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Mood is not enough
The new BBC drama 'Quirke' takes us into postwar Ireland - seedy, drunken, dominated by the twin evils of the church and the wealthy and corrupt. It's a somewhat clichéd view, made palatable by the series' muted tone, although at times in the first episode I struggled to follow the softly spoken dialogue and relatively (for a murder drama) understated plot. Unlike many such series, there's an overall narrative as well as individual stories; the fact that Quirke's niece has a separate, personal connection to all three murders reduces the overall plausibility. The cast is an impressive one, but the scripts don't really call on them to do anything extraordinary; the detail with which their characters' feelings are observed is often weaker than its symbolic depiction (endless booze and cigarettes). To me, 'Quirke' fell between two stools: too low-key and gloomy to be fun family entertainment, but not truly deep either.
Well-made but slightly pointless
The Coen brothers' film 'Fargo' was perhaps their best, a sly masterpiece with a cast list including an insecure, stupid harassed husband attempting to ply criminal, two brutal but incompetent hit-men, a homely but effective female police chief, hearty Scandinavian prostitutes, and in a final irony, a setting not in Fargo at all but actually in small-town Minesota. Noah Hawley's television series is inspired by the film and begins by simply reprising all its elements, albeit in subtly reworked form: the first episode appears wholly derivative but pointless. Gradually, however, the series' specific elements take clearer shape, with Billy Bob Thornton's quiet killer Lorne Malvo the most magnetic element on screen, while Martin Freeman's Lester Nygaard gradually emerges as a man bullied to the point he no longer has empathy for anyone but himself. Yet after very many hours of television, the series doesn't really do anything that the original didn't do in a fraction of the time (when all the jokes were fresher as well).
Berberian Sound Studio (2012)
Story and suggestion
'Berberian Sound Studio' begins as a banal comedy, a 1970s set story about an inadequate Englishman abroad, working as a sound-man in an Italian horror movie studio. But the film moves beyond cliché, and becomes an increasingly disturbed story of sex, power and nightmares. Director Peter Strickland's previous work, 'Kaitlin Varga', was a harsh tale of peasant life, and this film, richer and more imaginative, is also not quite easy viewing. Ultimately, though, there isn't quite enough story behind the mood of suggestion, not quite enough substance to match the ambition of the film's mood. My guess is that if you love Italian horror, you'll also love this, if taken in a suitably troubled spirit of homage.
Nick Murphy's drama 'Prey' is a fast-moving, gritty crime drama, with a typically strong performance from John Simm in the lead role. Although the plot is complex, the audience isn't really encouraged to waste too much time on it: the twists and turns are mainly Maguffins, serving mainly to justify the next explosive chase. If aspects of the series (lone hero set up for a crime he didn't commit) are generic, Simm keeps it real, and with just three episodes, it doesn't outstay its welcome. It's not quite up to the level of 'Prime Suspect', but it's nice to see ITV still keeping their hand in with authentic-feeling police procedurals.
My Week with Marilyn (2011)
Lightwieght and amiable, 'My Week With Marilyn' tells the true story (and based on his own account of it) of Colin Clark, an 'ordinary' young man (actually, an extremely rich and well-connected young man) who gets to spend a week with Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn and her insecurities have been covered in a hundred other places,and there's actually very little in the way of plot going on here - the best part is Kenneth Brannagh's fun recreation of Lawrence Olivier. But if Marilyn's problems hadn't taken her to an early death, and cemented her legendary status, it's hard to believe there'd be a film here at all, and I've seen takes on Marilyn both more fun (Nick Roeg's 'Insignificance', for example) and more serious than Michele Williams' portrayal here, which doesn't emphasise much beyond her neediness.
Happy Valley (2014)
There's nothing revolutionary about 'Happy Valley': it's a conventional crime drama, about troubled families, the weak and the wicked, and a tough middle-aged policewoman (although a female lead is at least a change from the usual script). It also depends on a coincidence - a protagonist in the central crime happens to have history with the lead investigator, which adds to the personal drama, albeit in a somewhat unlikely fashion. But Sarah Lancashire is good in the lead role, and the character development is excellent: the series doesn't go out of its way to make us like the characters, but it does make us understand them, and the writing is consistently believable and occasionally revelatory. It's a very solid piece of television; but it's a shame that crime seems to be the only subject that qualifies for drama in prime-time, even when it's as well done as this.
Harsh yet warm
Susanne Bier's most recent film was a frivolous rom-com starring Pierce Brosnan; so it's almost a surprise to be reminded how tough her previous work was. 'In a Better World' tells a story of playground bullying, civil war, parental death and alienation. I've seen more subtle treatments of these themes but nonetheless, there's a real power to the themes, which portray both the inevitable hardships of life, but also the way that human social structures build on a further layer of misery and grief. And also the way that our own reaction to the injustices we suffer can drive us to make the world an even worse place. In spite of the darkness, this is still an engaging movie, with warm, sympathetic characters. The drama isn't quite as acutely particular as it was in my favourite film of Bier's, 'After the Wedding'; but it's still worth watching.
Moody but dull
Hot on the heels of 'Shetland' comes 'Hinterland', another quiet crime drama about a middle aged detective in Britain's beautiful, remote Celtic fringe, although this one is set in west Wales not north Scotland. But I liked it less. In the lead role, Richard Harrington veers between blandly expressionless and emoting an unexplained inner grief; the murderers seem to fit stereotypes of mad old Welshman; and strange scenes of Harrington looking anguished while jogging are not a proper substitute for character development. Indeed, while I felt 'Shetland' tried to portray both the traditional virtues of the island community, yet also how modern life was lived there, the world 'Hinterland' seems slightly old-fashioned without feeling heartwarming, neither entertaining nor truly hyper-real. I only wish someone had had the guts to film Malcolm Pryce's hyper-surreal Aberystwyth-set detective stories instead.
Tu seras mon fils (2011)
There's a grim tale well-told in 'You Will be My Son': that of an egotistical wine-maker whose love of his craft exceeds that for his son, and to such an extent that he feels under no obligation to hide it. The film pivots around these two points, indulging a sense of love for the craft of traditional wine-making, but portraying the father's behaviour in an utterly unsympathetic light. But the son is a bit too craven to be interesting: he has a mysteriously beautiful wife, and his refusal to leave, and preference to stay around and be bullied instead, is a bit mystifying; ultimately the film perhaps shares with its characters a sense that patrimony is at heart the proper way of the world. The ambiguous ending, however, is well-judged.
Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (2013)
Solid, but no explanation of Nazism
The German experience in World War Two differs from the British one in two primary ways: the moral complicity of involvement in atrocity, and the disillusionment of defeat. 'Generation War' is a major German drama about this experience, made in a country perhaps naturally somewhat shy of revisiting this aspect of its past. It's not awful, but it's a little unimaginative, as it sets out the varied stories of five friends, one Jewish, and not one true Nazi among them. The scope is epic, but somehow I didn't feel truly engaged with the drama, or that I cared overly about the characters. Yet the piece still throws an interesting light on an aspect of war, the growing sense of looming catastrophe, absent from the usual stories told by the victors.