Five things to watch this weekend – 27-29 March

Plains, trains and vintage action on the Pyramid Stage what are you watching this weekend?

Samuel Wigley

Witness (1985)

Where’s it on? BBC1, Friday, 10.45pm

Witness (1985)

The pick of the films showing on the big five TV channels this weekend is this terrific 1980s thriller in which Harrison Ford plays a detective assigned to protect a young Amish boy who witnesses the killing of an undercover policeman. This was the first American film by Peter Weir, one of the leading lights of the 1970s Australian New Wave, who would go on to make a string of thoughtful, distinctive Hollywood projects, including Fearless (1993) and The Truman Show (1998). It becomes a fish-out-of-water drama in which Ford’s worldly Philadelphia cop finds himself adjusting to the rhythms of a Pennsylvanian Amish community where time and tradition seem to have stood still for centuries. Weir’s film generates considerable tension in the clash between this agrarian existence and the peril that threatens it when the bad guys come looking for young Samuel (Lukas Haas) and his mother (Kelly McGillis). 

This Sporting Life (1963)

Where’s it on? Talking Pictures TV, Saturday, 9.15pm

This Sporting Life (1963)

Coming late in the early 60s cycle of British kitchen sink dramas, just before our national cinema turned from sinks to swinging, This Sporting Life is the fiction feature debut of Lindsay Anderson, the critic-turned-filmmaker who’d played a key role in the Free Cinema documentary movement of the 1950s. Shot in poetic black and white in Wakefield, Yorkshire, Anderson’s film brings us into bruising distance with Frank Machin, an angry young coal miner who becomes a star player in the local rugby league team. Machin provided the first starring role for Richard Harris, who brings a Brando-like heft and boorish physicality to both the action on the field and his troubled courtship of recently widowed landlady Rachel Roberts. Anderson would go on to more original work – not least with If…. (1968) – but This Sporting Life remains among the great British feature debuts.

Pakeezah (1972)

Where’s it on? Amazon Prime

Pakeezah (1972)

Credit: BFI National Archive

This Bollywood classic is a welcome new arrival on Amazon Prime: Kamal Amrohi’s opulent romantic drama is an escapist treat for the senses. Set in turn-of-the-century Lucknow, Pakeezah stars legendary Hindi film star Meena Kumari in the dual role of the ‘nautch girl’ (courtly dancer), who is rejected by her lover’s family for her lowly status, and the daughter she dies giving birth to, who will tread her own rocky road to romance. The theme of tragic courtesans whose hopes are dashed within a strict patriarchal system recalls the Japanese period films of Kenji Mizoguchi, but Pakeezah is also a musical – and one staged on the most extraordinary palatial sets. It’s a film that seems to emit its own perfume, whisking us away to a tear-soaked world of love notes, steam trains and candlelit courtyards. The background is everything in this film: through endless Moorish arches and doorways, we glimpse a busy, gilded world.

In Transit (2015)

Where’s it on? intransitfilm.com

For one week only (as of 26 March), the final film by feted American documentarian Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens) is streaming for free on the film’s website. Premiering at festivals in 2015, In Transit was never distributed and so has been difficult to see since, but has been made available “during this period of isolation and uncertainty … with the hope that it can serve as a reminder of how, ultimately, we’re all in this together”. This 75-minute wonder was the realisation of Maysles’ long-standing desire to make a film about the passengers onboard a long-distance train. It’s set entirely on the Empire Builder, the Amtrak service that runs between Chicago and Seattle through the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. The trip takes three days, bringing travellers into close proximity in the dining and observation cars, and Maysles’ film offers intimate snapshots of their lives: their pasts, their hopes, their sadnesses. It never rams the point home, but you come away with a profound sense that each of us is living our own story.

Glastonbury Fayre (1972)

Where’s it on? BFI Player

Glastonbury Fayre (1972)

With Glastonbury cancelled this year, sadly the closest most of us will get to Pilton Farm is rewatching highlights of festivals past, and they don’t come any more weird and wonderful than this feature documentary of the second ever festival, back in 1971. Now added for subscribers to BFI Player, it’s an irreplaceable record of the year when David Bowie (heard on the soundtrack but sadly not seen here) played at dawn and the longhaired likes of Arthur Brown, Traffic, Fairport Convention and Gong performed to muddy crowds of blissed out flower children. Captured by none other than Nicolas Roeg, co-directing with Peter Neal in the gap between Roeg’s classics Walkabout (1971) and Don’t Look Now (1973), Glastonbury Fayre offers a ringside seat at scenes of almost primordial bacchanalia – recognisably the same and yet starkly different from the festival of modern times. These are days long before satnav, when one wide-eyed congregant claims to have arrived at the farm guided only by a vision. 

Glasto aside, festival-lovers can also continue to experience BFI Fare at home on BFI Player this weekend. The latest additions include Ask Any Buddy, an impressionistic compilation of erotic gay film from the late 1960s to the 1980s; Disclosure, an odyssey through trans representation in film and TV history; and T11 Incomplete, Suzanne Guacci’s melodrama about the affair between an older woman and her patient.

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