Vanessa Redgrave has spent six decades in front of the camera. Now her own past and current tragedies have encouraged her to get behind it.
The Academy Award-winning actress makes her directing debut with Sea Sorrow, a highly personal documentary about the migrant crisis that is set to premiere at this month’s Cannes Film Festival.
“I’ve identified all my life with refugees,” said 80-year-old Redgrave, who was one of thousands of children evacuated from London during the Second World War to escape German bombs.
A mix of documentary and drama, Sea Sorrow includes Redgrave’s experiences alongside interviews with current-day migrants and their supporters, including Alf Dubs, a British politician who fled Nazi-occupied Europe as a child. Also in the mix is a scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest — a play about shipwrecked souls — featuring Ralph Fiennes.
Redgrave says her son and film-producing partner Carlo Nero persuaded her to include autobiographical material.
“I got worried, of course, by not wanting the film to be about me,” she said in a recent interview at the production office she shares with Nero and a friendly poodle-Pomeranian mix named Zep. “It’s about the refugees.
“But I do think that perhaps hopefully my telling the story alongside Alf Dubs and the refugees that some people will realise the thing we were all taught — and which the government, [Winston] Churchill’s government, reminded people: It could happen to you.”
It’s a lesson many people in Europe and North America have forgotten as direct memories of war have faded. These days the news often carries stories of people making dangerous journeys by sea and land to flee war or seek a more prosperous life. Redgrave says such reports can be powerful, but often turn the migrants “into a stream of images, not real people.”
“Once upon a time they were at university. Once upon a time she was a doctor, he was a teacher. They’re real people,” said Redgrave, who has been a Unicef ambassador since 1990.
“I think everybody, including myself, are in danger of losing our humanity,” she added. “We have to [do] what psychiatrists or psychologists call ‘work on it.’”
Redgrave says she learnt a huge amount about filmmaking in her first foray as director, but isn’t sure she will do it again.
“I just directed to tell this story,” she said. “I’m not a filmmaker as such.”
She shows no sign of retiring from acting, with projects lined up including a role in Christoph Waltz-directed thriller Georgetown.
Redgrave is part of a British acting dynasty that includes her father Michael Redgrave, her late siblings Lynne and Corin Redgrave and her daughters Natasha Richardson, who died in a ski accident in 2009, and Joely Richardson. Nero, her son, is a director and producer.
A six-time Oscar nominee, Redgrave won the supporting actress trophy in 1978 for playing an anti-Nazi activist in Julia, at a ceremony picketed by the Jewish Defense League because of Redgrave’s support for a Palestinian state. Her acceptance speech condemning “Zionist hoodlums” — to a mix of boos and applause — remains one of the most dramatic moments in Oscars history.
For years, Redgrave supported small left-wing groups such as the Workers Revolutionary Party and the Peace and Progress Party, and her political intensity hasn’t faded. She is furious about Brexit, withering about Prime Minister Theresa May’s government and glum at the thought of a likely Conservative victory in Britain’s June 8 election.
You might think she’d consider celebrity-obsessed Cannes a bit silly. But she is delighted to be returning to the festival, where she won a best-actress trophy in 1966 for Morgan — A Suitable Case for Treatment. She won a second time in 1969 for Isadora.
“I’m thrilled to bits,” she said. “Still can’t quite believe it’s true.
“In spite of the lure of Venice and Toronto and other great (festivals), it remains the special one.”
Redgrave has vivid memories of past visits to the French Riviera festival, including a 1967 trip with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Photos of her on the beach in a striped minidress alongside the director and Italian actress Monica Vitti are the epitome of 1960s glamour.
“I was considered to be a star then,” she said.
She also recalled the camaraderie of walking up the festival’s famous red-carpeted steps with Emma Thompson and her other co-stars from Howards End in 1992.
“I remember very well Emma showing me her dress, and what did I think,” Redgrave said. “I thought it was very lovely, actually. I can’t remember what I wore, but I remember what she wore.
“It’s going to be nice again, but what’s really special is that our film having been accepted and welcomed by Cannes means that windows will open for the refugees all over the world, and especially in Europe.”