Reviews and notes
The most ambitious of Alan Clarke's early projects, PENDA'S FEN
at first seems a strange choice for him. Most scripts that attracted Clarke, no matter how non-naturalistic, had a gritty, urban feel with springy vernacular dialogue (and sometimes almost no dialogue). David Rudkin's screenplay is different: rooted in a mystical rural English landscape, it is studded with long, self-consciously poetic speeches and dense with sexual/mythical visions and dreams, theological debate and radical polemic - as well as an analysis of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius. But though PENDA'S FEN
is stylistically the odd film out in Clarke's work, it trumpets many of his favourite themes, in particular what it means to be English in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Raised by the Rector and his Wife in a village near Pin-vin (Penda's Fen), Stephen Franklin (Spencer Banks) is about to turn 18 - a detached, conformist, almost robotic young man with a narrowly rigid view of Englishness. He reveres a white middle-class couple for "upholding the Aryan national family on its Christian path" by slapping an injunction on a television documentary that portrays Jesus as a revolutionary, and dismisses local visionary television playwright Arne as a crank for criticising military and political authority.
But Stephen embarks on a journey into his unconscious and arrives at a far more complex - and humane - view of himself and 'Englishness'. He experiences disturbing dreams of homosexual desire and visions of angels, demons and King Penda (the last Pagan king of England). During a storm he takes refuge in an abandoned barn and hallucinates a meeting with his hero, Sir Edward Elgar. Elgar 'tells' him that the transcendental deathbed cry of Gerontius was inspired by the sound of a dog crying for a bone, gives a vivid description of an operation he endured to cut out the cancerous tumour in his stomach and finally whispers the name of the common tune which "combines" with his majestic Nimrod theme.
In this key scene Stephen is made to understand that even the most lofty music of England is connected to nature, bodily functions and popular art - a crucial way-station to embracing both mystical paganism and a radical view of Jesus. The Rector himself opens Stephen's mind to the Manichean notion that in the battle with the forces of darkness (authoritarian power in all its forms) there are many sons of light besides Jesus. Stephen also comes to accept his own homosexual feelings and questions a militaristic technocracy responsible for poisoning Penda's Fen by covert biochemical experiments.
On his eighteenth birthday Stephen is informed by the Rector and his Wife that he is adopted; by now he has accumulated enough wisdom to celebrate his mysterious origins as being full of "possibilities" rather than something to be afraid of. In a final vision Stephen rejects the ideal Christian couple as "the sick mother and father who would keep us children forever." He tells them: "I am nothing pure... my race is mixed... my sex is mixed... light with darkness... mud and flame."
Stephen finds his humanity by connecting with the natural landscape in its richest and most varied forms. And Clarke rides the intellectual and emotional whirlwind of PENDA'S FEN
- with its ton and a half of symbolic, poetic, theological and political freight - with a firm sense of rhythm, clean uncluttered framing and elegant camera movement.
-Howard Schuman, Sight and Sound, September 1998.
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