Joanna (1968) DVD Review
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Sex, Donald Sutherland and London - what could go wrong?...
Joanna follows a 17 year old girl (Genevieve Waite) who comes to London and falls into the swinging cosmopolitan of the big city; before associating herself with some high-rollers via her connections to the art world. Indulging in random holidays abroad - courtesy of her newfound friend Lord Sanderson (Donald Sutherland) - and casual sex, courtesy of the rest of her male friends. However, when Joanna eventually falls in love with Gordon (Calvin Lockhart), her life begins to catch up with her, causing her endless trouble and problems. Michael Sarne displays the changing attitudes to love and sex in the 1960’s through the eyes of a promiscuous young art student, all the while highlighting issues with racism, drugs and sexual politics.
For me, the stand out performance has to go to Donald Sutherland, who role as the dying Lord Sanderson is nothing short of masterful. He is philosophical, eccentric and charming in equal parts, able to switch from lighthearted to serious whenever the plot demanded it. His more reflective moments are delivered without seeming at all pretentious (quite unlike the rest of the films ventures into philosophy). It is possible however, that he was almost too good, as he definitely left a tall, dark shadow looming over his co-stars.
This is not to say that the lead was not played well by Waite. I get the impression she did the best she could with the script she was given. However, Joanna goes through some fairly hard times, being physically beaten and emotionally battered all over the place. Although her bubbly optimistic character remains fairly charming and consistent throughout, it simply isn’t believable during the darker moments of the film. On a general level though the entire cast was good, by no means at fault to the films occasional problems. In fact, they even managed to provide a comic turn when needed.
Joanna, while primarily set around the debaucherous behaviour of its protagonists namesake, does manage to feature a number of beautifully shot scenes. Sarne certainly ventures into experimental territory with his visuals in Joanna, and what's more they make for some very powerful viewing. For example, Sutherland is lying on his deathbed and the scene initially appears to be a normal hospital room, but gradually it zooms out to reveal an empty white room with nothing but a bed and a heart monitor within it. It’s a great way to make the audience feel the characters isolation and loneliness in the face of death.
There is, however, very little else to recommend Joanna. It is very much of its time; that is to say, it is very badly dated. Joanna, while enjoyable, is representative of a film that appears afraid of its own subject matter. Sarne attempts to tackle some very dark issues, but he never explores them in any sort of depth. Joanna will have just been beaten in broad daylight by a man who she cheated on yet, after complaining to her friend about how rude her said attacker was, the cheery soundtrack suddenly kicks in and we are thrust into some brightly-coloured shopping montage or dream sequence. The closest the film gets to matching tone to content is thanks to Sutherland's (rather unexpected) monologue on death.
Another thing which really jarred was the entire score. The collection is played extremely loudly for no obvious reason, other than perhaps to sell the dreary, written-for-screen pop/folk soundtrack. It also comes in at random inappropriate moments. Gordon, for example, is found guilty at a trial. This is a sad moment, but is instantly followed by a burst of the cheery score.
While Joanna may appeal to certain audiences for nostalgic value (and fans of Donald Sutherland), there is not enough here to appeal to a mainstream audience, or even people with a vested interest in cinema.
Two short films by Michael Sarne including his debut film Road to Saint Tropez - which follows a woman on a trip along the south of France to Saint Tropez, where she has a brief liaison of an ardent nature - are featured within the films extras, and are certainly a nice touch. While Road to Saint Tropez is nothing special - and sharing many of the flaws of Joanna - the second, Death May Be your Santa Claus, is a slightly more interesting offering; an experimental examination of an interracial relationship in late 1960’s London.
On top of this, there is also a 16 minute interview with Sarne and a downloadable version of Michael Sarne’s novel based on the film, presented as a downloadable PDF. Somehow I suspect only Sarne completists will fully appreciate this package, but it's a nice break from the somewhat saturated inclusion of deleted scenes and bloopers.
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