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Pennies from Heaven (1978)
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by dionwr

"An absolute masterpiece from Dennis Potter"
5 stars

One of the most original British filmmakers of the 70's and 80's was a writer for the BBC, Dennis Potter. He is not as well-known here in the US as he should be, but that should change now that his two greatest, most seminal, works are available (finally!) on DVD. "Pennies From Heaven" is one of two essential masterpieces Potter wrote. (The other is the mini-series "The Singing Detective.")

Hollywood is famous for slighting its writers, and treating the screenplay as if it were just raw material for the directors. While the great directors become brand names, from Hitchcock to Speilberg, Hollywood doesn't quite know how to deal with its great writers, the Paddy Chayefskys and Charlie Kaufmans. Unfortunately, too many film critics follow that lead, and it blinds us from recognizing when we're seeing great work that originates with the writing.

Pennies From Heaven is a mini-series (seven and half hours in six parts) about a hopelessly romantic dreamer, set in 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression. The dreamer is Arthur Parker (Bob Hoskins), a mostly unsuccessful sheet-music salesman. Arthur is optimistic, energetic, extroverted, and perpetually looking for something more in life. He is also whiny, self-indulgent, and an habitual liar. Arthur is married to Joan, a good woman, but so thoroughly repressed she wonders, at one point, if it would be possible to have a marriage without any sex in it; the answer of course is not with Arthur it wouldn't. Their dissatisfaction about sex (him pushing, her resisting) is mirrored by their tension over Arthur's lack of success. They're living on the money Joan's father left her.

So far, so BBC kitchen-sink-social-drama boring.

And then Arthur starts singing--in a woman's voice! Beefy, balding Bob Hoskins lip-syncs his way into an old 1930's standard about how great life will be tomorrow, vamping it up as if he's been suddenly turned into Judy Garland. It's as if a direct channel has opened up to all his character's hopes, dreams and attitudes. And the musical numbers somehow, magically, don't break character, but help enhance it. The gimmick of the sudden musical numbers, so thoroughly artificial, has been borrowed since in everything from Cop Rock to Ally McBeal. But in Potter's use, it rises majestically above being a mere gimmick. One particular song, "Roll Along, Prairie Moon," is reprised over and over again in the course of the series, each time making a different point about the characters and their relationships, and the culture of the time.

That last is an important point, as Dennis Potter has genuine insight into how the values we take from popular culture affect our behavior and desires. This isn't Quentin Tarantino, with pop culture references for their own sake. Part of Arthur's problem is he wants his life to be like the songs that he loves, and doesn't pay enough attention to reality.

On the road, trying to sell his songs, Arthur's life becomes entwined with two people, a vagrant accordian player (Kenneth Colley) he gives a ride to, and an innocent young schoolteacher, Eileen (Cheryl Campbell), that he seduces and then abandons. Pennies From Heaven is often described as bleak and grim, but what I remember is how very sad and moving it is. You see all the charcters with a clarity that makes you sympathize with them all, even when their actions are awful.

Arthur himself is the superb example. The arc of his character is similar to that of Jack in the current film, Sideways. At the start, you're completely on his side. That is slowly undercut as his actions become more and more dismaying. Arthur manages to keep that initial sympathy, even though his actions bring the destruction of his marriage and his life, the complete shattering of his wife, Joan, and the degradation of Eileen, who is forced into a life of prostitution. It's a triumph of both the writing and the acting.

And, better than that, the characters can fool you. One particular example also points up some of the problems with the wretched Steve Martin movie of the same title. When Eileen gets pregnant, we expect the school's headmaster (Freddie Jones), who we've seen again and again is a dour, humorless disciplinarian, to cut her absolutely no slack. Instead, there's a moving scene where he lets her go--because their village won't accept an unmarried, pregnant woman as a teacher--and is heartbroken to do so. In the Steve Martin movie, they made the headmaster the two-dimensional sadist you were expecting, a stock movie villain who enjoys being nasty, and is utterly forgettable.

Or look at the pimp, Tom (Hywel Bennett), who takes up Eileen when she comes to the city. He is played straight-forward for a long time, until finally, inevitably you get his musical number. And you start laughing, because it becomes clear that Tom sees himself as a likable rogue, forced occasionally to be brutal by circumstance, but with a heart of gold. You laugh at his pretensions, but you have a moment of liking him for having those pretensions.

The acting is uniformly splendid. Hoskins's work led directly to getting the role in The Long Good Friday which made him known throughout the world. Gemma Craven, Cheryl Campbell, and Kenneth Colley are so good that you'll wish they'd been given more roles back then that made better use of their talents. Campbell will only have been seen by most viewers as the running missionary's sister in Chariots of Fire, and Colley played Admiral Piett in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. What a waste!

This is a great and moving film, worth the time you'll have to invest in watching it, and rewarding on multiple viewings as new ideas and points become apparent to you.

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originally posted: 02/14/05 07:03:24
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User Comments

1/04/10 Allen Rollich Sublime! 5 stars
3/08/08 Pamela White energetic film 4 stars
2/19/06 Peter Carr finally available on dvd.A masterpiece never been bettere. 5 stars
2/19/05 Denise Duspiva okay 3 stars
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  DVD: 27-Jul-2004



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