Simon Magus/The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz Review
Simon Magus may be less than a decade old, but as Ben Hopkins says in his commentary, it’s already a product of another era. That era was when a British “arthouse film” could be funded, to the fairly hefty sum of £3 million. Nowadays, the support for such a film no longer exists in the UK, in an attempt to make more “commercial” British cinema. Directors like Hopkins (and, indeed much more established compatriots such as Peter Greenaway and, to some extent, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach) have to look for their funding elsewhere. This DVD contains both feature films that Hopkins has made to date. If nothing else, he wins points for versatility, as Simon Magus and The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz could hardly be more different to each other.
Simon Magus, released in 1999, is set in turn-of-the-century Poland. A new railway line threatens the livelihood of a small village as people gradually leave. The local squire, Count Albrecht (Rutger Hauer), is approached to sell some land to build a railway station, which will restore prosperity to the region. Albrecht, who writes poetry, entrusts a book of his poems to David (Stuart Townsend), saying that the land will be given to him – instead of to the rival bidder, a wealthy Christian, Maximilian (Sean McGinley) – if he enjoys the poems. However, Maximilian tries to use Simon Magus (Noah Taylor), an outcast from the small Jewish community who claims that the Devil (Ian Holm) talks to him, to gain control of the land.
This is an ambitious film that doesn’t really come off. Certainly, the performances are good: Noah Taylor may have the showiest role, but this film also contains Hauer’s finest performance in years. With the help of some attractive locations (the Brecon Beacons standing in for Poland) and Nic Knowland’s painterly Scope photography (with borrowings from German expressionism), the film certainly looks good. However it drags in places and tends to peter out, though the ending is very striking.
The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz, made with German funding and released the following year, is in many ways the polar opposite. Instead of colour, we have black and white (mostly – a Happy Eater logo appears in vivid red, and a couple of brief sequences towards the end are in sepia). Instead of Scope, Academy Ratio (and just for once with a modern film, that appears to be the intended one). Instead of historical setting Eastern Europe, present-day London. Instead of a drama with magic-realist touches, a surreal comedy. The thin plot involves a mysterious stranger, Tomas Katz (Tom Fisher) who emerges from a hole in the ground beside the M25. He catches a cab and after a brief conversation swaps bodies with the driver…and again and again with other people throughout the day, as strange things happen, civilisation collapses and the world is eventually erased. You’ll either find this quite funny in a silly sort of way – in a long-standing British tradition of absurdity that not only takes in Python but such writers as N.F. Simpson (whose play One-Way Pendulum was itself filmed in 1964). Amongst all the tricks, Hopkins shows a good eye for his London locations, which looks very good in monochrome. However, eighty-odd minutes of this is more than enough.
There’s certainly talent here, and it shows that Britain’s experimental/arthouse sector is alive and well, even if it lacks for funding. Directors only learn by practising their craft, so it is to be hoped that Hopkins can make more films.
Simon Magus and The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz are released on one dual-layer disc, which is encoded for Region 2 only. The main menu is divided in two, with “play”, “chapters” and “bonus” links for each film.
The films are both in their original aspect ratios – Simon Magus in 2.35:1 and Tomas Katz in 1.33:1. However, both transfers are non-anamorphic: not a problem for the latter, but a demerit for the former. Simon Magus’s transfer is certainly not bad, but it’s a little soft, and some scenes are so darkly lit they are lacking in shadow detail. Tomas Katz is sharper, though it doesn’t avoid grain, which is probably inevitable given the obviously small budget.
The soundtrack for both films is Dolby Surround. Both films’ sound mixes are mostly front and centre, with surrounds used for music. Tomas Katz has a few directional sounds. Neither film has any subtitles, which is very regrettable.
Both films feature a commentary. On Simon Magus it’s Ben Hopkins solo, who gives a solid run-through of the film, its making and its reception. He has a dry sense of humour (“unfortunately, due to health and safety regulations, we couldn’t piss on the children”) and at one points apologises for boring the listener. On Tomas Katz he’s joined by Tom Fisher, and the chat is jokier and more sarcastic. The recording quality of the commentaries is a little rough: Simon Magus’s has quite a bit of tape hiss. Oddly, the Tomas Katz commentary is in MPEG stereo, when all the other soundtracks on the DVD are Dolby Digital 2.0.
Both films’ menu screens link to Hopkins’s short film from 1995 made for the Royal College of Art, National Achievement Day (27:32), also in rather grainy black and white, presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1. The remaining extras comprise synopses and short biographies of the principal cast, Hopkins and his producers (Robert Jones and Caroline Hewlett respectively). These extras clearly come from a press kit.
Two feature films on one disc is good value by any standard, though these two are so different I suspect most people will prefer one or the other, but not both. That’s aid, both films are intriguing enough to hope that Hopkins gets behind a camera viewfinder again sometime soon.