Monday, 8 December 2008


Tom Stoppard’s account of the birth of Poland’s free trade union Solidarity was, according to the Cine-City site, “broadcast in the ‘golden age’ of Channel 4...never released on DVD and its last transmission 20 years ago”. Indeed, the film has almost fallen through the cracks of history - with the most perfunctory IMDB page and no Wikipedia entry at all. And yet, as Mike Hodges mentioned in his Q&A after the showing, about the last thing it could be accused of is being a period piece.

The film makes no attempt approximate Polish accents (Lech Walesa speaks Scouse throughout), or even pretend it’s not being shot in a studio. Mike Hodges revealed this Brechtian style was originally budgetary, but he soon came to see the aesthetic advantages of it. By the end he insisted beach scenes be mocked up in the studio, which ironically it would have been cheaper to just film on an actual beach.

Of course such effects tend to universalise the story, no bad thing when a British press was insistent free unions were great for Poland yet somehow all wrong for Britain. Yet it’s interesting to note that Brecht himself strayed most from his patented ‘distancing effect’ when recounting contemporary events, notably in Senora Carrar’s Rifles and Private Lives of The Master Race. When your story’s so close to the headlines, wouldn’t a verite effect have worked better?

In fact, Hodges’ choice has specific advantages. There’s a point where a party dignitary gives a TV speech in a cosy-looking Library. Transmission over, he slides his chair back with promptly knocks over the ‘bookcases’ – mocked-up studio flats. If everything in the film is a facade then so is the Polish regime, in their pretence either to hold independence within the Soviet block or to have the workers’ interests at heart. Hodges also revealed that the only non-studio shot was of a rising helicopter, used to suppress a strike. This is also fitting, for the subsequent repression was no doubt real enough.

It also induces an appropriately hermetic effect. The dignitaries and bureaucrats live in a rarified world where they are constantly discussing real-world events in the abstract, talking steel production while never visiting a steelyard.

The film’s also quite courageously willing to present Solidarity warts and all; arguing amongst themselves, making tactical errors. Walesa comments near the end that they started marching together, but the road they were on forked and then forked again. Though this might have risked criticism, with several Solidarity members imprisoned when it was transmitted, it makes for a stronger, more interesting and more nuanced film.

Throughout the film is dense with information and ideas, without ever falling into polemicism. Some scenes are played more than once, in varying permutations of what might have happened. The narrator is himself frequently interrupted by passing Poles, challenging his assumptions.

Despite such courage and these many strengths, it perhaps has two weaknesses. First, we have the role of narrator itself. As Hodges admitted, this role was intended to be played by Stoppard himself, but an American presence was forced upon him by the backers. (Though he praised Richard Crenna’s actual performance.) It’s not a problem that the authorial voice takes on an American accent; as mentioned, the Narrator is continually perceived by locals as a clueless outsider who needs correcting. But had we seen the scriptwriter having his own script corrected, as Stoppard intended, the effect would have been stronger. Also, at a point in the film American bankers appear. This is the first time ‘natural’ accents have been used, for the ‘Poles’ have all been English. This jarring is presumably deliberate, to emphasise the bankers as outsiders. Yet the accent already given the Narrator dilutes this effect.

Also, though the work is clearly well-researched and Stoppard doubtless has a keen brain, his politics are somewhat liberal. (He’s described himself as “a timid libertarian”.) This shows through mostly over Walesa. It’s as though, just by placing characters to Walesa’s ‘left’, he is immediately made a ‘moderate’ and is therefore correct in all he says. This takes us to strange places. The Wikipedia article on Solidarity mentions how their “example was in various ways repeated by opposition groups throughout the Eastern Bloc, eventually leading to the Eastern Bloc's effectual dismantling.” Yet at one point, Walesa rules out links emerging in other Eastern Bloc countries, because as Poles they should concern themselves with Polish affairs. As in other places, the film seems to side with this petty-nationalism rather blithely. Similarly, his personality cult and its effect on collective decision-making is repeatedly brought up, but never particularly closely examined. It might even be possible to argue this film enhanced such a cult, by making him so central a character. (Though of course Stoppard couldn’t have known at this point of Walesa’s later career as a rather free-market-oriented Polish President.)

But for all such criticisms, this was a bold and intelligent piece of film-making that honoured rather than trivialised the seriousness of its subject. Hodges quite casually remarked that it would be impossible to make such a film for British TV today. (The decline of Channel Four was also noted by the Quay Brothers in their own Q&A session, though more of that anon.) ‘Squaring the Circle’ refers to a mathematically impossible act. Yet for a few short years such a thing was possible. Switch on Channel Four now, and you will see with which substance they have replaced their Golden Age. Alas, that was one kind of freedom that didn’t need helicopters or troops to be brought down. Look out for this when it’s shown again. Only another twenty years to wait...

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