Two Greek sisters fall for the same sturdy sea captain in Little England (Mikra Anglia), a lush melodrama from Pantelis Voulgaris that’s based on the bestseller by the veteran director’s better half, Ioanna Karystiani. A woman’s picture in the most positive sense of the word, this handsomely mounted and impeccably acted film, set in the first half of the twentieth century, scooped the top prize at the recent Shanghai Film Festival, won a boatload of prizes at the Greek Film Awards and was a hit at the local box office. It should appeal to festivals and distributors with a mainstream or more female-oriented sensibility as well as broadcasters of classy European fare.
Voulgaris most recent film to circulate widely, 2004’s Brides, was co-produced by Martin Scorsese and also featured brides and boats and his latest can be considered a variation on the same material. Little England kicks off in 1930 on the wind-swept island of Andros, where a motley community of women is left to look after themselves and each other while their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons are out at sea. From the first shot, Voulgaris stresses the presence of the surrounding water and the violence of the waves, suggesting at once the perils of the sea and the relative safety of the landmass, though there are plenty of treacherous emotional shoals to be navigated on land.
There’s a real sense of community that runs throughout the film, with the women collectively saying goodbye or welcoming back the ships that carry their men. But Voulgaris, working from a screenplay by Karystiani, focuses mainly on a distaff triangle, composed of the stern and calculating materfamilias, Mina (Anneza Papadopoulou), who barks that her always-absent husband is the captain of his ship but she rules the house, and her two daughters: raven-haired Orsa (Penelope Tsilika), 20 when the film opens, and the redhead Moscha (Sofia Kokkali), her younger sibling.
An introvert to the extent that she’s almost compulsively secretive, Orsa is in love with the dashingly mustachioed second mate, Spiros (Andreas Konstantinou), who promises to marry her the day he’ll come back as a captain. But for her mother, love has preciously little to do with marriage — “if you don’t love your husband, you won’t be disappointed when he inevitably starts looking elsewhere,” she says — and everything with wealth and status, so she marries off Orsa to a young and equally dashing captain, Nikos (Maximos Moumouris), who’s as pleasant as he is bland.
The drama reaches full cruising speed when, some 45 minutes into the 2.5-hour running time, Orsa — described as “10 or 15 kilos short of being a true Aphrodite” — comes back from Athens, where she had to go for health reasons, to find that Mina has successfully managed to marry off her younger sister to a captain as well: Spiros (her mother was aware of Orsa’s feelings for Spiros but Moscha wasn’t).
To make things even more painful — and respect a sense of Aristotelian unity of place and action if not time — the dowry of both women is a shared house that Mina had constructed, with the first floor for Orsa and the second for Moscha, resulting in sleepless nights for the former since she can hear all the nightly activity of the latter with the man she loves whenever he’s home between trips.
Voulgaris and editor Takis Yiannopoulos expertly balance the specific emotional ups and downs — a lot of downs, especially for Orsa — of the family at the heart of the material with a wider sense of community as well as the passage of time, as the film moves through the 1930s toward the violence of full-scale, war-time battle (mostly off-screen), when a staggering 31 ships from Andros were lost, including the vessel of the title, owned by the proud and fearless Spiros.
The film’s denouement relies too heavily on a single incident and subsequent revelation, with the fascinating complexity of the film’s overall fabric pushed into the background as the main intrigue takes center stage in a couple of tableaux-like shots that feature just the two sisters. As if to counterbalance the sudden intimacy and lack of grandeur, Voulgaris opts for a more theatrical handling of the actors here that feels at odds with the rest of the material. That said, the trio of female protagonists is never less than mesmerizing.
Technically, the filmmaking is classical but extremely effective, with cinematographer Simos Sarketzis always searching for ways to frame the action that allow for easy audience identification with the different characters.
Production companies: Mikra Agglia, BlackOrange
Cast: Penelope Tsilika, Sofia Kokkali, Anneza Papadopoulou, Andreas Konstantinou, Maximos Moumouris, Vassilis Vassilakis, Christos Kalavrouzos, Irene Igglessi
Director: Pantelis Voulgaris
Screenwriter: Ioanna Karystiani, screenplay based on her own novel
Producer: Yiannis Iakovidis
Director of photography: Simos Sarketzis
Production designer: Antonis Daglidis
Costume designer: Youla Zoeopoulou
Editor: Takis Yiannopoulos
Composer: Katerina Polemi
No rating, 153 minutes.