Gary Raymond reviews Save the Cinema – the latest in a long line of Welsh “feel good” films – and asks of the state of Welsh cinema in the process.
There is no doubt a name for it. Psychologists have a knack for labels. But I don’t have the inclination to put the study time in to finding out if I’m suffering from a syndrome or psychosis or whatever. Enough to say, I am suspicious that my reaction to a film like Sara Sugarman’s Save the Cinema is characterised more by my relief that it does not suffer the same basic flaws that so many films that come out of Wales suffer – to the point where I ended up feeling quite positive toward to it. It’s arguably something to do with the erosion of my critical faculties, but it is more likely to do with… well… what’s that phenomenon where you end up falling in love with your kidnapper?
I’m tired, I guess. Tired of bad scripts and bad accents and films that fall apart in the final third. Save the Cinema doesn’t suffer from any of this. I’m tired of Wales being the place that does feature length drama badly and feel-good fluff just about competently. But I’ll take the feel-good to offset the bad drama fatigue. I’m tired of looking to the skies and asking why – how? – does a script get signed off in this state? Where is the whispering in the ear of the wayward directors of so much of the rubbish that I sit through? A few years ago, I reluctantly reviewed one particular movie in the only way I felt I honestly could. You could call it scathing. Months later it picked up the best film award at the Welsh BAFTAs. I stand by my review, but, God, it’s tiring. It happens time and time again. You begin to question your own sanity, not just your critical faculties. Psychologists have a word for that too, no doubt. I know Patrick Hamilton did, and Hans Christian Anderson had an entire phrase for it.
This is a long way of getting to saying that Save the Cinema, in a different context, might deserve a pasting, but in the context of a film critic battle weary from the war on dross, it is a Welsh film with a lot to like, even if nothing really shines and nothing really lingers in that place in the heart and mind where the fuzzy things live. Save the Cinema has been trailed as a modern-day Ealing Comedy, something in the tradition, then, of The Man in the White Suit or The Ladykillers. And yet it has none of the charm, none of the jokes, none of the eccentricity. In fact, is it funny at all? It’s difficult to think of a laugh-out-loud moment, and it’s such a short time between the credits rolling and pen being put to paper. (Insert thoughtful emoji here). There is also none of the eccentricity of plot which makes the best of the Ealing output fit so easily into the category of “classic British cinema”.
Save the Cinema is based on the true story of Liz Evans, a hairdresser and youth theatre leader who runs a campaign to… yes… save the local cinema (the Lyric theatre in Carmarthen) from demolition in 1993. It has that easy-on-the-ear one line pitch for commissioning editors looking for an easy Yes. Like Welsh miners raise money for Gay Rights groups and everyone becomes friends. Or, out of work miners turn to stripping to pay the bills and everyone becomes friends. Or, woman convinces a disparate group of community members to buy a race horse and it wins the Welsh Grand National and everyone becomes friends. Actually, Dream Horse is a good example of the easy Yes for any potential investor or commissioner; a film that barely broke into a canter as it moved through its five-act structure of set-up/challenge/everything going swimmingly/terrible set-back/heart-warming triumph and hugging in the street. My goodness, that film was so hard to hate, but I increasingly believe anybody with a passion for cinema has a duty to do so.
But there is room for Dream Horse in the cinematic universe, just as there’s room on television for both Mare of Easttown and Rob Brydon’s cruise adverts. You can’t have Scenes from a Marriage without balancing it out with scenes from Love Island. Well, you can… but you wouldn’t want to live in that world. Well, you might do… but the world would be a duller place. Well… maybe not duller…
In the end, Save the Cinema’s worst crime might be the number of occasions on which it’s inspired me to use ellipses in this review, which is both the faintest and strongest praise I can give it. It is a movie that glides by, probably a bit long and sags toward the end, even with the denouement including the famous moment when Steven Spielberg personally grants Liz Evans the permission to show his new movie, Jurassic Park, just three minutes after the world premier rolls in Leicester Square (in the end, the Lyric runs it five minutes early in a pique of bloody cheek, and so Carmarthen now boasts the claim to hosting the world premiere of one of the biggest Hollywood hits of all time).
The strong cast, though, feels decidedly underused. Samantha Morton, one of the greatest actors of her generation, and one whose allure is that at any moment she might just kick off, is a pleasant and utterly unthreatening central presence. Jonathan Pryce lends his name and little else, plodding along as the old man who, when he coughs in his second scene,… SPOILER ALERT… you just know he’s done for by the third act. Tom Felton (who I hope is already used to being forever referred to as Malfoy in the Harry Potter films) is really good as the empty shirt everyman whose narrative journey goes – not very controversially – from sort-of accidentally being on the wrong side because he wasn’t paying much attention in a meeting, to being on the right side because he fancies one of the women there. All the moral fortitude of a future mayor. But, Felton trying to stop the wrecking ball from swinging into the theatre is perhaps the memorable moment of the film.
And it’s all just decent. Decent people portrayed in a decent way in a film made by decent people. The story has a decent outcome – no-one wants to linger too long on the plotline about chronically corrupt local politicians because it might have seemed all a bit too indecent to do so. Sugarman, best known as an actor, certainly knows how to move a camera with fluidity and panache, and she lights the scenes well too, particularly inside the theatre which has the nostalgic hyper-warmth of the world of Cinema Paradiso. Piers Ashworth has written a good script – no clunking dialogue and no handbrake turns in the plot (although some character development is passed over, presumably due to running-time constraints). The title is terrible, but his last script was Fishermen’s Friends, a title so bad it deterred me from seeing the film, afraid it would burn the back of my throat and make my eyes water.
Oh, how I would love to see Welsh cinema do something worthwhile. Something that says something real about the country and its people. Something more than just Wales has community spirit. Give us a Nil By Mouth or a Breaking the Waves or a Ratcatcher (yes, I long to be made to feel utterly depressed). But for now, we have Save the Cinema. And, yes… it could be worse.
Save the Cinema is in cinemas now and streaming via Sky.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, and broadcaster, and is editor of Wales Arts Review.