Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs Review

In the grim surroundings of a wintry Oldham, Malcolm Scrawdyke (Hurt) is a student and would-be revolutionary who attends an art college. Obsessed with the idea that Allard, a lecturer who we never see, is conspiring against him, he recruits fellow students Nipple (Warner), Wick (McEnery), and Irwin (Platt) to join him in opposing this force of reaction. The group calls itself the Party of Dynamic Erection and their mission is to fight against the massed forces of orthodoxy, the Eunuchs. Unfortunately, much of their political activity consists of sitting around making plans for action and not actually doing anything. This inability to perform is mirrored in Malcolm's relationship with Ann (Ayres); their love-life being hampered by Malcolm's impotence.

There are some wonderful things in Little Malcolm. The basic narrative set-up – incompetents attempting revolution – has an Ealingesque charm and is reminiscent of Chris Morris’ recent black comedy Four Lions featuring a group of equally inadequate would-be Jihadists; it’s notable that Morris’ film also featured a startling shift in tone towards the end much like Cooper’s. The comic appeal of the central character Malcolm lies in the contrast between his rhetoric and his inability to act, a device which stretches back to Hamlet and may also remind us of David Thewlis’ Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked. Certainly, Johnny’s spleen is very similar to Malcolm’s and this may not be coincidental given that Mike Leigh directed the original production of Little Malcolm in the 1960s.

The film, remarkably faithful to David Halliwell's original play, is often hilariously funny, from the opening monologue during which Malcolm debates the thorny question of whether or not to get out of bed to the beautifully written and staged set-piece in which the group plan their abduction of Allard. This scene demonstrates that Cooper is capable of far more than simply respecting the dialogue and performances - he gives the film a giddy comic spin and certainly it is far more visually distinguished than many filmed plays, thanks to John Alcott's atmospheric cinematography. This tone is captured perfectly in the acting by the leading quartet who make the Dynamic Erectionists deeply funny without pretending they are anything but pathetic. One sequence in which Warner argues about the colour of a jacket is a fantastic bit of cross-talk comedy.

But perhaps the most striking thing about the film, apart from the exceptional performances, is the skill with which, towards the end, it changes from almost farcical black comedy into something much more disturbing. The key to the tonal shift is the show trial of Nipple, a set-piece which Cooper directs with unerring poise. It’s the scene in which the parallels with Stalinism become, perhaps a little heavy-handedly, clear. Nipple is given the chance to plead either “Guilty” or “Very Guilty” to a ludicrous trumped-up charge and is denied the chance to present a defence. The proceedings are conducted with malicious eloquence by Wick and presided over in a wearily autocratic fashion by Malcolm who has come to believe in all the nonsense made up over a pint of beer in the pub. The casualness with which the ultimate sentence is delivered still has the power to shock because it reflects the way in which totalitarianism traduces the individual and David Warner’s performance is notable for its evocation of a mixture of confusion and desolation.

Once this major set-piece has been played out, the tone darkens even further as Malcolm is at the receiving end of a thoroughly justified tirade from Ann. After sitting and listening – and seemingly detemining to change his ways – Malcolm turns on Ann and, with the newly arrived assistance of Wick and Irwin, decides to punish her. The beating she receives is not especially graphic but it is brutal and prolonged, startling not only in its ferocity but also in its sheer randomness. The comedy of the first hour of the film finally dies and is replaced by a sense of outrage. Malcolm’s delusions are stripped away from him but it seems to occur at other people’s expense. The message is a little thudding but is made completely clear – the inescapability of violence as a inevitable result of revolution and the equally unavoidable resort to misogyny. The ending is as shocking and upsetting as it is meant to be and one's view of the 'heroes' changes from amused tolerance to sheer disgust.

The Disc

As usual, the BFI have given us a Flipside package which is a treat to watch. It's a dual-format release which contains both a BD50 and a DVD. I only received a review copy of the Blu Ray but previous releases have contained a very strong DVD transfer so I don't imagine this will be any different.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. It's a High Definition transfer from the original negative and shows signs of careful restoration. Plenty of detail is in evidence - it's very plain that these young people are being played by actors who are considerably older than their characters - and there are some nice, subtle colours which occasionally break out into rich primary shades. The appropriate level of grain gives a strong, film-like appearance.

The quality of the LPCM 2.0 mono soundtrack, given the highly verbal nature of the film, is tremendously important. On the whole, it's very pleasing although occasionally the dialogue is a little difficult to make out due to what must have been problems with the original sound recording in the factory. I've heard mixed reports about the music but I thought it sounded lovely; gentle and subtle.

The extras are unrelated to Cooper's film but are, as is the way with these Flipside discs, rare and interesting. Firstly, we get the original trailer, which is rather elliptical and illustrates the obvious problems of selling this kind of movie. Secondly, there's a short film from Francine Winham, a photographer, jazz enthusiast, opera singer and occasional feminist filmmaker. It's called Put Yourself in My Place and was made for the Women's Film Group in 1974. A witty study of sexual politics, it's got strong performances from Judy Geeson and Christian Roberts and it's well paced, making its points crisply in 25 minutes. Finally, the disc contains a 7 minute film from James Dearden, writer of Fatal Attraction called The Contraption. I recall seeing this many years ago and it was a pleasure to revisit it. Richard O'Brien plays a man who builds a strange machine in his basement for a purpose which I shall not reveal. Suffice to say, I found it a bracing mix of the macabre and the humorous.

More relevant to this film is a superb booklet which contains pieces from Yvonne Tasker, Stuart Cooper, John Hurt and Mike Leigh. It also contains some nice artwork and details of the other films in the set.

I've begun to look forward so much to the Flipside discs that I can hardly wait for the next selection to arrive. Little Malcolm is a fascinating film and a fine addition to the range.

8 out of 10
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