tue 07/07/2020

DVD/Blu-ray: On the Black Hill | reviews, news & interviews

DVD/Blu-ray: On the Black Hill

DVD/Blu-ray: On the Black Hill

Evocative film of Bruce Chatwin's Welsh hill farm saga

Dead ringers: Benjamin and Lewis as children

Bruce Chatwin’s sense of place stayed slippery. If he had roots, they were in the Black Mountains across the Welsh border, a fond childhood memory he deepened for his third book with the rich anecdotes buried in old newspapers. The tale this iconoclastic travel writer spun in On the Black Hill was of twin brothers, Benjamin and Lewis, who stay put in their patch of Wales as the 20th century and its World Wars grind past them, like the noise of a car in the next field. Book and film are about lives in a landscape, each enriching the other.

Writer-director Andrew Grieve also had childhood experience of the Black Mountains. He’s no visionary, but his 1987 debut, filmed from his first draft screenplay, elliptically alights on moments in Chatwin’s saga, and has the rare sense of a film unmuddied by other hands. Bob Peck (just after Edge of Darkness) and Gemma Jones (soon after The Duchess of Duke Street) are his early stars,  pictured below, as mismatched Amos and Mary. She is a respectable Englishwoman just back from the Raj at the 20th century’s start, he a rough but not brutal Welsh hill farmer. Initially passionate lovers, Vision Farm becomes their home.

Peck verges on parodic, pop-eyed Celtic fieriness. But a scene in which the neighbouring farmer who is his nemesis sits like a goblin or sly Loki at the back of an auction to keep or lose Vision Farm, goading Amos into a ruinous price, has the quality of nightmare legend. Jones is superb, kind, intelligent and quietly sensual, but sometimes hating her husband over time, in favour of fierce love for their twins. As Benjamin and Lewis, Grieve cast visually distinct acting brothers, Mike and Robert Gwilym. Their inward-turned, psychic bond is tested when one is wrenched away for trench war training, a nationalist assault on lives patriotic only to their field and farm. The shy opening of that bond to others as still symbiotic old men completes them.

This BFI release includes two hill-farming documentaries, Shadow on the Mountains (1931) and O’Er Hill and Dale (1937), both evocative. Gin, we learn, is just the right stuff for thirsty lambs.

Bob Peck verges on parodic, pop-eyed Celtic fieriness


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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