WHITE ANGEL - CENTREPIECE FILM LFF
White Angel heralds the arrival of two young, talented filmmakers: producer Genevieve Jolliffe and director Chris Jones. More a film about serial killing than about a serial killer, White Angel offers a novel and very British view, whilst dealing with the complex (subtle?) differences between manslaughter and murder.
Leslie Steckler (Peter Firth) is a soft-spoken dentist who rents a room in Ellen Carter’s (Harriet Robinson) house. She is a successful writer on criminal psychology who is being hounded by the police in connection with her husband’s disappearance. Meanwhile, London is in the grips of a serial killer, ‘the White Angel’, and the dentist and the writer become entangled in a dangerous game of blackmail.
The plot is full of surprises, twists and turns (all best left untold) that keep you on the edge of your seat, relying on powerful psychological devices and avoiding unnecessary gore. In many ways it’s a first in its chilling (fictional) portrait of a very British way of serial killing. Mesmerizingly good, and a triumph of British independent production.
WHITE ANGEL ****
Peter Firth was once a flavour of the month blue-eyed boy, giving powerful performances as the disturbed young horse-stabber in Equus, and as the weak landowner who rejects his milkmaid wife because of a former liason in Tess.
He’s worked steadily, though quietly since, with roles in Letter To Brezhnev and Shadowlands, but this is his first meaty part in a decade and he launches into it like Lestat into a jugular.
Outwardly he’s mild-mannered dentist Leslie Steckler, who rents an apartment from former crime novelist Ellen Carter (Harriet Robinson). Ellen killed her husband and bricked him up behind the lounge wall, explaining to neighbours that he’d simply gone abroad. The inspector in charge of investigating the disappearance (Don Henderson) believes she’s murdered him, but doesn’t have the proof. Leslie, though, uncovers the body, and tells Ellen the price of his silence is for her to write his life story. Leslie claims to be the White Angel, a serial killer who’s been attacking women and disposing of their bodies in rubbish bags all over the area.
So begins an elaborate game of wits between the two killers, with Ellen frantically dreaming up schemes to dispose of her tormentor, and Leslie always one step ahead.
For some reason there have been several attempts to draw comparisons between this story-line and the Cromwell Street murders, but apart from the fact there’s one body hidden in the house, and two assassins are involved there’s little reason to associate them.
What we do have, though, is a cracking thriller with plenty of edge-of-the-seat tension, a creepily restrained performance by Peter Firth, and more twists and turns than a Dune sandworm. Harriet Robinson is equally impressive as the nervy author who’s never quite what she seems. It might make you want to keep the light on tonight!
WHITE ANGEL ****
Crime writer Ellen (Robinson) lets a room in her suburban house to mild-mannered dentist Leslie Steckler (Firth). London is at fever pitch over the killings of the ‘White Angel’, who brings death to women in white. Ellen herself is being doggedly pursued by Inspector Taylor (Henderson) following her husband’s disappearance.
Soon Ellen develops her own fearful fascination with Leslie, especially when long-term lodger Mik moves out. A cat-and-mouse scenario of blackmail unfolds; but will either emerge unscathed, or uncharged by the Inspector? There’s many a complex twist en route to the verdict.
Coolly appraising the delicate balance between murder and manslaughter, this is a remarkably effective film about killing which glamorises no killers. The careful low-key photography by Jon Walker, crucially integrating video documents, is absorbing and frequently chilling in its effects. Peter Firth especially personifies this, but the leads all contribute to the all-too credible atmosphere.
Centrepiece of last year’s London Film Festival, this first feature from Chris Jones and partner/producer Genevieve Jolliffe (who raised the capital themselves soon after leaving film school) augurs well for independent British film-making as an industry rather than art - and, naturally, for their own careers. Unpretentiously gripping and solidly commercial, White Angel deserves more than a little glorification.
Britain’s youngest producer was 20-year-old Genevieve Jolliffe, who claimed that her ‘slam-bang action picture’ The Runner (GB 91) was turned down for financing by the British Film Institute
Production Board because they were only willing to subsidise films which lost money. With start-up backing from Prince Charles’s Youth Business Trust, Ms Jolliffe’s Living Spirit Pictures raised
production money from accountants and dentists with surplus funds at their disposal and the balance of the £ 100,000 budget came from a small-time distributor whose advertisement she had seen in
the trade press. Shooting of what the tyro producer claimed was a million dollar American production made on an island off the coast of Canada actually took place in Nantwich, Cheshire, with some
underground tunnel scenes shot at a colliery in Wales.
The American leading man, Terence Ford, was Harrison Ford’s younger brother, desperate to get out of soap opera into feature films. On the first day of shooting, the 22- year-old director Chris Jones, who had seen the completed script for the first time, asked how many of the 22 strong crew had been on a set before and was somewhat dismayed when no one put up their hand. The completed picture was premiered at BAFTA in the presence of the Prince of Wales, who presented Living Spirit Pictures with an award for the ‘most tenacious’ business established in 1989 by the Youth Business Trust. It was subsequently sold for cinema, TV or video release in Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Benelux, Yugoslavia, Poland, Turkey, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, Korea, Japan, Australia, Canada, the US and UK.
Instead of moaning about the state of the industry, two young film-makers went out and raised money for their new thriller themselves. They talk to David Gritten
GIVEN the gloomy state of our film industry it is more than a little noteworthy that White Angel, a small low-budget movie about a serial killer made by two young debutant British film-makers,
opens on Friday in 15 cinemas, three of them in London. But there’s more: producer Genevieve Jolliffe, 24, and director Chris Jones, 26, who also wrote White Angel, financed it wholly through
private investors, without major distributors’ backing. To seek comparisons for such an underdog triumph one must think in terms of Stalybridge Celtic winning the FA Cup. How often do we hear
that the British film industry is dead? Yesterday David Puttnam said that if Hollywood was like the Coca-Cola Corporation then European attempts to make films were like "the home-made lemonade
business" Perhaps, but there is an astonishing amount of fizz left in the British lemon bottle and young film-makers on this side of the pond have proved time and again that a little ingenuity
goes a long way.
British films have been financed privately before, but one of two things usually happens. Either the producers’ mothers and fathers lose all their money and the film never makes it into cinemas, or a major film distributor steps in to save the film’s tottering finances and assumes control of its destiny.
White Angel, astonishingly, has avoided both traps. "We’ve already told our investors they’ll get their money back," says Jones, "and we’ve done it without any help from a big film company. We’ve kept control all the way." He and Jolliffe persuaded some 50 people, most of whom had never invested in a film before ,to put sums ranging from £50 to £ 30,000 into White Angel. "We said to people ‘Don’t mortgage your house. Treat this like a flutter on the Grand National- with the knowledge that we have some inside info."’
Making White Angel was a long, hard slog which started two years ago. Cast and crew worked for deferred fees, among them Peter Firth (currently in Shadowlands) as the mass killer with a distinctive way of dispatching his victims, and Don Henderson (from TV’s The Paradise Club). Instead of having a script to show potential investors, Jolliffe and Jones scraped together enough money to get the film shot in 19 days. "Then we edited a lot of scenes together to show some new investors what it was about," says Jolliffe. "They put money in. And some of the original investors saw what we had and tripled or quadrupled their investment." Eventually they made a distribution deal with a small company called Pilgrim.
But Jolliffe and Jones are vague about the exact finances of White Angel. They say it cost "under a million pounds" but their sheepish smiles’ suggest the real sum was far less. "When you sell a film," Jones admits, "the buyers look at its cost. They won’t pay a lot for something that wasn’t expensive to make." Already the couple have secured deals in the US, Germany and the Pacific rim.
All of this is good news to their investors, who include Alan Smith, publisher of video and camcorder magazines. He first met Jones and Jollffe three years ago when his What Video? awarded them a prize for their short film The Thing from Beneath the Bed. "When they came back and said they were setting up White Angel," Smith recalls, "I was pleased to invest. I was just backing a hunch." He is the major investor, with a 30 per cent stake. As a tribute, Jolliffe and Jones named a gangster character in the film after him. "From a low base, they’ve made this film and got a national release," Smith says. "I think they’re remarkable."
Equally remarkable is their demeanour. They are down-to-earth, polite, enthusiastic, and confident with-out being arrogant. Jones, thick-set with a wispy beard, seems even younger than his years; he and Jolliffe, a vivacious young woman with cascading red hair, finish each other’s sentences.
They started five years ago, borrowing £5,000 from Prince Charles’s Youth Business Trust. They bought some office equipment and a year later received a further £ 2,000 expansion loan from the Trust. Thus their company, Living Spirit Pictures, was born. At first they made Gloucestershire their base, but recently have moved to Brighthampton, a village near Oxford.
"In London we’d be small fish in a big pond," says Jones. "Anyway, people there spend their time talking about it, not doing it." "And there are too many long lunches," adds Jolliffe. Jones caught the film bug while studying for A-levels. He made a Super 8 film for £50 and showed it at his college in the lunch hour, charging 10p admission. "The whole college turned out and I got a standing ovation."
Jones, who hails from Wigan, met Jolliffe, from the Isle of Wight, at Bournemouth Film School. She left after six months, and he fell foul of the school’s attitude that movies should be politi-cally correct and socially redeeming. After Bournemouth he applied to the National Film School but was rejected as being immature. "They said most of their applicants were 27 or 28," he remembers. "So I’m still not old enough to be there - yet I’ve made a fea-ture film."
Now they’re anxiously awaiting reviews of the film. They had a shock a few weeks ago when it emerged they they had shot a few scenes only a mile away from Gloucester’s Cromwell Street, site of a real serial killer’s exploits. Given that a character in White Angel boards up a body inside a house, this was uncomfortably close to art imitating life.
If the film is a success, Jones and Jolliffe say they will not be tempted to follow other bright young things to Hollywood. ’One doesn’t live to make films, one lives and makes films," Jones says. They have no plans even to leave Brighthampton. Two more films are in the pipeline, and they aim to develop their relationship with investors. "We’re anxious not to get too big too quick," says Jones, "because that way lies disaster."