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Ascendancy (1982)


Main image of Ascendancy (1982)
35mm, colour, 85 mins
DirectorEdward Bennett
Production CompanyBFI Production Board
In association withChannel Four
ProducersPenny Clark
 Ian Elsey
ScreenplayEdward Bennett
 Nigel Gearing
CinematographyClive Tickner

Cast: Julie Covington (Connie Wintour); Ian Charleson (Lieutenant Ryder); John Phillips (Wintour); Philip Locke (Dr Strickland); Kieran Montague (Dr Kelso)

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Connie is a young Protestant woman in Belfast, 1920. Distressed by the death of her brother in World War I, she is driven towards breakdown by the brutality of the growing conflict between republicans and the British Army.

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Ascendancy is a serious and austere examination of English guilt in the Irish question, made at a time when independent filmmaking in Britain was driven by a clear political agenda. Its central character, Connie Wintour, is an English aristocrat driven to despair by the actions of warlike men: her beloved brother, lost at the Somme; her father, a corrupt businessman and aspiring politician; and her prospective romantic partner, a cynical British soldier. Connie's angst manifests itself in mental and physical illness, to the point where she is emotionally shattered by witnessing a bloody battle on the streets of Belfast. The film's conclusion is particularly bleak: refusing to eat, Connie is force-fed through a pipe. Here the film makes an implicit connection with the Northern Irish political climate in the early 1980s, which was characterised by protests and hunger strikes from republican prisoners in British jails.

This intellectual art film was a result of the early stages of collaboration between the British Film Institute's Production Board, under Peter Sainsbury, and the emergent Channel Four. Sainsbury was part of a politicised generation of decision makers at the BFI with a proven track record in arthouse exhibition; he had been co-founder of London's famous alternative venue The Other Cinema in 1970. His stated policy - to strengthen the links between the Institute's production, distribution and exhibition activities - paid off handsomely with the critical and (relative) commercial success of Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract, made the same year as Ascendancy. There is little of Greenaway's grand cinematic sweep here; by comparison this film, with its confined spaces and restrained naturalism, feels rather televisual. Appropriately enough, it found a place in Channel Four's fondly-remembered programming strand for experimental and avant-garde work, Eleventh Hour (1982-87).

The casting of Connie was an interesting strategy; Julie Covington was better known as a singer and an actress in musicals, including Evita and ITV's Rock Follies (1976-77). Much of the dramatic tension in Ascendancy results from the contrast between its lead actress's dowdy and sombre appearance and her rich, melodious speaking voice, often employed in voice-over. Covington's star persona gets no further outlet here, but the film does have striking sequences of street violence driven by strident military marching music and drumming. Within the context of this film, which wilfully denies many of the conventional pleasures of cinema spectatorship, such moments are genuinely transcendent.

James Caterer

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Video Clips
1. Pretending to sleep (1:54)
2. The present political atmosphere (2:53)
3. This is not a war (3:20)
4. The horror goes on (3:04)
Production stills
Maeve (1981)
Charleson, Ian (1949-1990)
Channel 4 and Film
The BFI Production Board: The Features
The Golden Bear