Twitter Plot Summary: A French man goes on the run in 1750s England and teams up with a young boy. Then I got bored.
Director: Ken Loach
Key Cast: Jean Franval, Stephen Hirst, Louise Cooper, Andrew Bennett, Packie Byrne, Russell Waters
Five Point Summary:
1. Sorry, I can’t hear a word your saying boy, you’re not miked up properly.
2. I can’t see anything now. Was this poor mixing of sound/vision deliberate?
3. Blackmail – what a dangerous game you play, boy.
4. Somebody’s been shot! SOMETHING INTERESTING HAS HAPPENED!!! Ahem, sorry.
5. And she’s out of the mental home! Why? Because.
Based on the novel, Black Jack is a story of a French convict on the run in England, along with the boy who was charged with looking after him. That’s what the plot synopsis will tell you, but our French prisoner soon fades into the background and becomes almost inconsequential to the plot, one where it actually becomes about the boy and his desire to free a young girl who has been labelled as mad by her charge. There’s a long stretch towards the end of the film where Black Jack doesn’t appear, and it focuses on the boy blackmailing some older gentlemen. It’s hardly riveting stuff. At one point somebody gets shot, but that’s perhaps the only exciting thing to happen. Even worse, you have to wait until near the end of the film for this to happen.
After orchestrating the escape of Black Jack, the story moves from one little set piece to the next, arbitrarily moving the characters forward without any reason or forethought. Instead it exists solely for the adventure, such as it is. When the description said it was an adventure, I had expected something akin to Treasure Island, a breathless adventure with plenty of twists and turns. You know, something to keep the kids quiet for an hour and a half. Instead, Black Jack is a poorly acted series of minor escapades (and that’s being generous) filled with Northerners. Canny, and all that.
Rather than populate the film with actors, Loach decided to follow the realism route and use local people with no acting skills. To an extent this technique works, but the cast frequently muddle their lines up and often have difficulty enunciating. It leads to a frustrating experience as a viewer because you’re never 100% certain what has just been said – whilst I am a fan of the Yorkshire accent, it doesn’t help matters. I was surprised to read that this won the Critic’s Award at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival – I can only assume it was a quiet year.
Black Jack marks the first Ken Loach film I’ve seen, and if this acts as a barometer for what to expect, I’m not sure if I’ll enjoy his other features. In this film specifically it feels almost lazily directed, very much a case of point and shoot. There’s also perhaps an over-reliance on natural lighting, to the point where occasionally it’s difficult to see what’s going on. It’s perfectly fine to adhere to the look of the era, but if it’s to the detriment of the viewing audience then something needs to be done. Still, the gentle camera work and natural lighting creates a documentary style feel that makes it hard to be too negative about it, even if a documentary set in the 1750s is stretching believability. Unfortunately for me it didn’t work, and I’m hesitant to see any more of Loach’s work simply because I’m not a fan of his style. Unlike Black Jack, I would hope that his films aimed at an adult audience have a message or a point to them.
Favourite scene: That bit where something happens. The guy being shot. I was entertained for about three minutes.
Silly Moment: A French man bursting into a building filled with the mentally ill and shouting at the top of his lungs. Why? Because he’s French and he can.