Stormy Monday Review

Newcastle upon Tyne, the late 1980s. It’s American Week and businessman Cosmo (Tommy Lee Jones) is in the city, putting pressure on Finney (Sting) to sell the jazz club he owns. Meanwhile, Brendan (Sean Bean) takes a cleaning job for Finney and becomes involved with Kate (Melanie Griffith), a waitress and escort working for Cosmo.

Stormy Monday is a slow-burning thriller crossed with a love story – too slow-burning for some people – that makes up for a somewhat thin plot with considerable visual flair and style. The film was writer-director-composer Mike Figgis’s big-screen debut. He had previously made a film for Channel Four, The House, which was first broadcast in 1984. (I caught a repeat screening in 1987/88 and I remember considerable visual interest but couldn’t tell you now anything of the plot, apart from the basic premise that Great Britain is not an island but a landlocked country in continental Europe.) Figgis had come from a stage and musical background, being a member of the People Show theatre group and playing with a R&B band called The Gas Board, whose singer was one Bryan Ferry. However, what impresses from the outset in Stormy Monday is Figgis’s eye. The film begins with assurance, cutting between short scenes that establish Brendan and Kate and the setting of a Newcastle on the point of renewal. The striking camerawork of The House had been the work of Roger Deakins, towards the beginning of his career, and Deakins should take much of the credit for the look of Stormy Monday. There’s an eye for colour, particularly solid blocks of red – a skirt that Kate tries on in the Metro Centre, the neon lights, the car that plays a significant part in the plot – and composition that lifts this above a lot of British features. Deakins’s lighting, especially of interiors, is sumptuous and adds considerable to the film’s modern-day noir mood. It’s a pity that Figgis and Deakins have never worked together again, but no surprise that they attracted the attention of the major studios. Deakins, who also operated the camera here, has become a cinematographer of world stature with his work for the Coen Brothers especially. Figgis went on to Internal Affairs, which contains one of Richard Gere’s best performances. He became disaffected with the Hollywood system after Mr Jones, which also stars Gere, was taken out of his hands and re-edited. He has since experimented with low-budget features – including the Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas – exploring the possibilities of 16mm and video shooting. Now and again he has worked for hire, with results sometimes worthwhile (his 1994 modern-day version of The Browning Version) and sometimes reputedly not (2003’s Cold Creek Manor). Still, he has taken more risks than almost any other filmmaker of his stature, so it’s not surprising he occasionally falls flat on his face. A constant has been his striking use of music, and his jazz score for Stormy Monday is first rate. B.B. King plays and sings the title song over the final credits.

Figgis’s ability with actors is something he’s not often given due credit for, but Stormy Monday contains some of the best work from all four of its leads. Tommy Lee Jones’s work is typically solid, but what is less expected is a fine performance from Melanie Griffith, at the end of an 80s purple patch which began with Working Girl and continued with Something Wild. It’s good to see Sean Bean given a role of some substance, before he became a pin-up for half the population. And Sting, with long hair and a slightly dishevelled jacket, using his native Geordie accent, gives the single finest performance of his entire acting career, his laid-back manner concealing considerable resources of menace. Alison Steadman turns up in a brief role as the Mayor of Newcastle.

A second viewing shows up the thinness of the film’s plot, but Stormy Monday - which has to be one of the most underrated British films of the late 1980s – has plenty of compensations. In the light of Figgis’s subsequent wayward but often fascinating career, it’s well worth a second look.

This DVD is released as part of Optimum’s Classics range, and is encoded for Region 2 only.

The transfer is in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It’s a pleasing picture on the whole, faithful to the sharp, colourful look of the exteriors while also coping well with the shadowy interiors. It’s not perfect: it’s a little soft in places and in some scenes macro-blocking sets background walls shimmering, especially early on, and I spotted a splice (undoubtedly print damage) go past at 18 minutes. A fairly short feature and not many extras takes up just about all the available space of a single-layered disc, perhaps using a DVD-9 might have solved some of the minor problems mentioned above.

Stormy Monday was made in the half-decade or so between (analogue) Dolby Stereo becoming ubiquitous for commercial releases and the arrival of digital sound. The sound mix here, Dolby Digital 2.0 which plays as Dolby Surround (ProLogic). As with many such soundtracks, it’s not the most elaborate of mixes, primarily using the surround for the music score. There’s some ambience and the occasional directional sounds such as cars passing.

There are no subtitles, which is a bad move on Optimum’s part. (Some occasional lines in Polish from a visiting jazz band are intentionally untranslated.) There are twelve chapter stops, which is a little ungenerous: the last but one runs over eleven minutes.

The main extra is billed as a commentary from Figgis, though it’s actually an interview with him conducted by a man whose name I couldn’t make out at several attempts. Figgis is an engaging speaker and he guides us through the film, coming out with some good anecdotes. He’s keen to point out that most of the supporting cast are people he’d worked with in avant-garde theatre, and the jazz band are not in fact Polish but are actually the People’s Band, an English free jazz band Figgis had been associated with.

The remaining extras are the theatrical trailer (1:26), which makes the film seem more like a conventional thriller than it actually is. Also on the disc are trailers for other Optimum releases, The Piano, The Killing Fields and another Figgis film, Timecode.

For all his occasional missteps, Figgis remains one of the most unpredictable and interesting directors working in commercial cinema, and fans would do well to pick up this early film of his. The disc isn’t perfect, but the chances of an improved edition coming along are not high.

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