In Fading Light Review
This disc is available solely through Amber Films and can be purchased from their website: www.amber-online.com.
Before you’ve even popped the disc into your player it’s hard not to be impressed with this package. Open up the case and we find a lovingly produced 30-page booklet entitled ‘Amber: A Short History’ which traces the film and photography collective’s path from its inception in 1968 through to the present day. Going into considerable depth, it introduces us the key players, their political principles and the body of work they’ve produced over the past 37 years, one which cinematically speaking takes in documentaries, animation and works of fiction, both short and feature length. Having retained ownership of everything they’ve ever put their name to, it has been possible to pick up the majority of this output direct from Amber themselves, the only downside being that this was on VHS only. With the release of In Fading Light, however, they are finally breaking into the DVD market and hopefully gaining a new audience as a result.
Given their prolific output it’s interesting to consider why In Fading Light has been selected as Amber’s first release. The answer, as it turns out, is remarkably simple and thus easy to explain: this is by far the most mainstream and accessible work they’ve yet produced. Feature length, fictional and also, perhaps, their best known as well as critically received effort, there really could have been no other option. This isn’t to say that 1994’s Eden Valley, for example, or Launch, made during the collective’s early years, are in any way less important or, indeed, less deserving of a release, yet if you’re looking for the perfect Amber introduction, then In Fading Light is the ideal choice.
Made in 1989, or rather released in 1989 as work had begun two years earlier, In Fading Light centres around the fishing community in North Shields. It does so specifically through the crew of the Sally during a ten-day expedition. Over this time we get to know each of the men, plus the skipper’s daughter who has come aboard as she’s not seen her father in five years. Of course, her presence brings with it certain tensions – both familial and sexual, both on the boat and, once the rumours have circulated, back on land.
Given that Amber have always been motivated by political concerns – more often than not they start with an area they wish to explore rather than a storyline – you could be easily forgiven for believing that the actual cinematic dimension would be somewhat lacking. Indeed, given the importance of the issues they’re focusing you may very well be willing to forgive them for any such limitations. Yet, remarkably, this never once proves to be the case: In Fading Light represents a superb example of the docudrama form and as such demonstrates fine filmmaking technique.
Essentially the film sits somewhere between neo-realism and the work of Ken Loach. The cast list is primarily made up of non- and semi-professionals who form what is, effectively, an Amber repertory company; look at Dream On (1991), say, or Seacoal and many of the same faces inevitably keep cropping up. Of course, what’s important is that they look and sound the part: accents are present and correct, whilst you genuinely believe that these are ordinary folk. Moreover, there is also something of the method about these assembled actors – prior to filming they worked on the boats or in the factory, both to get an idea of the lifestyle and to look convincing on film. In fact it’s not too far removed from Humphrey Jennings’ “Fires Were Started”; In Fading Light could be considered as the fishing industry’s equivalent cinematic venture.
Just as important as the casting is the activity behind the camera and Amber have an almost intuitive approach to this style of filmmaking. In the most unfussy of manners they stick rigidly to a basic close-up and medium shot combination. Sometimes the camera is anchored, other times it’s handheld – but either way it becomes almost invisible in the manner in which it essentially eavesdrops on the characters and their little dramas. You could describe the technique as televisual, but this would be unfair. Rather it works to demonstrate just how much Amber refuse to shy away from their subject and just how it all is – both in terms of the way in which it eschews soap operatics and the fact that it could, at times, be easily mistaken for documentary.
Yet the balance between the drama and the documentary is just right. In Fading Light isn’t burdened with excessive amounts of narrative baggage and as such Amber are able to simply explore the various relationships without getting distracted. Moreover, this almost unassuming nature allows the documentary aspects – and the film as a whole – to really breathe. Indeed, had In Fading Light been concerned solely with telling a story then its running time could easily have been leavened to around the hour mark. As it is, however, we are able to truly immerse ourselves in the essential ordinariness of these peoples’ lives, whether that be the natural beauty which North Shields has to offer or its more depressing qualities.
This latter element is also key to the whole enterprise as it demonstrates exactly where Amber are coming from. Not once do they soften their subject nor do they condescend to it. They’re not class outsiders peering in with a certain distasteful voyeuristic glee, but they come to the community with a great deal of respect. (The film was one of the products of the collective’s five year residency in North Shields.) As such the natural charm of the place comes through as does the warmth, humour and great character (incidentally, the humorous side is often forgotten when Amber come under discussion, yet you can easily chuckle your way through many of their films). In other words, it’s all very human and in this respect In Fading Light could be considered something of a cinematic rarity.
Shot on 16mm, In Fading Light arrives on DVD in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and demonstrating a surprisingly fine presentation. Of course, we should expect a certain amount of grain and some intermittent damage, but otherwise the results are wonderfully pleasing. The image has an excellent clarity whilst the colours are similarly fine and demonstrate little in the way of fading. Likewise, the soundtrack is an equally impressive affair. Present as a DD2.0 mix, the disc ably balances the dialogue and score with ease. Indeed, such is the clarity that the defects in the original recording (to be expected from a film shot, for the most part, on a boat in the middle of the ocean) are often apparent. And of course, as it is Amber themselves who own the prints and have produced this DVD, it is unlikely to ever be bettered.
As for the special features content, In Fading Light maintains the high standards set so far. As well as the booklet mentioned at the start of this review, we also get a pair of documentaries which trace the film’s making as well as Amber’s relationship with North Shields, plus a fine gallery of Peter Fryer’s 1989 photographs of the community’s fishing industry which were taken at the same time of the film’s production. Of the two documentaries, it is the longer piece – the 64-minute ‘Making In Fading Light’ which proves to be the most welcome. Though it sticks to a fairly standard combination of talking heads and interpolated film clips, it manages to hold the attention owing to its sheer depth. Everyone from the filmmakers to the fishermen and the actors are spoken to providing a near definitive account. The other piece, entitled ‘Amber & North Shields’ and lasting only 8 minutes, is understandably less able to cover quite as much ground, but still offers a wealth of knowledge. All in all, what we have a fine collection of extras backing up a superb disc. For anyone interested in this kind of cinema it’s pretty much an essential purchase and a strong contender for my DVD of the year.
You can purchase this disc through Amber Films at their website: