism and christianity. I was impressed, too, with the sympathetic treatment of the straitlaced Sgt Howie, who despite the repressiveness of his views is seen as a good man striving to do the right thing. I was particularly pleased to see his faith survive his martyrdom intact -- it would have been so easy, and so cheap, to show it falling apart as soon as he was certain of his death. (I don't hold out much hope for the Hollywood remake in that regard, sadly.)

I have only three reservations, and they're all fairly minor:

1. It's very short -- not even an hour and a half. If the film was running under-length, surely some additional footage of -- for instance -- Britt Ekland dancing naked whilst singing in an extremely sexy Scottish accent could have been found to pad it out a bit[1]?

2. Aubrey Morris, who's beginning to become something of a bête noir of mine. He's fine in rôles which require gurning, fruity-voiced theatricality (the Town Crier in The Prisoner, for example), but such rôles do not -- unless written by Shakespeare -- include rural gravediggers. (He was ludicrous in Babylon 5, as well.)

3. The ending -- not the wonderfully bleak martyrdom scene, but the revelation that Lord Summerisle and the islanders have been working to entrap Howie from the beginning, and thus that the whole trail which led him to Rowan Morrison and the sacrificial ritual was a false one. It's straight from the school of seventies paranoia which brought us, well, The Prisoner for a start, but it tends to cheapen the rigour of what's gone before. One presumes that the islanders' rituals as witnessed by Howie are genuine, but ultimately the only reason to believe that is that Summerisle seems like the kind of man who'd be honest about his religion even while deceiving somebody. The film would work better if we were more certain at the end of what we'd seen.

Overall though, a damn good film, and one I'm already feeling the urge to watch again. There's scope for a fantastic prequel, as well (probably scuppered by the remake, but never mind), starring the current incarnation of Christopher Lee as the first Lord Summerisle, the Victorian patriarch and freethinker, introducing his pagan religion to the island in the 1860s. The 1970s Summerisle tells Howie that the island's minister ended up leaving for the mainland, but I can't help suspecting that that may have been a euphemism for something rather more... festive.

[1] Yes, yes, I know it's not actually her singing. Or dancing either, apparently. It's her most famous scene, and she's hardly in it... but nevertheless, my point stands. If you'll forgive my mentioning the fact.

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