Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Local heroes take on a corporate giant in Ireland

Risteard Ó Domhnaill’s documentary film about the Corrib Natural Gas project in County Mayo Ireland, The Pipe, has been quite a long time in the making - but the wait has been worthwhile. This is a moving, unsentimental and compelling story well told and, particularly, well edited (by Nigel O'Regan) of how ordinary people in a remote community fought with a multinational company, Shell, to protect their community and their livelihoods. The public release of The Pipe is timely in the light of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico because, as with BP, the evidence is clear that Shell’s initial handling of Corrib showed a comprehensive failure to match the rhetoric of their public statements with the reality of their actions. BP’s “green” positioning was shown to be a chimera as the world greatest environmental disaster unfolded in all of its horror – and Shell’s stated commitment to Sustainable Development has been shown in The Pipe to be no less of a veneer.

Shell’s self-proclaimed adoption of the principles of Sustainable Development goes back quite a long way – I recall, as a then Shell employee in the Middle East, a visit from Managing Director Jeroen van der Veer sometime in the late 1990s during which he pitched this commitment to us. Sustainable Development was, he said, about “integrating the economic, environmental and societal aspects of Shell’s business to achieve sustained financial success, safeguard the environment and develop our reputation as partner and provider of first choice for all our stakeholders.” The metaphor he used was that of a three-legged stool with a leg each for economic, environmental and societal concerns. Take one away and the stool falls over.

Shell acquired Corrib when the company completed the takeover of Enterprise Oil in 2002 – at which point of time the development of the project was still in its early planning stage. It is quite clear that from the start it was economic considerations that drove the project and that whilst environmental protection was, nominally at least, important the societal aspects were at best handled in a patronising way and at worst ignored. There was certainly no equivalence between the three legs of Corrib’s stool. In The Pipe Willie Corduff describes the first people that Shell sent to Rossport as being “Rude people who didn’t care” and who stumbled arrogantly about his land (he is a farmer) in suits and “told us what they were going to do”. This was Shell’s fatal error. The community in and around the tiny fishing village of Rossport have chosen a way of life which intentionally keeps them remote from not just the rest of Ireland but even the rest of County Mayo. The idea that their lifestyle would be under threat from a large scale project which included the construction of a huge Processing plant (refinery) near the tiny townland of Bellanaboy was anathema to them. Even more threatening was the proposed burial of a pipeline around nine kilometres in length from the shoreline to the processing plant. This pipeline would transfer raw unprocessed gas at high pressure to Bellanaboy where it would be turned into gas suitable to be injected into the Irish domestic gas system.

The Pipe, as the name suggests, is substantially about the planned raw gas onshore pipeline - but not exclusively so. One of the stars of the film is Pat O’Donnell, a local fisherman, who decided to challenge the right of Shell to commence offshore pipe laying which, he alleged, was damaging his property – an area in the bay where he lays crab pots. O’Donnell, in his tiny fishing vessel, sails close to the enormous pipelaying ship the Solitaire - this sequence, brilliantly captured in the film, is in many ways an allegory for the whole story. One man in a tiny ship which is his livelihood confronts a giant ship which is, in his mind anyway, is potentially threatening that livelihood. An unequal struggle - Goliath versus David. O’Donnell, Willie and Mary Corduff, Monika Muller, John Monaghan, Maura Harrington and the others who appear in the film ooze sincerity and frustration and at times raw anger – the gas is far from the only raw commodity around! The anger boils over from time to time as the protesters seem to divide into two camps – those who oppose the idea of an onshore facility completely and those who think that such a plant and connecting pipeline might be acceptable – but well away from Rossport. It is to the credit of the campaigners that they have been sanguine about revealing for all to see their occasional internal differences.

Not sanguine to reveal anything at all was Shell Ireland who declined to cooperate with Risteard O’Domhnaill’s project. This means that the film is not balanced in that neither Shell’s views nor those of successive Machiavellian Irish governments are aired. This has led to criticism in some quarters but that is not a charge that I think stands up. From what I know of Corrib, having visited the area and written about it, The Pipe is an accurate representation of the views and the fears of most of those in the local community. How the mess happened in the first place and what the prospects are for the future are not covered – nor is the perhaps self-evident fact that exploitation of the Corrib gas field is desirable – subject, of course, to stakeholder consent. The strong arm tactics of the Gardaí and of private sector security personnel are shown in sharp and shocking relief. And the gap between the developers and their acquiescent friends in high places in Dublin and the local community seems to be widening not narrowing. There are some pretty entrenched positions on both sides and few signs that there are processes underway that could narrow the gap – although the sequence where a visit was made to the European Parliament suggests one possible route for resolution.

The Pipe is at times a very visually attractive film and the aerial sequences at the beginning set the scene well – this really is a very beautiful part of the world and you cannot be surprised about how those living there want to keep it just as it is. Human nature is very resilient and it is no exaggeration to say that those who have protested, have been to prison, have gone on hunger strike and who have explored every legal and other angle to achieve their objectives have undoubtedly raised the stakes for any corporation planning a similar major project in the future. For that they all deserve our thanks.

Monday, October 04, 2010

A quiet, restrained and very deep film indeed


When you discover an Author and are captivated by the first of his works you read it is quite likely that you will immediately want to explore the rest. That was certainly my experience with Christopher Isherwood. I read Goodbye to Berlin in my teens back in the early 1960s and soon I had worked my way through just about everything significant that Isherwood had written. It isn’t actually a particularly large oeuvre – perhaps a dozen or so major works – but every one is entertaining, thought-provoking and tumbling with sincerity. For many the best of them all will be A Single Man - I remember its first publication in 1964 by which time a greater tolerance was being shown in Britain, post Lady Chatterley. But still openly gay literature was something of a novelty in our then still rather backward society – even James Baldwin’s magnificent Giovanni's Room was a bit of an under-the-counter purchase! And the idea that a book like A Single Man could be filmed and shown on general release would not have been considered possible – certainly without what would have been utterly destructive censorship. In our more enlightened age these restrictions no longer apply and it is with great pleasure that we can enjoy such a skillful and honest realisation of Isherwood’s work as in Tom Ford’s fine movie.

The loss of a partner is a common theme in the cinema but I doubt that it has ever been more sympathetically portrayed than in A Single Man – the book and, now, the film. I would like to make reference to an equally moving account in a much less “Arty” but no less interesting film – Richard Curtis’s Four Weddings and a Funeral. The Funeral in that film was that of the colourful Gareth – a gay man who died suddenly at the third of the film’s weddings. At that funeral Charles (Hugh Grant) remarks “It’s odd isn’t it – all these years we’ve been single and proud of it, we never noticed that two of us were to all intents and purposes married all the time”. And these words resonate with those of Matthew, Gareth’s partner, who had touchingly quoted from WH Auden’s “Stop the clocks” – a poem which mourns the loss of a partner. Gareth and Matthew and, in The Single Man George and Jim, had partnerships that were so close and so loving that the loss of the partner, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, was too much to bear. Or it was in George’s case anyway.

A Single Man is a film about the response to grief. About how even the most educated and urbane of men, like Professor George Falconer, can quite literally find the loss of their life partner unbearable. The closeness of the relationship is illustrated in a few flashback scenes – most memorably one where the two men are sitting peacefully on a sofa and joshing a bit – as married couples do. They were one another’s “North and South and East and West” and for George it is clear that, as Auden put it, “Nothing now can ever come to any good” – and so he decides to kill himself. In part this decision comes from his loneliness – a state from which neither his long standing friend Charley (Julianne Moore) nor a handsome and possible gay or bisexual student admirer Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) can rescue him. These are two strong characterisations and the main theme of the film, the search for love and the extreme distress when it is taken from you is played out in their characters as well. Charley’s husband left him and while she has many “friends” she reveals that only George is a true one and someone she really cares about. Similarly young Kenny had a relationship with a very pretty fellow student Doris (Nicole Steinwedell) whose undeniable charms Tom Ford cleverly negates by showing her sullen in class and chain-smoking. Kenny has split with Doris and is perhaps seeking something more cerebral and satisfying with the stylish and classy George?

A Single Man is a quiet, restrained and very deep film indeed. It is about one key part of the human condition – our need for love and the way we manage it when it happens - and when it departs. It is a gay film as it was a gay book – but in a way that is incidental. George could be mourning the loss of a wife rather than a same sex lover – his response would have been the same – as Charley points out. To make it work sincerely Tom Ford had to get huge performances from his actors - most of all from Colin Firth who as George is on screen virtually the whole time. Firth is quite exceptional and his Oscar nomination and other awards were well deserved. He is utterly convincing – something he achieves by understating rather than exaggerating his performance. I also enjoyed immensely Nicolas Hoult’s Kenny – a difficult role to pull off because in less skilled hands in could turn into a sentimental child rather than the sensitive young adult that Isherwood wrote about and Ford clearly wants in the role.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Tamara shocks them - far from the madding crowd.

Tamara Drewe is full of comic book characters – literally, of course, as it is based on a Posy Simmonds comic strip. So we should not complain that nearly every character is a slightly exaggerated depiction – which they are. In real life surely nobody could be such a serial philanderer as Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam) and think that he could get away with it. Or no wife could be as innocent and ignorant of her husband’s infidelity as Beth Hardiment (Tamsin Greig). Or no young woman could be quite as lusty and self-assured, wilful and flirtatious as Tamara herself (Gemma Arterton). But no matter the in-your-face nature of the characters makes for a very funny and rather impious movie which just about keeps going over its nearly two hours duration.

I, like most townies, have sometimes thought that I would enjoy life in the country. The country pub with the fine local ales and fresh food; the country lanes with the birds in the hedgerows; the fresh air and the simple life. What this mental idyll ignores, of course, is just how insular and rejecting of newcomers country communities are. The Hardiments have been in Ewedown, their fictitious Dorset village for twenty years – but they are still seen as parvenu newcomers by the locals. The returning local, Tamara, like her Thomas Hardyesque model Bathsheba in “Far from the Madding Crowd”, causes a sensation because of her re-imaging. The ugly duckling has had a nose job and become cosmopolitan – and she even dares to wear the shortest shorts that rural Dorset has surely ever seen! Tamara, like Bathsheba, is torn between three men all of whom desire her. Hardiment of course; Ben Sargeant, a rock band drummer brilliantly played by Dominic Cooper and handsome Andy Cobb who is the archetypical local man with strong arms - the “Gabriel Oak” figure, with a bouquet of “earth, dog, tobacco and engine oil”, and who strongly resembles Alan Bates in John Schlesinger’s the 1967 “Madding Crowd” film.

The film pokes gentle fun at the literary world. The Hardiments run a writers’ retreat which allows Nicholas to wallow in his fame as a successful writer and requires Beth both to look after him as well to cater for the guests with home baking and other country fare. Key to the unwinding of the plot are two feral local teenage girls, Jody and Casey, who make mischief in an undercover and puckish sort of way. Because of their interference all of the main characters become aware first of Ben’s steamy fling with Tamara and then of Nicholas’s affair with her. Tamara seems to sail through all of this without too many cares - but she leaves a couple of broken hearts along the way before, predictably, settling for Andy who turns out to have been her childhood love all along. The final scene is dramatic and violent and a rather rough justice is done – not all of the characters lives happily ever after. Indeed arguably none of them emerges unscathed from the story. The film is part romp, part morality tale and part mild social commentary. It is entertaining, well directed by Stephen Frears and is definitely a good promotion for the beauty of the Dorset countryside. The story is an amoral one – certainly by the conventional mores that well-bred country folk might like to assert they follow. But such pomposity and hypocrisy is rather nicely pricked – just like Thomas Hardy once did with his slightly shocking tale of nineteenth century double standards.