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Mannen som log (2003)
The earliest screen Wallander
After watching the Swedish television series starring Krister Henriksson as Wallander, it takes some considerable adjustment to believe that the bear-like Rolf Lassgard is really playing the same detective. Similar adjustments are needed as the familiar characters from Mankell's great novel and the Swedish TV series appear with different faces.
However, the overall sense of gloom and angst that characterises the Wallander series is maintained throughout this 2003 two-hour adaptation for television (now shown on UK television for the first time). The twists and turns of Mankell's plot contrast the gentle Skane countryside with the violent bombs, mines and shootings.
The plot, familiar not only through Mankell's novel but a recent UK TV adaptation starring Kenneth Branagh is bleak, verging on the gruesome - details omitted to avoid spoilers. But the storyline has been simplified, so that the reasons for Wallander's depression and drinking are omitted and his complicated personal life streamlined to an affair with colleague Maja (excellent acting by Marie Richardson)and a clumsy one-night stand in Stockholm. The result is an absorbing two-hour tale, but lacking some of the intensity of the later and shorter adaptations for television.
Wallander: Täckmanteln (2006)
The most powerful and moving Wallander episode yet.
As a long-time fan of the Wallander novels I was delighted when I found that BBC was going to show the original Swedish television series, with sub-titles.
I wasn't disappointed. This was the ninth story and, seen on a weekly basis, while some have been better than others, the quality has remained consistently high. Indeed, I am very surprised at the low ratings given to these episodes, presumably by the initial Swedish TV audience. But this was the best yet, with a complex storyline with unexpected twists (unusually for IMDb, the 2 plot summaries give too much away and I am glad I read them only after seeing the programme. The characterisation of and relations between Wallander, Linda and Stefan gets ever more complex and the ending is a real tear-jerker.
Yes, I hope that Kenneth Branagh will make more Wallander programmes for BBC, but this Swedish TV series sets a very high standard indeed, and this is the most powerful and moving episode of the nine seen so far,
Guns, Germs and Steel (2005)
OK but not a patch on the book
I came to this with great expectations as a long-time admirer of Jared Diamond and his books, including 'Guns, Germs and Steel'. It was shown on UK TV as a 2+ hour documentary but it was painfully obvious that it originated as a 30-minute series. The result was that every half-hour or so the continuity was punctured by long and tedious repetitions of what had gone before - a real spoiler!
The main themes of the book came across clearly and it was good to see Jared Diamond's personal first-hand responses to world events that he had previously only studied from a distance as an academic. But overall the programme was unbalanced, with far too much time devoted to Pizarro and the conquest of Peru (in the book only 15 pages out of 450) and nothing at all to his chapters on China and Polynesia.
Yes, I know that I was expecting too much and it was great to see such important ideas about "a short history of everybody for the last 300 years" (his subtitle) popularised via television. But by the end I felt that it could have been so much better.
Einstein and Eddington (2008)
Great actors, great story
This is a superb drama, combining a well-presented scientific and historical explication of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity alongside a gripping portrait of the moral dilemmas that scientists have to struggle with as they try to reconcile the demands of country and conscience.
The twin leads British scientist Arthur Eddington (David Tennant) and Einstein (Andy Serkis) lead very different lives but face not only similar scientific opposition and derision but also similar pressures to back their country's efforts to win the First World War. Tennant shakes off the Dr Who expectations in pointing up the problems of a gay pacifist Quaker who tries to prove the new-fangled theories of 'enemy' scientist Einstein a theory especially dangerous because it undermines the ordered view of the universe created by English scientist Isaac Newton. Einstein's complicated private life is compounded by his revulsion at fellow scientists' work in developing poison gas. Both Tennant and Serkis get right into the skin of their characters - two brilliant actors on top form.
The drama brings over very effectively the transition from the comfortable life of the scientists in pre-war Cambridge and Switzerland to the tragedies of war. Jim Broadbent as Sir Oliver Lodge and Donald Sumpter as Max Planck lead the scientific establishments in Cambridge and Berlin as they pervert their scientific beliefs to condone mass killing on a scale never before seen. The main female roles have rather less to do, but Rebecca Hall as Eddington's sister, Lucy Cohu as Einstein's abandoned wife and Jodhi May as his mistress all add an extra warmth to the production and help to avoid the danger of focusing only on clever men using symbols and formulae to bemuse their colleagues (and the audience).
The settings Cambridge, Berlin and West Africa, where Eddington photographed a total eclipse of the sun to prove the Einstein's theory was right provide a powerful backdrop to the human drama, making it all the more believable. All in all, a very successful and informative BBC and HBO drama that maintains tension and excitement throughout.
Radio On (1979)
Why we hated the 1970s
This is one of Britain's forgotten films (only 4 IMDb reviews at the time of writing these comments, nearly 30 years after it was made). The first film by the then film critic Chris Petit, made in 1979, it conveys accurately the bleakness - and the depressing music - of the late 1970s.
The plot is minimal. A morose, alienated man learns of his brother's death and travels from London to Bristol to find out more. The 'quest' is half-hearted and his encounters on the road and in Bristol are unsatisfactory and unfulfilled. Nothing seems worthwhile following through. whether it is his investigation into his brother's life and death, his encounter with a German woman or even his relationship with his antique Rover car.
The B/W photography is splendid, matching perfectly the mood of alienation and the bleak picture of a part of England in the winter of 1979. The influence of Wim Wenders (the producer) is clear but it is very distinctively an English film, worth seeing and listening to if only to remind us of the dismal '70s - but having seen it, that's enough. Interesting, but not a classic.
A remarkable and disturbing tale
Tony Palmer has expanded his 2-part film, made in 1978 for the "South Bank Show", into a remarkable warts-and-all portrait of the composer Malcolm Arnold. The mixture of archive materials and more recent film and interviews starts by celebrating the composer's early successes and phenomenal musical output. Gradually we realise that this was at a price - alcoholism, bipolar disorder and disintegrating relationships with his family.
His appetite for life seemed enormous, involving not only the traditional 'serious music' activities and his massive film music output but his collaborations with the likes of Gerard Hoffnung, Deep Purple and the Padstow lifeboatmen! But the film is unflinching in its portrayal of the restless, suicidal and ill-tempered aspects of that life, descending into institutionalisation, followed by a disturbing dependence on strangers. It is hard to appreciate that the large, bouncy, generous person shown in so much of the archive material was also the furious, "deeply unpleasant" (in the words of one interviewee)and almost inarticulate old man we also see.
But above all, the film reminds us that Arnold was a great and much under-rated composer, with extended extracts from a wide range of his enormous output. He is the most recorded modern English composer - and the film shows us why.
House of Saddam (2008)
How to seize power and hold on to it for a quarter of a century
This four-part mini-series grips you from the outset. Yigal Naor's portrayal of the young Saddam is brilliant, seizing power brutally but always with a purpose behind his brutality. This contrasts with the mindless, purposeless brutality of his elder son Uday (Philip Arditti), which comes through in the 2nd and 3rd episodes.
The mini-series' structure, taking four key years in Saddam's life over 24 years, is managed extremely effectively, although one consequence is that some of the best-known incidents of his reign of terror have to be omitted.
The character of each family member develops across the episodes and the overall sense of an all-pervading reign of terror comes over very powerfully.
My main criticism is of the final episode, almost elegiac with a mellow Saddam on the run with a consequent loss of tension and momentum. Although I suppose that, as we all know what happened to him right from the start, this is probably inevitable. But well worth watching and superbly acted by everyone.
Irma Vep (1996)
Maggie Cheung is marvellous but .....
I got hold of this DVD because of its reputation as an unknown, recent, experimental French art film. It was certainly experimental although to avoid spoilers I shall not indicate how (or when). But the overall impact was rather disappointing. Maggie Cheung, playing herself, was just fantastic - serene and professional but increasingly absorbed in the odd role of "Irma Vep" (yes, it's an anagram). So much so that the role, or at least the black latex catsuit, takes over away from the set, and her scene as Irma in her hotel is one of the film's two highlights.
The basic premise - ageing film-maker (good performance by Jen-Pierre Leaud) making his tribute to the innocent days of early French silent cinema - is fascinating, and used as a vehicle for questioning where French cinema is going in the 1990s. This is brought out particularly well when Maggie is interviewed by a cynical French journalist. But somehow the sub-plots,revolving around the tensions between crew members, don't match or illuminate the central theme. So a film well worth seeing for the star performance by Maggie Cheung but ultimately an experiment that didn't quite come off - but you must stay with it till then end.
The Last Enemy (2008)
Downhill all the way
This five-part mini-series started superbly. A dramatic first episode, full of incident, laid out the main themes and built up the tension. The next two episodes maintained the tension, developing the near-future main storyline about a surveillance society and its impact on citizens. Robert Carlyle appeared (and disappeared), as threatening as only he can be and kept the excitement level high.
But then it faded away. The plots became too convoluted, with too many themes and unresolved or unnecessary twists notably a scene where Carlyle creeps into a house and downloads a laptop. What was that about? And the final episode was so disappointing it was as though the writer (Peter Berry) had only enough material for half an episode. So the pace slowed down, the increasingly unconvincing love story took over, with long, lingering and time-wasting glances, and the main surveillance theme sank under the weight of biological, genetic and political extra plots that led nowhere. It could have been a gripping thriller if it had been stripped down to a feature-length film but in the end it only left the feeling that five hours had been wasted. And this is despite excellent performances, particularly by Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Carlyle and Geraldine James - the script could not match their talents.
Mischief Night (2006)
Bleak, even grotesque - but funny and perceptive
A great film, offering a slice of life in present-day Leeds that most of us would rather not know about. The plot is almost incidental. The film's success lies in the portraits of the two families, one native white, the other second-generation Pakistani and their complex love-hate relationships. Kelly Hollis is superb as the gutsy single mother with three kids by different fathers, coping on her own with the racial antagonisms that have blown up in Leeds since her own childhood.
The flimsy storyline follows the youngest lad as he and his mates prepare for Mischief Night, when children (or at least white children in Yorkshire) are allowed to create havoc by playing tricks on adults. The more subtle interactions are in the Pakistani community, where the older daughter is resisting an arranged marriage, the older son cannot communicate with his Pakistani wife except by meeting her incessant demands for sex, and the local drug dealer is hired to sort out the Jihadi extremists.
The characters are for the most part grotesque, but with enough humour - the dialogue is particularly strong in every sense - to make them both watchable and believable. The acting is splendid, especially by the youngsters, and the visual portraits of the streets and houses of the two communities are vibrant. A bleak but absorbing, funny and eventually heart-warming film.