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SOURCE: bfi Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol 50 No 592, May 1983 pp. 125-126

 

Ascendancy

Great Britain, 1982

Director: Edward Bennett

Cert ‑ 15 (AA). dist ‑ BFI. p.c ‑ BFI Production Board. exec. p‑Peter Sainsbury. p‑Penny Clark, Ian Elsey. location manager‑Terence Fitch. asst. d‑Peter Price, Andrew Warren, Bill Rudgard, Nigel Goldsack. sc‑Edward Bennett, Nigel Gearing. ph‑Clive Tickner. In colour. col. consultant‑Len Brown. addit. ph‑Dusty Miller. camera op‑Mike Tomlinson. ed ‑ Charles Rees, George Akers. asst. ed ‑ Charles Ware, Jane Michell. a.d ‑ Jamie Leonard. asst. a.d‑Miranda Melville. sp. effects‑Tom Harris. m‑Ronnie Leahy. m. performed by‑Ronnie Leahy, Morris Pert. cost‑Gabey Odee. cost. sup‑Doreen Watkinson, Susan Snell. wardrobe‑Peter Halston, Maggie Smith. make‑up‑Sally Harrison. sd. ed‑Tony Sloman. sd. rec ‑ David Stephenson, Dennis Nesbitt, (m.) Dave Bascombe. sd. re‑rec‑Paul Carr. p. assistants‑Victoria Scale, Kim Nygaard. l.p ‑ Julie Covington (Connie Wintour), Ian Charleson (Lieutenant Ryder), John Phillips (Wintour), Susan Engel (Nurse), Phillip Locke (Dr. Strickland), Kieran Montague (Dr. Kelso), Rynagh O'Grady (Rose), Philomena McDonagh (Mary), Michael McKnight (Vesey), Jeremy Sinden (Darcy), Walter McMonagle (Dawson), Shay Gorman (Keir), Liam O'Callaghan (Sir Edward Carson), Joe McPartland (Butler), Tony Rohr (Chauffeur), Charles Lawson (Boy), Ann Hasson (1st Maid), Zena Daire (2nd Maid), Marjorie Hogan (Housekeeper), Sean Caffrey (Baird), James Coyle (Hardy), Michael Mellinger (Schulz), Wolf Kahler (Muller), Gary Whelan (Soldier), Tony Steedman (Colonel), Valerie Lilley (Mother), Michael Cochrane (Officer), Shevaun Briars, Cora Kinnaird and Frances Quinn (Girls at Party), Kevin Moore (RIG Officer), Gerard O'Hagan (Man in Street). 7,620 ft. 85 mins.

Belfast, 1920. Connie Wintour, daughter of a prosperous Protestant shipyard owner, lives an invalid's life, sheltered from the troubles of the outside world, and unable to come to terms with the death of her brother Harry in the First World War. She writes him long letters, pays visits to his old room, and nurses a crippled right arm which treatment under hypnosis proves to be a hysterical paralysis. Her father's shipyard is experiencing a strike which threatens to interfere with a major German order, and he is only too happy to exploit traditional sectarian differences to combat the strike. Connie's maid Rose, a Catholic, is forced out of her job, and the political situation outside the house continues to deteriorate. The British Army is called in to restore order, and Wintour invites some of the officers to the house for tea. Connie meets Lieutenant Ryder, in whom she sees something of her brother. As sectarian killings escalate, one of the servants, himself responsible for a killing, is murdered, and the army fortifies the house. Wintour becomes involved in the politics of partition, standing for election as a Unionist, and the army trains Protestant militiamen. At a second party organised for the officers, Connie leads Ryder up to her brother's room, but he angrily refuses to be identified with the latter, and accuses her of being sick and self‑obsessed. Running out of the house, Connie witnesses real events in the Catholic areas of Belfast which far exceed her own morbid fantasies, and retreats into a near-catatonic state, refusing to eat. Posted back to England, Ryder pays her a farewell visit, failing to draw her out of her new obsession. Wintour is elected, and Connie is force‑fed.

Ascendancy is a dour and ultimately bewildering film that reactivates a frustration familiar from any number of less assured exercises in alternative political cinema: the ambitiousness of the intention serves mainly to highlight the failure to fulfil it, while the questions raised by the idea behind the film, though fascinating, are only marginally illuminated by the actual processes of filmmaking and film‑viewing. Bennett employs an approach similar to that of his earlier The Life Story of Baal (1978), in which, through a narrative set at a particular moment in history, both that moment and, more importantly, our relationship to it through the process of contemporary narrative are simultaneously examined. Here, the notion is further extended by the fact that the moment of history still continues: British troops are still on the streets of Belfast, sectarian rivalries still distort class allegiances, and liberals like Ryder, the sensitive young lieutenant, still manage to hold historical responsibility at arm's length by stating that "We didn't create this chaos: we inherited it".

Certainly, Ascendancy is not an historical fiction in the sense in which we normally understand it: that is, a structuring of past events around the experience of a central hero or heroine in such a way that the events “make sense” and can, perhaps, be of value to us in understanding the present. Admittedly, there are elements of this in the film, but the distinction between past and present is intentionally blurred. Bennett makes explicit use of a number of elements which, although they may not have been unknown in 1920, are more clearly associated with the present day: the banging of dustbin lids on the street to warn of the approach of the army; the German industrialist worried that strikes will delay delivery; Connie's hunger strike and force‑feeding; her sudden flights of articulate anti‑militarism which serve as Brechtian statements about the action rather than as naturalistic ones within it. "Waving flags isn't part of a tradition", she tells her father, "It's just a nasty habit". "I don't think there's much to it", she tells Ryder when he complains that he didn't get a chance to fight in the war. "You just stand there and keep shooting at each other until one of you is dead".

Ascendancy's failure is, however, one which is crucial to a certain strain of filmmaking, and lies precisely in its relation to history ‑ both the particular moment on which it ostensibly focuses, and the representation of that moment in the cinematic present. The film cuts back and forth between Connie suffering amidst the comforts of the Protestant ascendancy - "Don't you know I'm still waiting for you, here in this terrible place?" she berates her dead brother, "Every day is the same: father goes off to make money and I am left alone to think of you. They torture me horribly" - and scenes of strikers, strike‑breakers and sectarian death squads operating beneath the benign gaze of the occupying army. The structure is simultaneously crude - an Eisensteinian collision which undermines itself by its very obviousness ‑ and sophisticated, in the theoretical knowingness within which it locates itself. At one level, this is a seductive method, since Ascendancy can, just, be read in terms of this simple parallelism: Connie takes on the sins of her world. Beyond that, however, a major problem arises: in its use of familiar images of conflict, the film is forced to assume an attitude to the historical situation which is far more simplistic than its own method.

The structure will not allow for a history lesson ‑ either a Godardian lecture‑to‑camera or a dramatised exposition (though a scene involving Sir Edward Carson does in fact attempt this rather late in the day). So what we are shown is a world in which, essentially, the Protestants brutally consolidate their power (Wintour eloquently denies that he cares about religious differences while ruthlessly exploiting them for economic gain; the other servants torture Rose by putting broken glass in her cleaning bucket), while the Catholic working class suffers as a group of nameless victims, beaten up on the streets and burned out of their homes.

The Belfast labour troubles of 1920 become little more than a series of emotional triggers in the trauma of Connie, a figure midway between a Bergman heroine, mutilating herself in protest at the horrors of her world, and an Irish equivalent of a Lorca heroine ("Oh, my brother, my brother", she exclaims, "why have you left me all alone?”). The effect is not only to deny, within the narrative, the question of class which the narrative broaches: the ruling class, it implies, suffers the traumas of history (both Connie and Ryder are surrounded by an aura of heightened sensitivity), while the working class merely suffers its effects. More importantly, the possibility of a response to the events along any other than preconceived and therefore necessarily vague lines is basically excluded. We are all but forced, as in a Hollywood biopic, to take sides ‑ with Connie against her father, for the Catholic workers against the Protestants, and so on.

As a result, Ascendancy ends up being a film about Ireland which is neither illuminating in the area of precise historical information ‑ the choice of narrative method makes that impossible ‑ nor especially helpful as regards our knowledge of Ireland now. It suggests that the origins of the present situation in Northern Ireland are economic ‑ which, although true in many respects, is so in a much more complex way than a historical snapshot of this kind can hope to establish. And it refuses to so much as tackle the position of the Protestant working class, in 1920 or in 1983, preferring to align its members behind the landowners and industrialists as drum‑beating, baton-twirling bigots.

The levels on which Ascendancy undoubtedly does work are, one suspects, not those to which it aspires: as a showcase for a very remarkable central performance by Julie Covington; and as a kind of superior Play for Today, thanks to Clive Tickner's coolly formal cinematography, and to the precise recreation of period and mood in both Jamie Leonard's art direction and Bennett's elegantly assured handling of set‑pieces and small scenes (those with the hypnotist are particularly impressive). At times, however, even this is undermined by a score which tends to infuse with heightened emotion precisely those moments when a degree of detachment could have been invaluable.

NICK RODDICK

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