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The Aftermath (II) (2019)
6/10
The horros of war in minature
11 May 2020
In the summer of 1943, in the space of a few days, more bombs were dropped on the city of Hamburg than were dropped on London through the whole of the Blitz. The effect was greater than that of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In "The Aftermath" we are in the city two years later when the war is over and the story is set with the city's devastation as its backdrop. But we soon learn, if we didn't know it already, that war destroys more than buildings and people - it can enter the souls of those who experience it and affect the rest of their lives.

Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachael (Keira Knightly) are in Hamburg where the Colonel is part of the British Army of occupation tasked with beginning the clearing up of the mess that is the city. They are billeted in the elegant and miraculously undamaged home of wealthy architect Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann). They are allowed to remain in the house providing they stick to their quarters away from the Morgans. We learn that Lubert and the Morgans have something in common. Lubert lost his wife in the 1943 bombing of Hamburg and the English couple lost their eleven year old son to German bombing in the Blitz. The loss of their child seems to have destroyed the Morgans' relationship which is tense and cold/ Luber and his daughter are similarly somewhat withdrawn and melancholic. The bitterness Freda feels leads her to a relationship with a boy who is a member of the neo Nazi resistance.

"The Aftermath" recreates the devastation of war very effectively. The destroyed buildings, the starving citizens and the near impossibility of returning swiftly to any sort of normality are shown. But the emotional damage on both sides is skilfully shown as well. There is initially hatred from Rachael towards Lubert and a similar loathing from Freda towards her, though this is portrayed in a measured way. But gradually there is a thaw. Lubert is cleared of any inappropriate war involvement - he was not a Nazi and it is clear that Morgan has respect for him. And, crucially, we also see Lubert and Rachael becoming close culminating in a passionate relationship consummated, in particular, when Morgan is away from Hamburg for six days.

The love affair changes Rachael and she begins to smile again - for the first time since the loss of her child. Lubert asks her to leave Morgan and go away with him - and she agrees. How this plays out is the moving culmination of the film. Meanwhile Morgan's soldiers clash with the resistance who planned an attack in which Morgan's chauffeur is killed. Freda's boyfriend dies in the battle.

War films can be widescreen epics or smaller scale personal story driven movies. Rather like the analogous "The Third Man" (set in post war Vienna) this is a small but powerful micro story in which the horrors of war are told by the interplay of one or two characters. Lewis Morgan is a sympathetic portrayal but without any overt wearing of his heart on his sleeve. He has a job to do, and he does it. Stephen Lubert is somewhat aloof and cautious, his daughter angry. Rachael Morgan is sad and reserved. There is an emotional deadlock which has to be broken and the affair does this dramatically. The principals are very good and if anything they underact rather than radiating faux-emotion.
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10/10
Brilliant visually with a powerful but understated message. Avoid War.
5 December 2019
I am of the generation whose parents suffered in the Second World War and Grandparents in the First - that one was the War to end all Wars. But it didn't. As a young person I saw film series about The Great War with extensive footage of the action. But that was in black and white, a monochrome world that recorded history but which it was difficult personally to relate to. What Peter Jackson has done is to take similar footage, much of it never seen before, and colorise it. And he adds genuine commentary from actual survivors recorded by those seeking eye witness records of the war. The two combined give a startlingly vivid depiction which makes an impact frankly like no historical record I have ever seen.

The images are so good that you could think that it was a feature film shot by modern film-making techniques very recently. In fact every bit of film is a hundred plus years old. Soldiers you've never seen are suddenly seemingly live on your television - or in many cases dead. It is at times a very harrowing film. No punches are pulled at all. This is the hell of war in all its gory detail.

As a young person I sometimes listened to Pete Seeger's "Where Have all the flowers gone" which finishes "Where have all the graveyards gone, Covered with flowers every one. When will they ever learn?" Seeger released the record in 1965 just as troop deployment to Vietnam was gathering pace. The answer to his final question is "Never".
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Judy (II) (2019)
8/10
A Brilliantly told story
15 November 2019
"Judy" is not a biopic that tries to tell the full Judy Garland story - far from it. But what it does - showing events from her last sad year - it does brilliantly. It also has a few flashbacks to Judy the young teen starlet which illuminate and part explain the main story. As a child Garland was exploited - as an adult as well and here we are looking at her extreme vulnerability brought on by her success and her problems in coping with it. She was never a "normal" person who had a normal life. She was always in the spotlight - not just her performances but her life as well. Indeed as so often with a great performer the life and the work become merged. One part that she was always playing was that of "Judy". Was it a mask - up to a point it was, but one that was superglued on.

Renee Zellweger does not impersonate Judy Garland - she does much more than that. She gets into and inhabits the heart and soul of Garland. But it is not a slight of hand caricature - indeed some of the mannerisms are pure Zellweger, but they work perfectly. She tells the story but not in a literal way. The script and direction create a fiction which tells the story rather better than a strict adherence to the facts would. Many of the scenes are invented, even improbable. But that doesn't matter as they illuminate the truth about Judy better than a totally authentic biography would. Remember we are trying to understand a life of 47 years compressed into just under two hours. It has to be minimalist but still be true, and it is.

Do you believe that Zellweger is Judy Garland? I would say unquestionably so. At no time do you think "Judy wouldn't have done that" - the portrayal is authentic in what it seeks to do. The visual effect is at times stunning - not least in the live performance segments. I went to the "Talk of the Town" in the 1960s and recall it just as it is shown in the movie. The patrons, sitting at their dinner tables, were very close indeed to the performers, or many were. When it worked for Judy this showed her at her engaging, personable best. When it didn't work - if she was under the influence - it was horrific. Bread rolls and worse were thrown. As fans we build up our stars, but if they fail us we don't always forgive them.

"Judy" is quite claustrophobic at times. Judy Garland was famously born in a suitcase and she seems to have spent much of her life living in one - but in the public gaze all the time. Her talent was extraordinary - and it is to Zellweger's enormous credit that the theatre performances do it credit. This is not ersatz Garland it's the real thing. Alongside her I warmed to Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder the young woman tasked with looking after the star. This is a very clever portrayal and whilst at first you sympathised with her that her task as "minder" was almost impossible at the end you envied her as she realised that life doesn't offer many chances to be so close to an icon.

London in the late 1960s was recreated well - it was the era of the Grade/Delfont family who created much of British popular entertainment of the time. Michael Gandon is excellent as Bernard Delfont. It is a well-cast film but there is only one "star" and nobody in the film, as in life, who was close to her really challenges that. I enjoyed John Dagleish as Lonnie Donegan and Gemma-Leah Devereux as Liza Minnelli. But this is Renee Zellweger's movie, she is superb.
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The Post (2017)
8/10
Timely reminder of the importance of Press Freedom
27 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
You can reference the Constitution which guaranteed freedoms but then you realise that in the over two hundred years since it was signed many of those freedoms have been ignored or eroded. The Vietnam War saw successive Presidents lie to the people in the pursuit of impossible military and political goals. "The Post" shows what happened when great newspapers like the New York Times and The Washington Post had the opportunity to reveal the truth about the War as recorded in what became known as the "Pentagon Papers". Daniel Ellsberg was not the first nor the last whistle blower but he was one of the most effective and the two newspapers took the courageous decision to publish.

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks play the Post's owner, Katherine Graham and Editor Ben Bradlee. It was touch and go whether they would publish - the lawyers advised against. We see conflict within the newspaper and we see how Graham fought and won. The fact that in the fifty years since we have learned via TV Series and books what really happened in Vietnam and Washington and the White House is directly attributable to her. She had the constitution on her side and in due course the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the freedom of the press.

Stephen Spielberg directs a serious, authentic movie which should give us hope that despite there being evidence over time (and today) that power corrupts if good people fight the truth and freedom can prevail.
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Green Book (2018)
9/10
Authentic depiction of the North/South, Black/White and educated/not educated divides of the "Land of the Free"
13 October 2019
The myth that the victory of the Union in the Civil War freed the African-American is punctured in this extraordinary movie which does not duck one issue about the continued post Civil War divisions - even well into the second half of the 20th Century.

The "Green Book" is a travel guide which listed the places where negroes were permitted to overnight. Especially in the South. In 1962. A hundred plus years on from Lincoln. As in "The Heat of the Night" if you venture south of the Mason-Dixon Line you'll find a foreign country where they do things differently.

Don Shirley, the black pianist, and Tony Lip, the Italian from the Bronx who is his driver, defy the black/white stereotypes. The former is sophisticated, supremely talented, squeamish and refined. But black. The latter is rough, lives from hand to mouth, physical and limited. But white. In Birmingham Alabama Tony can eat in the restaurant and piss in the bathroom. Don has to go down the street to somewhere the black folks eat and piss in a shack in the yard.

That's the essence of the story. Prejudice. Racial divides. Discrimination. Overt and largely unchallenged racism. Even to a genius who lives in a beautiful apartment on the top floor of Carnegie Hall. The "Boy" has to telephone Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to get released from jail where an indiscretion of Tony has landed him.

The film is impeccably directed, brilliantly cast and cleverly written. It is fictionalised from the true story of Don and Tony but this is not a documentary. In 2019 in the Age of Trump it is appropriate to revisit the recent past of explicit prejudice ( and worse). America is rotten fro the bottom up - "Green Book" tells you why.
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Tolkien (2019)
7/10
Searching for the early roots of the genius of the author of "The Lord of the Rings"
9 May 2019
Towards the end of this biopic of the early life JRR Tolkien the author describes his relationship at school in the first decade of the Twentieth Century with three friends. It was more than "friendship" he says - it was "fellowship". This is a signal about the passion that was to drive Tolkien's great work "The Lord of the Rings". The long and at times tortuous journey of that fantastical trilogy is matched in this movie by the journey of that youthful fellowship, a journey that was to be ended in the horrors of the Battle of the Somme. Here, in a brilliant depiction of the tragedy of that dreadful war, we see at the most intimate level the effect of warfare on individuals. There is courage, and love and death on the desolate battlefield of the Somme a precursor of Mordor in middle-Earth. The craters are battle craters full of blood surrounded by death - Tolkien is rescued and survives but his memory is forever scarred by what he saw - memories that recur frequently in his writings.

Before the outbreak of war we are in an english idyll where youth and friendship seem to have a permanence that was to be shattered by war. We also see Tolkien's courtship of Edith Bratt (Lily Collins) a love match that had its problems but was soon to triumph despite the stresses of the times. If the "story so far" sounds a tad unoriginal and derivative to be frank that is true. Tolkien's work was much more interesting than his life, though the connection between the two is convincingly covered. Where the life catches the interest is when Tolkien switches course at Oxford from classics to language and literature and comes under the influence of the brilliant philologist Professor Joseph Wright - a fine portrayal by Derek Jacobi. Here his interest in language is given solid academic underpinning and the roots of his Elvish languages are planted.

Tolkien is played with restraint and sympathy by Nicholas Hoult who captures the unique brilliance of the character rather as Eddie Redmayne did Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything". Because the story in the movie ends before Tolkien's great work began publication we see only some of the roots and sources of his creative inspiration not their flowering. The Great War was rich material for great Art, and still is. As an influence on JRR Tolkien it was relevant to what he later did as well as to his personal life - how could it not be? But as with Hawking there was a unique genius without an equal in his creativity and the intellect that underpins it. We only get hints of that in the movie.

The production values are high in "Tolkien" and the performances are consistently good. I did not, I confess, find the theme of the fellowship of the four school friends particularly interesting. I wanted perhaps to dig deeper into Tolkien himself - his genius may not be easy to explain - maybe it is impossible to do so.
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1/10
A truly awful film - bar the location
29 December 2015
Possibly the worst movie ever made. I watched it on a fight and abandoned it frequently and yet returned. For two reasons. Firstly I thought that to comment upon, and warn people about, this excruciating film was a public service. Second to tip people off that the film contains some fine location shots of Hong Kong. Indeed this footage would be well worth putting together as a brief travel documentary. Ten minutes worth maximum. But the rest of the movie? OMG as they say.

It is a two-hander. Until briefly at the end there are no characters with speaking parts bar the two about whom the "story" (such as it is ) is built. He a thirty-something American who has lived in Hong Kong for ten years and works in Finance. She a visiting (first visit) Chinese-American whose parents left the Territory before she was born and who is, unsurprisingly, almost 100% American, though her appearance is Asian.

The interplay between the two is banal, boring, devoid of passion and has dialogue which sounds as if it was created by a badly-programmed computer. This bad dialogue is not helped by acting so wooden that far from coming to life the characters seem destined for an early and merciful death. If only ! We know from the start that the story is about the two falling for one another. RomCom territory. But not only does the acting and the script barely convey this but it seems that the direction couldn't get anything out of the actors and that the editor couldn't, or didn't, try.

We simply don't care about these stilted, reserved, confused two people. If they fell off the Star Ferry we'd wave them goodbye without a conscience. I wanted to shout "Kiss the silly cow" or at least "Hold her bloody hand". But no. He is subsumed in embarrassment and she seems to be acting out a 1950s movie in which "Nice Girls Didn't". More Sandra Dee than Bruce Lee.

The end is ambivalent which suggests that the perpetrators of this farrago might think that there is a follow-up film to be made. There isn't! The combination of woeful story line, dreadful script, atrocious acting and empty direction means that the movie should be ignored, even for those who love Hong Kong. Except that the location shots, for Hong Kong lovers, are excellent. A superficial, low budget pointless film and a risible attempt to use modern-day Hong Kong to light up even the most trite and trivial of stories. It doesn't !
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Pride (I) (2014)
9/10
"Pride" a brilliant paean to tolerance, with lessons for us today
5 April 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Whilst it is perhaps to small to be called a "genre" there is a body of movies about working-class community action groups triumphing over threats. Think "Brassed off", "Made in Dagenham", "The Full Monty". In "Pride" the story is slightly different. A Welsh mining village is trying to cope with the privations caused by the Miners' Strike in 1985. A group of Lesbian/Gay activists in London decide they want to help and offer their services to the village. The community is Macho, proud, inclusive and as prejudiced as you'd expect in this social context and those times. The Only Gay in the Village (beautifully played by Bill Nighy) has never come out and is unlikely to. Some villagers are openly homophobic. Some more tolerant. Some intrigued. Gradually the "welcome the gays" group gains sway and an effective, funny, heart-warming and moving arrangement is reached and the village benefits financially and emotionally from the Gay group's efforts.

The story is a true one and the characters are (or were, AIDS took its toll) real people. Most of the villagers had never been exposed to gays and lesbians and a key message is that once they were their natural instinct was a tolerant one. Similarly the members of the gay group had never been exposed to the hard, rough life and culture of a mining village. Again the more they were the more they understood the social mores.

This is not a sentimental movie and it feels authentic. Thirty years later society has moved on and the stigma attached to homosexuality has diminished, if not vanished. This in no way means that the story is only of historic interest. The Miners' strike was about power - who ran the country. The reaction to the strike by the Thatcher government was brutal and impatient. The strike divided communities and to "beat" the miners was a cause Thatcher fought with determination. The power she wielded proved, in the end, to be greater than the power of the Union and of its members. She won. Meanwhile, along the way, there were acts of heroism, even sacrifice by those in mining areas and those helping them. Although the strike is to some extent a backdrop to the story of growing engagement between the village and its gay helpers it is much more than that.

There are some fine sub-plots as well. One if the gays is from North Wales and estranged from his mother for a decade or more because of his homosexuality. This is resolved happily. A young gay man hasn't revealed his gayness to his prim middle-class family in commuter-land Kent. "Bromley", as he is called, has to leave his gruesome prejudiced parents in the end, but because of the sense of community with the others he has somewhere to go. This is a film about prejudice and tolerance, ignorance and understanding, wisdom and foolishness. It is a film about the damage macroeconomic decisions, like mine closures, can have on microeconomic communities. About the dangers of being disconnected from the people.

And so today have we permanently shifted our capacity for tolerance so that all is now well? Of course not. The underlying differences of class, wealth, power and opportunity which characterise "Pride" have not been swept away just because we now have civil partnerships and "equal" marriage. The predisposition to punish (wittingly or unwittingly) the poor and disadvantaged in pursuit of some economic ideology hasn't gone away either. The ghastly lack of real opportunity for those who are disadvantaged by the lottery of where they were born shamefully remains, twenty years on. And the scapegoating that in 1985 was suffered by gays and miners is now suffered by others in our society. And we even have a political party which institutionalises that scapegoating against individuals and groups who don't match up to their conventional template because of (among other things) their race, nationality or sexual preference.

The pride in "Pride" is about more than Gay Pride. It is about how all of us prosper not despite our differences but because of them. To tolerate gays in a Welsh mining village was a challenge, but when it happened everyone was enriched. To accept multiculturalism today is a challenge as well - the familiar is always more comfortable. But in applying the same tolerance and understanding that the Welsh miners and their families did back in 1985 today we might just achieve the same result. Ignorance is the danger, knowledge leads to understanding and tolerance.
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8/10
More things in heaven and earth...
30 January 2015
Warning: Spoilers
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Hamlet's words tell of a world that will be beyond Horatio's understanding and implicitly also ours. That is the world of Stephen Hawking. There is a moment in "The Theory of Everything" when Hawking's wife Jane attempts to explain her husband's theories by using vegetables on the dinner table as props. She does rather well. But for most of us "A Brief History of Time" , and the rest of Hawking's work, will be almost completely incomprehensible. This movie is not, however, about his science or about his astonishing academic achievements or his genius. We rather take those for granted. In a way it is about something that is bigger than these things – the human spirit, courage, love, redemption…

When in 1964, at the age of 22, Hawking was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given two years to live the prospects for him to make a lasting contribution in his academic field of study seemed remote. There would not be enough time. But for Hawking time does not always flow forward and he also manufactures it, not least in his own life. If you know that your own time is unnaturally limited then each day you are given becomes the more valuable. This is not just in respect of your work (academic study in Hawking's case) but in your personal and emotional life. And it is the latter which is the main theme of this astonishing film.

Around the same time that Hawking's illness emerged he met Jane Wilde, a clever, pretty and engaging young history student at Cambridge. Their loving relationship and marriage is at the heart of "The Theory of Everything". They quite quickly had two children (a third was to follow later) and overcame difficulties that would have defeated most of us. For Hawking coping with his illness whilst continuing to produce leading-edge academic work became a courageous and determined obsession. For Jane there was never any doubt that she would commit herself to the extraordinarily difficult task of supporting her husband. This lasted more than twenty years before the combined stresses of his fame and the entrance of others into both their lives led to their parting. This story is told with great sensitivity and without sentimentality – and it is absolutely believable.

The movie is a modern biopic in that it is as scrupulously authentic as the confines of a two hour movie covering more than fifty years of time allow it to be. It may be a brief and selective history of that time but it is faithful to its source material, Jane Hawking's book telling her story. The authenticity is enhanced by the quite brilliant performances of the two leads – both Oscar nominated. Eddie Redmayne's Hawking is an astonishing impersonation and it seems to capture everything of the man himself with unerring accuracy. He looks the part and conveys the energy, the drive and the humanity of the man, as well as the intellect, in such a way that he actually becomes him. Felicity Jones as Jane is no less remarkable. Here there is no need to try and do an accurate impression but an overriding need to convey her love and commitment, whilst not subsuming her character and personality to that of her extraordinary husband. For example as Hawking wrestles, quite mischievously I thought, with the implications of his evolving theories on the concept of God, she retains her faith and her solid Anglicanism. At no point is this a source of conflict between them.

Like Horatio our own philosophy may not be able even to dream the things in heaven and earth that Stephen Hawking is able to cope with almost diffidently. But we can engage with the human story because it has references that we will all relate to. Love, loyalty, ambition, temptation, frustration among them – as well as the more mundane need to navigate safely through the journey of time past, present and future. At the end of the film the story is briefly replayed in reverse. We move back from Time Present to that moment in Time Past when Stephen and Jane first met. It seemed to say that the possibility of time travel may be something that science hasn't quite delivered yet. But in our minds and our memories we do make these journeys. And though physically we might struggle, though few as malignantly as Stephen Hawking has had to, if our minds remain alert we can still live profoundly satisfying lives full of achievement.
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8/10
A brilliant portrayal of none man's ambition to break down the barriers of Post War Britain
30 October 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Jack Clayton's brilliant, cynical 1959 movie of John Braine's novel "Room at the Top" (1957) can now be seen in a complete High Definition print on YouTube. I hope this easy availability brings it to the attention of a new generation of not just film fans but those interested in Britain's social history in the Post War years. Braine was at the centre of the "Angry Young Men" literary movement of the 1950s (although in reality there was no "movement" as such - just a coincidence of good writing by young writers troubled by the social mores of the times). Set in a northern town, and with a symbolic background of chimneys and the daily grind, "Room at the Top" is about aspiration and ambition - about how a determined, clever, handsome young man, Joe Lampton (Laurence Harvey) finds room at the top for himself artfully and by trampling over a few hearts along the way. New to the town of Warley - a step up from his more downmarket home town - Joe declares early his intention to succeed. His job as an accountant in the local authority offices is to be no more than a stepping stone to better things.

Notwithstanding the political revolution of the Labour government of 1945-1951 Britain's establishment regrouped and reinforced its barriers to entry. Kingsley Amis in "Lucky Jim" (1954), Stan Barstow in "A Kind of Loving" (1960), Alan Sillitoe in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1958) as well as Braine and others describe these barriers and the difficulties of breaking them down. In "Room at the Top" class and privilege are the key. With his brashness and brains Lampton is clearly a man on the make. Warley's big cheese is Abe Brown (Donald Wolfit) millionaire, factory owner, stalwart of the Conservative Club. A man used to getting his own way. Brown has a pretty daughter in her late teens, virginal and with a cut glass accent to contrast with her father's self-made-man Yorkshire. Susan Brown (Heather Sears) falls for Joe and he sees not just the challenge (easily overcome) of breaking down her barriers but also her potential usefulness to him in his determined climbing of the ladder.

Whilst decorative and useful Susan Brown inspires no passion in Joe - but he also meets Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), older, beautiful, physically stunning, married, unhappy. Susan is prettily naive but Alice is worldly and desirable. Lampton's seduction of Susan is carried out clinically and dispassionately. His affair with Alice is the real thing - for both of them. When it becomes known to Alice's husband George (Alan Cuthbertson) the latter threatens Joe with financial and social ruin unless he breaks it off. This is a pivotal scene symbolising the "Them and Us" world of that time and place.

Another symbol of the class divide is the portrayal by John Westbrook of Sarah's boyfriend Jack Wales. Wales, like Lampton, was in the RAF during the war and also like Lampton was a Prisoner of War. But where Joe was a humble Sergeant Wales was an Officer and a heroic escaper from captivity. Wales demeans Joe by calling him "Sergeant" - a gratuitous bit of class snobbery that makes Lampton all the more determined to succeed!

When Joe Lampton gets Susan Brown "In the family way" the story approaches its climax. In a cameo of exceptional quality Donald Wolfit's Brown tests Joe's intentions over Game soup at the Conservative Club. "My father would be horrified to see me here" says Joe. "So would mine" says Brown suggesting that he has more in common with his daughter's seducer than might be thought. He offers Joe an incentive to break up with Susan which Joe flatly refuses. That was the test. The real offer is a job at Brown's and a ticket on the gravy train if he marries Susan. Joe accepts.

Alice is to be abandoned - a casualty of Joe Lampton's ambition and choice of fortune over love. Alice goes alone to the pub, drinks herself into a near stupor, drives away in her car and kills herself. A distraught Joe wanders alone through the Warley streets, lands up in a pub himself where he toys with a pretty empty-headed girl who briefly deserts her boyfriend for him. In another strongly symbolic moment the boyfriend turns on Joe and tells him not to think that his (Joe's) class gives him any rights. Joe is now the middle-class man he aspired to be - at least in the eyes of this stranger. Joe wanders away and is set upon by the boyfriend who was waiting for him with a gang. Joe gets beaten to a pulp for his temerity in having chatted up the girl, and for his seeming assumption that he had an entitlement to do so.

"Room at the Top" ends with Joe and Susan's wedding - it's the full monty with church and bridesmaids and the rest. Joe has arrived - and his beautiful bride is beside herself with perky happiness as they are driven away in the wedding car after the ceremony. But Joe is unsmiling. He has won, but in winning he has lost not just his one true love but some of himself. "Was that really all really worth it ?" you know he must be thinking?
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Casablanca (1942)
9/10
A serendipitous masterpiece
27 June 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Casablanca is a perfect artistic creation. It is a film which cannot be improved upon and one that, more than 70 years on, still has the power to surprise, amaze and entertain. It is not, and was never I think meant to be, realistic. By this I mean not just that it is not a true story but that it could never conceivably have been seen to be. The broad canvas of the city of Casablanca in the early years of the Second World War is authentic but the story which unfolds, the characters and the detail is of course fiction. This in no way negates the legitimacy of the movie which is far deeper than just telling a story would be. In this respect it is very akin to a painting or a sonnet. A painting is constrained by the two- dimensional static format and a sonnet by the rules of verse. But that doesn't mean that powerful messages cannot be conveyed. So it is with Casablanca.

This is a film about love, betrayal, honour, sacrifice, loyalty, friendship, man's capacity for evil as well as for goodness. It is about judgment, weakness, kindness, passion, greed, and how even the most venal power can be overcome with courage. Put like that it sounds a bit pious but, of course, it is not pious at all. It is exceptionally humorous at times. The constraint is imposed by the need to reduce complex human emotions to filmable moments. It is full of metaphors which help this along. "As time goes by" is not a theme song but a symbol of times past not time present. Rick had forbidden Sam to play the song because it stirred too strongly the memories of his and Ilsa's time together in Paris. When Ilsa turns up in Casablanca she insists that Sam plays it and so signals her wish to return in some way to Rick.

The playing of the Marseillaise in the bar to rebut the Germans is symbolic of the struggle between good and evil. It is a courageous and provocative thing to do. And it contrasts neatly with the character development of Rick and the police Chief Renault. Each of them has to be pragmatic to survive and they cheat, lie and deceive as part of this. But as we suspect from the start with Rick, and come to learn with Renault deep down these are good men. The means justifies the ends if those ends are honourable. Rick, like many great heroes (there is an intriguing parallel with Oskar Schindler here) has to be tough and do things he would prefer not to do. But when tested he comes up trumps. There is an illustrative sub plot with a young Bulgarian newly married couple who Rick helps to get exit visas to Lisbon, he doesn't need to do this and there are risks. But inspired by his inherent sense of decency he does it.

Casablanca is a love story - or actually two. The one between Humphrey Bogart's Rick and Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa and the one between Ilsa and her husband Victor Lazslo. Bergman's performance is sensational. The close-ups show her astonishing beauty and make Rick's passion for her wholly credible. There is an intriguing moral sub plot about Ilsa and Rick's brief affair in Paris (shown in flashback). We learn that Lazslo was missing presumed dead when this happened. This reduces the adulterous nature of the liaison - maybe a nod to the moral precepts of Hollywood in 1942? We also learn that Ilsa's failure to escape Paris with Rick is because Viktor has turned up - something that Rick was unaware of.

Casablanca is a highly moral film - ironically because few of the characters seem to have strong moral principles at all. But, as we have seen, this is artifice. Lazslo is a man of high moral attitudes with a track record to match. Ilsa supports him and loves him for this and when it comes to the crunch she chooses her husband over Rick. Though Rick himself makes this easy for her by insisting at the end that she fly off with Lazslo rather than stay in Casablanca with him.

The greatness of Casablanca comes from the ménage a trois and from the colourful key supporting characters. It comes from the juxtaposition of good and evil all within the claustrophobic tight world of wartime Casablanca. It comes too from the tight, pacy direction and a clever evocation of time and place. The film is iconic with dialogue that has entered the vernacular "Here's looking at you kid" "This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship" "round up the usual suspects." "We'll always have Paris" "Play it Sam, play 'As Time Goes By'" "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life." But above all it comes from the characters and from their portrayal by a cast all at the top of their form.

Movies unlike paintings or poems are collective endeavours. Assemble the right actors. Write a filmable script. Get a good Director. And yet, and yet. It isn't enough. Casablanca works because these basics are right. If is a masterpiece because, serendipitously, what is in part a random collection of elements somehow works as a whole. The whole far exceeds the sum of the parts.
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The 7.39 (2014)
7/10
Love lost, but love nevertheless
16 January 2014
Warning: Spoilers
"I hold it true, whate'er befall; I feel it, when I sorrow most; 'Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all."

Whether Tennyson's paean to love would be quite how the star-crossed lovers in "The 7:39" a television film written by David Nicholls would see it I'm not quite sure. But I think they would. "No regrets" says Carl (David Morrissey) at the end – and Sally (Sheridan Smith) replies that he doesn't need to say that "because you don't mean it". But that is not said in any spirit of bitterness but more as a statement of the obvious – there is no future for either of them other than the one they choose. To be apart. And so there must be regrets – they have loved, and lost.

David Nicholls is the author of the novel and Film "One Day" which was clever and sad and which showed the author's exceptional feel for female characters and the female psyche. Emma in "One Day" has some similarities with Sally in "The 7:39" – bright, attractive and more vulnerable than she will admit. Sally is entering her 30s with a failed marriage behind her but in a permanent relationship with Ryan (Sean Maguire) who she is going to marry. He is a well-meaning but empty stud who has little self-doubt and even before Sally meets Carl you can see that she is having doubts about a Life of Ryan. So when she bumps into Carl on the 7:39 train, which they both use for their daily commute to London, perhaps she is, without really knowing it, ready for a bit of a fling. And maybe Carl is as well but for different reasons.

Carl (mid forties) is married to Maggie (Olivia Colman) and they are your archetypal middle-class suburban family. Two slightly surly teenage children. A nice house in a leafy Surrey town with a good train service to Waterloo. He is a sales manager at a London commercial property firm with a younger boss (Justin Salinger) – a menacing, ambitious, deeply unpleasant man who asserts his authority and manages in an uncaring way. Carl doesn't much like his job, despises his boss and probably thinks that he could have done better in life than be where he is. But the pay is good and he needs the money – his children are approaching University age and that has to be paid for. But its all a bit predictable and repetitive the family, the commuting, the work… we are firmly in mid-life-crisis territory here.

So when Sally meets Carl each of them has a hidden reason to explain why they might have a fling. But this is more than a fling and much more than just fun between the sheets. When on the discovery of the affair Maggie asks Carl if it is "love" he stutteringly he admits that it is. For Sally it is perhaps love by comparison with what she has with Ryan – a relationship which is rather over-graphically physical but in truth not much else. He's a bit of a dick – and not much more. She was perhaps seeking an excuse to walk away from Ryan – Carl has no reason to want to walk away from Maggie and his children, but love makes him do it.

This is a feature film length story and indeed could easily haver been cut as one whole rather than two one hour parts. It is tightly directed with some good location shooting on the South Bank and across the river in and around Aldwych. There is an authenticity about the story which the locations enhance but which is underpinned by the truly outstanding performances by the three principals. Morrissey is utterly convincing as the man with the crisis. Olivia Colman quite brilliant as the betrayed wife. Her controlled fury when she finds out about the affair is exceptional acting by this actress at the top of her form. And Sheridan Smith can do more with a gentle glance and a silent smile than many actresses with half a page of dialogue! Her attractiveness is not that of a plastic femme fatale and she is much more than the pretty girl next door. She is a mature woman, who has lived rather more than her years would suggest – she has a good job that she is proficient at and is in control of her life. Until Carl comes along anyway. But even though she is rather swept away by Carl she is still in control and she knows her assets. When she dresses up for the dinner on the evening when the affair gets properly underway she looks divine. If the relationship doesn't develop it won't be for want of her trying ! Later she knows exactly what she is doing when she dresses is tight jeans for the day out the lovers have together sightseeing!

"One Day" was a devastatingly sad story and in a way "The 7:39" is as well. Let's hope that David Nicholls can find a way towards a happy ending soon! That said does the love being lost in the story really make it unhappy? At the end (two years on) we see Carl returned to his family and Sally with a baby and new man looking cheerful. But Carl's smile as he spots this from a distance (and gets a wave of recognition from Sally) suggests that there were some "might have beens" that he regrets.
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8/10
Peace of mind from forgiveness and reconciliation
14 January 2014
Warning: Spoilers
So what would be your response if you were held in captivity for three years, beaten, tortured, humiliated and forced to work endless days in appalling conditions. If some of your fellow captives were summarily executed on trumped up charges. If every aspect of your dignity as a human being was removed. If your captors regarded you as a coward for not having killed yourself rather than be captured. If you and thousands like you were regarded as slaves, instantly disposable once you could no longer work through illness or incapacity. What would be your response if years later you came face to face with one of the worst of your torturers? That is the key question posed in the film "The Railway Man" - the story of Eric Lomax who survived these grotesque privations on the Burma Railway at the hands of the Japanese.

Lomax's captivity lasted three and a half years before, after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, he was able to go home. If nominally his captivity was a comparatively brief period in what was to be a long life in fact for more than thirty years the scars of this dreadful time failed to heal. Hardly surprisingly. In 1980, at the age of 61, he met a woman, Patti, some 17 years his junior and they were to marry and gradually with her he began to address his demons for the first time. By chance a Japanese newspaper was found which featured a story about Lomax's torturer in chief - Takashi Nagase. This man was working as a tour guide in Kanchanaburi the town in Thailand which was the operational hub for the Burma Railway and which was frequently visited by tourists viewing what is left of the railway and the Bridge on the River Kwai. Lomax decides to visit Thailand and confront Nagase, a sensitive man who clearly had been wrestling with demons as well - if rather different ones.

The reconciliation between Lomax and Nagase forms the climax of the film. It is moving and would be seen as improbably sentimental were it fiction. But it is a true story. Neither man is judgemental in the end - Nagase's apology is heartfelt and Lomax's acceptance of it generous. The production values of this remarkable movie are high and the performances mostly very good. Colin Firth as Lomax is believable and Jeremy Irvine as the young Lomax equally so. Nicole Kidman as Patti doesn't look quite right - she is just too beautiful and slightly plastic looking, though her portrayal is sympathetic. The scenes in the Prisoner of War camp and on the railway construction site are convincingly harrowing.

Can we ever know what it was like to have been a captive on the Burma railway unless we were there? One of the themes of the film is how difficult it was for the returned soldiers to talk about their experience. I know this personally from first hand because my own father was a prisoner with Eric Lomax. They were both captured at Singapore, both young officers and both to be sent to work on the railway. Indeed the key event in the camp in the film rings especially true - this is when the officers put together a clandestine radio to listen to short wave broadcasts from London of news about the war. My father, like Lomax, was part of a radio team - he was the guardian of the headphone which, he told me, he hid in a hollowed out part of his shoe. I don't think that it was actually Lomax's radio - although it could have been. Whether my father was beaten and tortured as Lomax was I do not know - he never talked about it - and it's now sadly twenty years too late to ask him.

There are many lessons to be learnt from Eric Lomax's story and from this fine film. Perhaps the most important is that it can be part of our human nature to forgive. If Eric Lomax could forgive Takashi Nagase then anything can be forgiven, at least if there is genuine contrition as there seems to have been from this Japanese man whose genuine suffering is also brought to an end by the reconciliation.
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The Tall Guy (1989)
3/10
A Curiosity of a movie in which Richard Curtis and Mel Smith are visibly learning their trade.
31 December 2013
Released in 1989 this is a "work in progress" movie for both writer Richard Curtis and Director Mel Smith. Both were to move on to much better things! That said there are weak signals of Curtis's talent later to be fully realised in "Four a Weddings and a Funeral", "Notting Hill" and "Love Actually". But a few good lines does not a coherent movie make and the plot is shallow and the characterisation sketchy at best. Jeff Goldblum's Dexter seems bewildered by everything - not least his subservient position to comic superstar Ron Anderson played with believable malevolence by Rowan Atkinson. Emma Thompson, then just 30, looks lovely and shows her developing talent as a comic actress. The best thing in the film by some way.

Mel Smith's direction drags a bit and it is only in the very funny mock musical "Elephant" - based improbably on the "Elephant Man" - that the film comes to life. The musical is a chance for Smith to satirise the musical genre of the time with references to Les Miserables and especially to the Lloyd-Webber songbook. A Sarah Brightman lookalike does a number straight out of "Phantom" and it's very funny.

The film is quite daring with an explicit sex scene between Thompson and Goldblum that is so energetic that they destroy the former's bedroom, The relationship between the two is a forerunner of Curtis's boy/girl romances in later movies. Always a slip or three between cup and lip!

This is not a great film nor even a very good one. It is worth study as an exercise in how Richard Curtis's talent was first applied in a movie rather than television for which he was previously known (especially for Blackadder).
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About Time (I) (2013)
4/10
Return to Curtisland - with mixed results
24 September 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Those of us who are partial to "Curtisland" have had to wait ten years for the next instalment – "Love Actually" (2003) was the last film in the genre. Curtisland is that corner of Middle England inhabited (mostly) by twenty-something upper-middle class people who live somewhat unreal lives mostly as a member of a group of bright (mostly) attractive (usually) louche (sometimes) and funny (consciously or unconsciously) friends. It first appeared in the 1994 hit film "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and again in "Notting Hill" (1999) and "Love Actually". It also featured strongly in "Bridget Jones Diary" (2001) and its successor Bridget Jones – The Edge of Reason (2004).

The films of Curtisland are entertainment and often make us laugh out loud – at least the first three did. The main accusation thrown at Curtis is that the films are sentimental. Sentimentality is a pretty subjective concept. The American author Mitch Albom said "Critics have a problem with sentimentality. Readers do not. I write for readers." I don't know whether Richard Curtis would agree with this but I suspect that he might! And with Graham Greene who said that "Sentimentality – that's what we call the sentiment we don't share."

Which brings me to "About Time". Yes it is an extremely sentimental film but the RomCom bit is actually fairly unsentimental and rather good. Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) , a ginger-headed Brit, falls for Mary (Rachel McAdams) , a seriously pretty American who falls for him. They get it together and get married and have babies. That to do this Tim has to use a facility to travel back in time (he gets in a dark cupboard and clenches his fists to do this) to earlier moments in his own life is endearing and allows for some amusingly restructured moments. Not least when he travels back to rescue Mary from a jerk of a boyfriend by ensuring that they don't even meet! The meeting, falling in love, marriage and baby-making of Tim and Mary happens fairly quickly – in a two hour film it occupies most of the first half hour and not much more. The film is a paean to parenthood. There are two equally sentimental aspects to this. The first is the relationship between Tim and his father (Bill Nighy). The second is the baby-making and delights of parenting that Tim and Mary share. Nighy, as ever, plays himself very well. He's the sort of father who doesn't effuse with touchy-feelyness. But gradually as the film progresses and as he brushes, losingly, with mortality he feels the need to tell his son he loves him (etc. etc.). Poor old Mum (nicely played by an under-used Lindsay Duncan) doesn't get much of a look in.

But what of the parenting of Tim and Mary? This takes up a lot of screen time. Here they really do run the gamut of emotions from A to B. I cannot recall a film I've seen with so much gratuitous baby business in them. Now I must reveal a bias here. Baby stuff is a sentiment I certainly don't share. No doubt others in the packed cinemas that are watching "About Time" around the world will not agree with me and Curtis is being very clever in giving this sentiment a free run. If we combine the Father/Son story and the Baby-making story together under the general "paean to parenthood theme" this is, as I say, what most of the film is about. And if that's your thing you'll no doubt love it. I rather sank in my seat as it went on.

Far better for me was the theme illustrated by some time travel moments of living as fully as possible every day. Tim sums it up: "I try to live every day as if it were the final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life," There is one excellent sequence when Tim goes through a day without laughing or smiling much. Too busy to notice as individuals the people around him. Then he decides to reprise the day with time travel and this time he makes an effort to relate.

Surrounding the main characters in Curtisland there are always secondary characters who bumble through the film – often making one major comic turn along the way. In "About Time" there is Tim's batty sister (as in Notting Hill) Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) who is rather more than batty actually and nearly dies as a result of a drunken car crash at one point. She is rescued by Tim and Mary because she is lovable really and just needs a good man, rather than a rat, to save her. The good man is another member of the Ginger Tribe (Tim is Ginger) Jay (Will Merrick) and in the end they have settled down together and they have a baby. No surprise there then! Then there is the role usually played by Rowan Atkinson of the strange eccentric. Tom Hollander got the part of the foul-mouthed boozy playwright Harry. I thought that this was a very funny portrayal – a man so unpleasant you feel he must have graduated with a PhD in nastiness.

This is a two-hour film and is I would suggest at least half-an-hour too long. The story of the accident to Kit Kat just goes on and on – that's the trouble with time travel life tends to repeat itself. There are also some plot inconsistencies and tricks which make little sense. Would I recommend it – perhaps not if you aren't into babies and slushy father/son scenes. On the other hand Rachel McAdams is absolutely lovely as well as being a very good actor.

If you think that you might "share the sentiment" then go along to "About Time". If you think that you might not - but you go anyway – you might need to shut your eyes a bit at times!
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Mary and Martha (2013 TV Movie)
8/10
Brilliant and moving story - designed to wake us all up !
27 June 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Richard Curtis has a great track record of writing amusing, often hilarious films which all have some sort of hidden message. "Four Weddings and a Funeral" was ultimately about the value of tolerance. "Notting Hill" about how deep down, however famous we might be, we are ultimately human and vulnerable. "Love Actually" was about the power and risks and torments and delights of love. Curtis's lightness of touch has always belied an inner seriousness.

"Mary and Martha" is a much more serious film (albeit with some lighter moments) about two women brought together by tragedy - the losses of their sons to Malaria. They are utterly different. They differ by age, nationality, background, lifestyle - everything. And yet they find a common cause in their campaign to get more funding from the West, specifically the US, to fight the scourge of malaria in Africa.

There is an element of documentary about the film - it certainly aims to inform us about the disease the assumption being (rightly in my case) that we are unaware (A) How much of a problem it is and (B)That something CAN be done about it.

But notwithstanding the educational element of the movie the story line is strong and believable. We see the waste of two young western lives contrasted with the waste on a massive scale as thousands of children fall to Malaria every day. And all for the want of a net to put over their beds and drugs to treat them.

Mary and Martha prick the consciences of American legislators by delivering a powerful and emotional message to a Congressional committee. The story is empowering because it says if we have the determination to succeed then minds really can be changed if the cause is just.
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8/10
How friends and love can conquer your fears.
14 February 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Twenty years on – and "Frankie and Johnny" has arguably improved with age. This is because it deals with the rawest human emotions and vulnerabilities and shows that when life is tough the need for community is greatest. Even if, maybe especially if, the members of that community are as dysfunctional and scarred as we are. For many of the characters in this movie life has been very tough indeed. The restaurant where Johnny gets a job, and where Frankie works, is at the centre of the lives of many of its regulars. It does not have "Community Centre" on a sign above the door – but this is, in effect, what it is. The tolerant proprietor, Nick, sympathetically portrayed by Hector Elizondo, has built that community and he is as protective of his customers as he is of his staff. Nick is a Greek-American and it is subtly suggested that the customers and employees at his little restaurant are a sort of extended Greek family - although in fact they are as ethnically diverse as New York can be.

"Frankie and Johnny" is above all about loneliness. Frankie has a real family – we see them at the beginning at a christening – but it is clear that they have their own lives and that Frankie, partly out of choice, is not really part of that world. As the film develops we start to realise that Frankie's introspection and the barriers she erects around herself are attributable to a couple of failed relationships in the past. In one her partner left her for her best friend and in the other she was physically abused to the extent that she cannot have children. Johnny is equally damaged. We see him released from prison but it is not until quite late in the film that it is revealed that his crime, whilst serious, was a one-off fraud and that he is no serial offender. In prison he learnt to cook and that is now more than just a job to him – it has become a passion. Johnny was married but his wife left him and took their two children into a new relationship. There is a brief poignant vignette when Johnny watches his children with their mother and new "father" in an American dream suburban family scene – complete with white picket fence. He leaves without revealing his presence.

From early in the movie it is clear that Frankie and Johnny are made for each other. Despite the wounds they carry (actual physical wounds to her head in Frankie's case) they are good caring people – albeit that like Nick they do this without wearing a "Social Worker" badge. Frankie has a moving relationship with a Gay neighbour, Tim (Nathan Lane) that manages to avoid being patronising or clichéd. Similarly her bonding with her fellow workers is natural and important to them all – not least Cora the archetypal strong, no-nonsense New York woman who, deep down, is as lonely as she is. Like all the characters Cora is deeper than, and different to, her veneer. When a woman heavily pregnant with twins comes to the restaurant she touches her belly and says "People think I'm a tough b*tch, but it ain't true. Sh*t like this chokes me up." That Frankie and Johnny will eventually end up happily together seems obvious form the start, but that doesn't always happen in the movies does it? Along the way they battle, largely out of fear on Frankie's side. Johnny ardour is declared early on and we don't doubt that it is genuine. Frankie is more circumspect – unsurprisingly given the extent that she has been damaged by her last relationships. So whilst the romance is strong a happy ending is not certain and when it happens we are grateful because it is uplifting to think that even if the barriers are high they can sometimes be removed in the interests of true love.

The casting of Frankie and Johnny is very good and all the minor characters, however crazy they may be are utterly credible because they are so well played. As for the leads both Pacino and Pfeiffer give sensitive and credible performances although both of them are so devastatingly good looking that they do seem a bit out of place amongst the ordinary New Yorkers who are very "West Side" in appearance rather than Upper East. Not many of them shop on Fifth Avenue whereas Frankie and Johnny do look a bit like people who habitually do this, except on dress-down day. Nevertheless although they are younger and lovelier than the characters in the original stage play ("Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune") this works fine and doesn't detract from the heart and the humanity of the story.

A year or so after Frankie and Johnny was released the long running TV series Friends premiered. One of the central characters in Friends was, of course, Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston) who was initially a waitress in a Coffee House with a history of complex and damaging relationships behind her. Rachel Green is not Frankie – but there is a strong parallel not least because it is "friends" in both cases who provide the support when it's needed. Frankie says at one point "I'm afraid. I'm afraid to be alone, I'm afraid not to be alone. I'm afraid of what I am, what I'm not, what I might become, what I might never become. I don't want to stay at my job for the rest of my life but I'm afraid to leave. And I'm just tired, you know, I'm just so tired of being afraid". The message of Frankie and Johnny is that friends can reduce that fear. Love can take it away.
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Downton Abbey (2010–2015)
3/10
Over-rated Soap with little depth and preposterous plot lines
28 December 2011
Back in the 1980s Granada made two long drama serials at almost the same time. One was "Brideshead Revisited" based on Evelyn Waugh's novel and the other was "Jewel in the Crown" – the dramatisation of Paul Scott's extraordinary "Raj Quartet". Both these series were masterpieces and if you watch them today you will find they have stood well the test of time. The drama tradition of Granada, of some of the other commercial companies and, of course, of the BBC is strong and is something of a jewel in the crown of British television. It is also an important source of revenue, not least in the United States, where posh British TV has a small but well-heeled following. This brings me to "Downton Abbey", superficially in the great tradition and with obvious links also to the very successful and ground-breaking "Forsyte Saga" and "Upstairs Downstairs" of the 1960s and 1970s. Downton is set in the second and third decades of the twentieth century and we have moved from Edwardian complacency and excesses through the horrors of the Great War to the early 1920s. As with "Upstairs Downstairs" we see life, and to an extent history, through the eyes of the aristocracy and simultaneously from the perspective of those in the Servants' Hall.

Over the 16 episodes that have so far been transmitted, spanning the years 1912-1920, the stories are reminiscent of a Soap like "Eastenders" or "Coronation Street" in that there are episode ending cliff-hangers and improbably extreme story developments. Every historic event from the sinking of the Titanic through women's suffrage, the Irish independence movement, the Battle of the Somme, the post-war Flu epidemic and many others is a trigger for something to happen in the plot. In addition we have adultery, murder, homosexuality, alcoholism, illness and recovery or death, the black market, inter-class affairs and marriage, and most of the seven deadly sins in sharp relief. The stories are often signalled rather obviously and it is an amusing parlour game to predict what will happen next - as with any soap. Taken as a whole the story is totally preposterous and the "issues" are not handled with any subtlety at all – there is none of the restraint of a Galsworthy, a Waugh or a Scott.

The starting point for Downton Abbey was in the creative mind of the writer Julian Fellowes and its main inspiration was clearly that author's film script for "Gosford Park" - which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2002. But whereas this film lasts a couple of hours and was tightly directed by Robert Altman Downton goes on for 20 – and running! The characters are largely pastiches of real people. Maggie Smith, for example, is wonderful as the Dowager a figure straight out of Pantomime - Dame Maggie overtly seeks hisses from the stalls. Fine actors like Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton and Dan Stevens struggle with a script that is always close to parody and sometimes spills over into farce. Indeed at times there is a slight sense that they know what they are being asked to say, or the absurd plot twist in which they are expected to participate, has moved into lampoon territory and that Mel Brooks or the Directors of "Airplane" or "Something about Mary" are in charge.

The great strength of Brideshead Revisited, Jewel in the Crown and the Forsyte Saga is that the stories had passed the tough test of being seen as credible in the original novel format. They were great books before they became great television. The original screenplay of "Downton Abbey" has had none of the checks and balances that apply to the written word. And because the medium is only to be visual, and in a number of time-limited episodes, it is presumed that there is a need to provide colourful action rather than attempt any true characterisation. We are supposed to like the Earl of Grantham because he is a benevolent toff – fragile but caring with a true sense of noblesse oblige. But compare his character, which is utterly superficially sketched, with the way that Evelyn Waugh gradually introduces Lord Marchmain in Brideshead - we feel we know the Marquess long before we meet him. The same superficiality applies to Downton's "below stairs" characters most of whom are stereotypes we have met frequently before.

The visual impact of "Downton Abbey" is strong and in this area the production values are high. The sets, both in the studio and on location, are beautifully designed and the costumes and other artifacts are good and look authentic. There is a strange paradox here which I suspect has led some to assume that because it looks good then it is good - perhaps ignoring the often wooden acting and sloppy direction. Downton's viewing figures are good and this is no doubt reflected directly in the income received from advertisers and the revenue from the sale of overseas rights and DVDs etc. - it is evidently a profitable venture. So a legitimate response to those critics who deplore the triviality of the series would be to never mind the quality and weigh the receipts.

There is nothing really wrong with "Downton Abbey" if you see it for what it is – a Soap of fleeting interest with can pass the time on an autumnal evening. However Downton does take itself quite seriously at times and some of the acting is so pompously self-important that it can only be seen as light comedy, which it isn't meant to be, or over-written moralising trash - which at times it comes dangerously close to being.
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Archipelago (2010)
6/10
Little Ado about Nothing
22 June 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Joanna Hogg's first film as director, the well-received "Unrelated", suggested that a very special talent indeed had arrived on the scene. In that film Ms Hogg eschewed a complex plot in favour of a style which was fiercely realistic and at times claustrophobically close to real life. There were a few lively plot developments but it was generally an understated film and the better for that. In Archipelago Ms Hogg takes the realism a tad further and has created an even more plot-less story – really nothing happens at all in nearly two hours! We are spying on a middle class English family, as in "Unrelated", as they take a holiday and struggle rather to communicate with one another. As in her first film the director shows us people who are related to one another but who don't really "relate". The Leighton family have rented a house in Trego one of the Scilly Islands - it is autumn and the weather is bleak and the island seems deserted. For a moment I thought that we might be in "thriller" territory and that the family might be made captive and a ransom would be demanded from the absent father. Nothing so obvious! Next I sensed that there might be a bit of heavy romance as the pretty cook Rose (Amy Lloyd) clearly fancies the young man Edward (Tom Hiddleston) – but she waits in vain for a move from him. In a fairly unpleasant family Edward is the most sympathetic and his uncertain decision to give up a City job and go to Africa for a year suggests a liberal conscience – an altruism that his unpleasant mother Patricia (Kate Fahy) and equally unpleasant sister Cynthia (Lydia Leonard) clearly think is mad.

There are many pointers to this being a family spoilt by wealth and privilege. Edward's girlfriend Chloe wasn't allowed to join him on the holiday because she is "not family, just someone you're attached to" – an excruciatingly snobbish remark. Similarly Rose, the cook, is not allowed to dine with the family despite Edward's request that she be treated as an equal. A phoney middle class affection for things arty is fulfilled by the presence of Christopher (Christopher Baker) who teaches the mother and daughter painting. Again there is a master/servant relationship going on here – albeit one less pronounced than that of Rose. And the most dramatic scene takes place in an almost empty restaurant where Patricia complains about the food and is treated with polite contempt by the summonsed chef who explains that Guinea Fowl should be served underdone.

The Leighton family live in a sad world with little joy but many perceived burdens. The holiday is not exactly a disaster - what did they expect from Trego in November? But you wonder what, if anything, any character gets out of it. It is pointless. As a movie it is so understated and so intense that you ache at times for something to happen and constantly try and work out what that something might be. The answer, by the end, is nothing! Put like this the film sounds like one of those modern pieces of music where you wait in vain for a melody that you can hum after the concert. The problem with holding a mirror up to life is that when the mirror reflects back nothing much you rather struggle to explain what the point is. In Joanna Hogg's two films there has been barely a character that you would allow through the front door of your house – maybe Rose in this one but she is really only the least unconvivial. The cinematography is excellent. The location is bleakly beautiful. The performances are good. And yet the overall feeling for this reviewer was one of disappointment. In short I needed a bit more than this to provoke me into to thinking about life, love and the pursuit of happiness.
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Invictus (2009)
8/10
Sport as a metaphor for life on the largest of stages
1 April 2011
Whatever the problems of modern day South Africa, and there are plenty, the progress that the country has made in the twenty years since Nelson Mandela was released is pretty astonishing. A once pariah nation has taken its rightful place in the community of Nations - not least in sport with its hosting of the three main World Cup tournaments - Rugby, Cricket and Football. The first of these, the Rugby World Cup in 1995, was an act of faith on the part of the international Rugby Union authorities - it could have gone horribly wrong. "Invictus" shows why it didn't - from an organisational and security aspect and, more parochially, from the perspective of the new "Rainbow Nation" itself.

The premise of the film is that the event was a success because of two men - Mandela himself and the South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar. The former extended the hand of friendship to his once bitter enemies in the rugby mad Afrikaner community. The latter, an Afrikaner himself, not only grabbed his President's offered hand but fought the institutionalised prejudice of his family, his team and his people to argue for the maximum co-operation with their country's first and greatest black leader. Mandela had not only his former jailers to deal with - he also had to persuade his own African people that retribution against the Afrikaners would be counter-productive. For example and well portrayed in the film, he had to convince them that it would be right to continue with the Springbok name and colours for the South African rugby team.

Rugby, as shown in the movie, was a metaphor for the challenge South Africa faced post Apartheid. The game in the republic was exclusively white, elitist and predominantly Afrikaner. It was in many ways a symbol for oppression and separate development - the blacks had soccer on rough ground in the townships. The whites had rugby on manicured grass in great stadia in the cities. Rugby was played behind well-guarded gates of the elite schools. Soccer was played on any old piece of dirt. If the black majority was aware of rugby at all it was to cheer on whoever the Springboks were playing - better England than the hated racists of Afrikanerdom. Nelson Mandela knew that if he was to succeed with the highly sceptical white community post democracy, a community where he was still to many a "terrorist", then he needed an ally. This is where Pienaar came in.

Francois Pienaar had inherited, as Captain, a South African rugby team that was low on confidence and despite being the hosts was seen as having little chance in the 1995 World Cup. The media was highly sceptical of the team's prospects and the team itself was struggling to come to terms with the new world of South Africa. When asked to do some coaching in a township they dismissed it as a joke - and were openly contemptuous of the idea that the blacks could even play the game. Pienaar knew that the motor for change could be the charismatic President and Mandela genuinely moved him with his decency and lack of rancour about the past. Asked about his philosophy of leadership Pienaar said that it was "by example" - on and off the field. Rather a Mandelan philosophy as well. This approach combined with some astute selections, including Chester Williams, the first black Springbok, meant that South Africa entered the tournament with a fighting chance. A win over favoured Australia in the opening match set the tone and the Springboks made it to the Final. Here they faced a New Zealand team who had eased effortlessly to the Final - not least because they had the awesome giant try-machine Jonah Lomu in their ranks.

The match sequences in "Invictus" are arguably the best ever seen in a movie about sport. Even the most knowledgeable rugby aficionado will find nothing to quarrel with about the portrayal of the matches - and the Final, which goes on for five minutes or more, is wonderfully portrayed. It was one of those matches where afterwards the cliché "You couldn't make it up" was frequently used. Even though we know the result the tension is extraordinary and the moment when President Mandela appears in a Springbok shirt before the match is surely an iconic moment in history - and not just rugby history. South Africa's win with a drop goal in extra time seems now to be pre-ordained. But that is certainly not how it felt at the time! Whether there is some poetic licence in "Invictus" I don't know - perhaps there is. But it has an authentic feel to it throughout from the portrayal of the interpersonal challenges that Mandela and Pienaar faced and overcame through to the match sequences it has the ring of truth about it. It is an uplifting film in every way with truly remarkable performances from Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as Pienaar. These two Americans, along with Director Clint Eastwood, might not know much about rugby, but they clearly knew someone who does. And they certainly know a great story when they see one - and they tell it with sensitivity, feeling and drama.
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5/10
The fall from grace and redemption of a South African sporting hero.
19 January 2011
"Hansie" is a curious film. It was produced and inspired by a team, including the subject's brother Frans, who seemed to have two motives. First posthumously to rehabilitate Hansie Cronje the fallen idol of South African cricket. Second to suggest that through Christian belief in action, "choosing life", it is possible for even the most fallen of sinners to get absolution. This makes it sound extremely slanted and precious and likely only to be of interest to those who, like Cronje, have been "born again". In fact it is a much better film that this outline indicates and I would argue that it is worth viewing by anyone who has an interest in Cronje and cricket but also in the complexities of South Africa society and human character.

The subtitle of the film is "A True Story" and it certainly takes and explains Hansie Cronje's side of the story - the personal explanation for his actions that he gave to the King Commission which investigated the match fixing allegations on behalf of the South Africa government. So the film is not investigative journalism and no new material facts about the scandal emerge. What the film does is paint in the personal issues surrounding the story – in particular Cronje's relationship with his teammates, his family and his friends. And there is a very strong message that the child is father of the man – we visit Cronje's school, Grey College, Bloemfontein, quite a lot both in flashback and in the aftermath of Cronje's death. The strict Afrikaner moral code taught by this school is contrasted with Cronje, the sinner, who falls from grace. For those at Grey, Cronje is the "Prodigal Son" and this bible story is a leitmotif of the film.

"Hansie" is clearly a sincere act of attempted redemption of Cronje's reputation by Hansie Cronje's widow, brother and others close to him. This is not to say that it ducks the tough issues – how could it as they are very much in the public domain following Cronje's confession and evidence to the investigators? It does not try to exculpate Cronje's behaviour – his greed, hubris and arrogance come across albeit tempered by strong suggestions that he was a troubled soul. The truth, of course, is that Cronje had absolutely no reason to take money from the shady world of the illegal bookmaker and to then inevitably get sucked into that world. By South African standards he was extremely well off with a lovely home, substantial income and hero status. Even after his fall from grace and death he was chosen at number 11 in the list of 100 Greatest South Africans! Is "Hansie" an inspiring story? Not to me it isn't. That some religions allow and even encourage those who have fallen to be redeemed is fine I suppose. But the barely disguised contention of the film that this rebirth (including a baptism scene) somehow eradicates the original crime is surely wrong. The choice of "Life", which must be linked to an affirmation of faith, seems a bit of a cop out. It is almost as if a "sinner who repenteth" is in some way morally superior to someone who hasn't sinned at all – or hasn't been found out!

The production values of this fairly low budget film are good – even the cricket scenes, whilst far from authentic, are to an acceptable standard – as is the location shooting in India and South Africa. The performances are good as well – Frank Rautenbach makes a convincing Cronje, the American Sarah Thompson is believable as Cronje's wife Bertha and Nick Lorentz is excellent as South Africa's coach Bob Woolmer. So "Hansie – A True Story" is a pretty good film – so far as it goes! But was I convinced that this was the whole truth about illegal betting, match fixing and the involvement of Hansie Cronje and other South Africans in this sordid business? I'm afraid not!
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9/10
Helping Bertie rule - how unconventional therapy helped a King in need.
12 January 2011
Warning: Spoilers
Some movies directly or indirectly try to suggest lessons from that past relevant for us today. Films set in times of war are particularly frequently meant to say to us "Never Again" – although we rarely take any notice. Did Schindler's List stop genocide? No. Did "Oh What a Lovely War" make Generals more sensitive to the privations of soldiers on the front? No. Did "The Last King of Scotland" make us all ensure that no more mad tyrants rule African countries? No again. These are all fine films but if they had objectives beyond that of telling a rattling good story I would suggest that these objectives were not met. So when one commentator suggested that "The Kings Speech" is a "…hymn to the royal ideal. An insidious anthem to the notion that nobility of birth and spirit are usually, if not always, linked". The charge that "The Kings Speech" is some sort of monarchist tract is frankly nonsense. Indeed it is at least arguable that the opposite is the case. It shows how close we were in a time of unimaginable national stress of having as a monarch a man of no moral principles, a dysfunctional personality and objectionable political views and social attitudes. Wallis Simpson saved us from that disaster and she and the equally hideous Duke of Windsor troubled us no more once brother Bertie reluctantly took the throne as King George VI. That's the problem with the hereditary principle – for every good egg like George VI or Elizabeth II there are madmen like George III or twits like Edward VIII.

"The King's Speech" is about Bertie (Colin Firth) and in particular about the Achilles heel that nearly made him unfit to rule. The Duke of York, as he was as the film opens, was the "spare" that King George V and Queen Mary produced in case there was a problem with the "heir" (the Prince of Wales). He faffed around for a while getting married and having a couple of children and rather ineffectively standing in for the monarch from time to time. At the close of the Wembley exhibition in 1925 his serious stammering speech impediment was revealed to all and the realisation dawned that any sort of public speaking, especially on the new medium of the "Wireless", would be torture for him. Long before his accession in 1936 Bertie and in particular his sparky, confident and determined wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) tried to find a way of curing the Duke's stammer. A series of quacks and incompetents did not help him at all before the Duchess discovered the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue was unconventional in his approach demanding informality in address ("Lionel" and "Bertie") and also that the treatment took place in his Harley Street rooms rather that the Duke's palace.

It took a while for Logue's approach to work and for him to break down the barriers of class, position and nationality that divided him from the Duke. The Duke resisted hard at times and was clearly shocked at the Australian's informality and lack of deference. But gradually he became to see that the approach was working, that Logue was sincere and talented and that the possibility for him to live a normal public life in service if his country was emerging. The cataclysm of the abdication enhanced the urgency for him to be able to speak clearly, and live, to his people as King. The approach of War made this all the more imperative. Logue became King George's right hand, helped him hands on with his addresses to the nation – especially at the declaration of War in September 1939.

"The Kings Speech" is a true story. It is not a paean to monarchy but simply a portrait of a man at a moment in time who was bereft because he could not do a simple thing that almost everyone else could do - put a series of sentences together without stammering. And it mattered. It is also a portrait of a brilliant, engaging and strong-minded man, Lionel Logue, who had the talent and the means to make a difference. The key role of Queen Elizabeth in Bonham Carter's slightly mischievous portrayal is also clear – although whether the (later) Queen Mother was then quite as sexy as she is portrayed I'm not sure! The remainder of the cast is also outstanding – including lovely cameos from Timothy Spall as Churchill and Derek Jacobi as the censorious Archbishop Lang. But this is, above all, Colin Firth's film. We knew from "A Single Man" that Firth was a great deal more than a pretty face and with this performance he builds on the solid foundations of that film to create a moving, sensitive and utterly believable King in need. This is a portrait of a man at a moment in time dealt a hand which he has to play in the national interest. He is not, as some have suggested, defending the institution of the monarchy which despite the venality of his ghastly brother was not really in threat. Britain had been distracted over the abdication affair. There had also been the threat of Oswald Mosley's fascists – the battle of Cable Steer was only a couple of months before Bertie's accession as King. Times were unimaginably difficult and in a constitutional monarchy it was not the King's job to govern – but he could, and did, make a difference. This wonderful film shows how and why.
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8/10
Cometh the Hour Cometh the Women
4 November 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Henry Ford once said that "History is more or less bunk". But to be fair to the old curmudgeon he also said that "…the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today." Made in Dagenham is certainly about the making of history - although whether Ford's successors at the automobile giant that bears his name would wish to be reminded about the events of 1968 is another matter. In short the story is about how a group of less than 200 women workers at Ford's huge Dagenham plant organised industrial action in pursuit of their goal for equality of treatment with the 40,000 men employed there. In particular they wanted an acknowledgement that the work that they did sewing seat covers was at least "semi-skilled" – a category which brought with it higher wages than the "unskilled" category into which Ford's management had reassigned it. This demand soon escalated into a more general call to stop the discrimination against women which saw them paid significantly less than men doing equivalently categorised work.

Nigel Cole's movie accurately depicts the key events of the Dagenham girls' (as they were called) protest but focuses and fictionalises the story to give it pace. The main character, Rita O'Grady superbly played by Sally Hawkins, is an amalgam of a number of the women who were prime movers in the action. Social change which comes from the bottom up, as it so often does, needs charismatic and determined characters to drive it - and Rita is certainly that. But the climate also has to be right and in that respect the protest happened at the right time. In 1968 there was a Labour Government with a decent majority in power and the newly appointed Secretary of State for Employment was the feminist firebrand Barbara Castle. 1968 was also a year in which protests and activism reached their post war apogee – the "Prague Spring", Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War protests in the United States, student protest and sit-ins in London, Paris, Berlin, and around the world. The extent to which the climate of protest affected the Dagenham strikers is not covered in the film – but its true to say that these were watershed times and conventional wisdoms and orders were being challenged everywhere.

The 1960s was the decade when women began to assert their rights in the western world for the first time since the suffrage movement and although on the face of it the revolt of less than a couple of hundred women in Dagenham may seem insignificant in the context of other events of the times in fact it was the spur that was quite rapidly to lead to legislation for equal rights in the United Kingdom (1970) and then around the world. The momentum for change caught the business world unaware and unprepared. One of the most revealing scenes in Made in Dagenham is when Ford sends one of their senior managers over from Detroit to quell the rebellion. His language and demeanor pours fuel on the flames and strengthens the resolve not only of the protesters but also of Barbara Castle whom he threatens that Ford might withdraw from production in the UK entirely. Despite Prime Minster Harold Wilson's (an amusing cameo by John Sessions) wishes not to upset Ford - "I've enough problems with America at the moment" – Castle supports the Dagenham women and helps negotiate a settlement which is entirely in their favour.

Made in Dagenham gets right not just the employment iniquities of the 1960s – including a brilliant demolition of the disingenuous and complacent union convener at the factory – but also the social mores of the times. Women are expected by their menfolk to know their place – not just the working class working women of Ford but also the wife of the Plant Director Lisa Hopkins (nicely played by Rosamund Pike) who despite her Cambridge degree and intellect is expected to be just a pretty appendage to her husband. She teams up with Rita to lend her both support and a smart red Biba dress for her meeting with Barbara Castle. The only man who comes out of the story with any integrity intact is Albert, a Supervisor at the plant beautifully played by Bob Hoskins in his best role for years. The rest of the male characters are utterly bewildered by the idea of change – including Castle's two senior civil servants who are classic "Yes Minister" officials and who Castle brushes contemptuously out of her way.

Made in Dagenham is history – and the historical context is 100% authentic from the cars to the shops to the costumes – and above all the attitudes. But it would be dangerous and wrong to assume that the victory that the Dagenham women won was the end of the struggle – either for women or for others who are discriminated against. The power of orthodoxy is arguably as strong today as it was in 1968 – conservative attitudes prevail and in some respects have been strengthened by recent events. There is an unwillingness, at times, to challenge the employment practices of business - from bankers' bonuses to underfunded pension schemes and to the apparent preparedness of those in power to accept that it doesn't matter if British businesses (even football clubs!) are taken over by absentee foreign owners. In 1968 it was "cometh the hour cometh the woman" – in 2010 perhaps we need more of the same.
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The Pipe (2010)
8/10
Local heroes take on corporate giants in a remote part of Ireland
25 October 2010
Risteard Ó Domhnaill's documentary film about the Corrib Natural Gas project in County Mayo Ireland, The Pipe, has been quite a long time in the making - but the wait has been worthwhile. This is a moving, unsentimental and compelling story well told and, particularly, well edited (by Nigel O'Regan) of how ordinary people in a remote community fought with a multinational company, Shell, to protect their community and their livelihoods. The public release of The Pipe is timely in the light of BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico because, as with BP, the evidence is clear that Shell's initial handling of Corrib showed a comprehensive failure to match the rhetoric of their public statements with the reality of their actions. BP's "green" positioning was shown to be a chimera as the world greatest environmental disaster unfolded in all of its horror – and Shell's stated commitment to Sustainable Development has been shown in The Pipe to be no less of a veneer.

Shell's self-proclaimed adoption of the principles of Sustainable Development goes back quite a long way – I recall, as a then Shell employee in the Middle East, a visit from Managing Director Jeroen van der Veer sometime in the late 1990s during which he pitched this commitment to us. Sustainable Development was, he said, about "integrating the economic, environmental and societal aspects of Shell's business to achieve sustained financial success, safeguard the environment and develop our reputation as partner and provider of first choice for all our stakeholders." The metaphor he used was that of a three-legged stool with a leg each for economic, environmental and societal concerns. Take one away and the stool falls over.

It is quite clear that from the start it was economic considerations that drove the Corrib Gas project and that whilst environmental protection was,nominally at least, important the societal aspects were at best handled in a patronising way and at worst ignored. There was certainly no equivalence between the three legs of Corrib's stool. In The Pipe Willie Corduff describes the first people that Shell sent to Rossport as being "Rude people who didn't care" and who stumbled arrogantly about his land (he is a farmer) in suits and "told us what they were going to do". This was Shell's fatal error. The community in and around the tiny fishing village of Rossport have chosen a way of life which intentionally keeps them remote from not just the rest of Ireland but even the rest of County Mayo. The idea that their lifestyle would be under threat from a large scale project which included the construction of a huge Processing plant (refinery) near the tiny townland of Bellanaboy was anathema to them. Even more threatening was the proposed burial of a pipeline around nine kilometres in length from the shoreline to the processing plant.

The Pipe, as the name suggests, is substantially about the planned raw gas onshore pipeline - but not exclusively so. One of the stars of the film is Pat O'Donnell, a local fisherman, who decided to challenge the right of Shell to commence offshore pipe laying which, he alleged, was damaging his property – an area in the bay where he lays crab pots. O'Donnell, in his tiny fishing vessel, sails close to the enormous pipelaying ship the Solitaire - this sequence, brilliantly captured in the film, is in many ways an allegory for the whole story. One man in a tiny ship which is his livelihood confronts a giant ship which is, in his mind anyway, is potentially threatening that livelihood. An unequal struggle - Goliath versus David. O'Donnell, Willie and Mary Corduff, Monika Muller, John Monaghan, Maura Harrington and the others who appear in the film ooze sincerity and frustration and at times raw anger – the gas is far from the only raw commodity around! The anger boils over from time to time as the protesters seem to divide into two camps – those who oppose the idea of an onshore facility completely and those who think that such a plant and connecting pipeline might be acceptable – but well away from Rossport. It is to the credit of the campaigners that they have been sanguine about revealing for all to see their occasional internal differences.

Not sanguine to reveal anything at all was Shell Ireland who declined to cooperate with Risteard O'Domhnaill's project. This means that the film is not balanced in that neither Shell's views nor those of successive Machiavellian Irish governments are aired. But from what I know of Corrib, having visited the area and written about it, The Pipe is an accurate representation of the views and the fears of most of those in the local community. The strong arm tactics of the Gardaí and of private sector security personnel are shown in sharp and shocking relief. And the gap between the developers and their acquiescent friends in high places in Dublin, on the one hand, and the local community on the other seems to be widening not narrowing. There are some pretty entrenched positions on both sides and few signs that there are processes underway that could narrow the gap – although the sequence where a visit was made to the European Parliament suggests one possible route for resolution.

The Pipe is at times a very visually attractive film and the aerial sequences at the beginning set the scene well – this really is a very beautiful part of the world and you cannot be surprised that those living there want to keep it just as it is. Human nature is very resilient and it is no exaggeration to say that those who have protested, have been to prison, have gone on hunger strike and who have explored every legal and other angle to achieve their objectives have undoubtedly raised the stakes for any corporation planning a similar major project in the future. For that they all deserve our thanks.
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A Single Man (2009)
8/10
A quiet, restrained and very deep film indeed
4 October 2010
Warning: Spoilers
When you discover an Author and are captivated by the first of his works you read it is quite likely that you will immediately want to explore the rest. That was certainly my experience with Christopher Isherwood. I read Goodbye to Berlin in my teens back in the early 1960s and soon I had worked my way through just about everything significant that Isherwood had written. It isn't actually a particularly large oeuvre – perhaps a dozen or so major works – but every one is entertaining, thought-provoking and tumbling with sincerity. For many the best of them all will be A Single Man - I remember its first publication in 1964 by which time a greater tolerance was being shown in Britain, post Lady Chatterley. But still openly gay literature was something of a novelty in our then still rather backward society – even James Baldwin's magnificent Giovanni's Room was a bit of an under-the-counter purchase! And the idea that a book like A Single Man could be filmed and shown on general release would not have been considered possible – certainly without what would have been utterly destructive censorship. In our more enlightened age these restrictions no longer apply and it is with great pleasure that we can enjoy such a skillful and honest realisation of Isherwood's work as in Tom Ford's fine movie.

The loss of a partner is a common theme in the cinema but I doubt that it has ever been more sympathetically portrayed than in A Single Man – the book and, now, the film. I would like to make reference to an equally moving account in a much less "Arty" but no less interesting film – Richard Curtis's Four Weddings and a Funeral. The Funeral in that film was that of the colourful Gareth – a gay man who died suddenly at the third of the film's weddings. At that funeral Charles (Hugh Grant) remarks "It's odd isn't it – all these years we've been single and proud of it, we never noticed that two of us were to all intents and purposes married all the time". And these words resonate with those of Matthew, Gareth's partner, who had touchingly quoted from WH Auden's "Stop the clocks" – a poem which mourns the loss of a partner. Gareth and Matthew and, in The Single Man George and Jim, had partnerships that were so close and so loving that the loss of the partner, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, was too much to bear. Or it was in George's case anyway.

A Single Man is a film about the response to grief. About how even the most educated and urbane of men, like Professor George Falconer, can quite literally find the loss of their life partner unbearable. The closeness of the relationship is illustrated in a few flashback scenes – most memorably one where the two men are sitting peacefully on a sofa and joshing a bit – as married couples do. They were one another's "North and South and East and West" and for George it is clear that, as Auden put it, "Nothing now can ever come to any good" – and so he decides to kill himself. In part this decision comes from his loneliness – a state from which neither his long standing friend Charley (Julianne Moore) nor a handsome and possible gay or bisexual student admirer Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) can rescue him. These are two strong characterisations and the main theme of the film, the search for love and the extreme distress when it is taken from you is played out in their characters as well. Charley's husband left him and while she has many "friends" she reveals that only George is a true one and someone she really cares about. Similarly young Kenny had a relationship with a very pretty fellow student Doris (Nicole Steinwedell) whose undeniable charms Tom Ford cleverly negates by showing her sullen in class and chain-smoking. Kenny has split with Doris and is perhaps seeking something more cerebral and satisfying with the stylish and classy George?

A Single Man is a quiet, restrained and very deep film indeed. It is about one key part of the human condition – our need for love and the way we manage it when it happens - and when it departs. It is a gay film as it was a gay book – but in a way that is incidental. George could be mourning the loss of a wife rather than a same sex lover – his response would have been the same – as Charley points out. To make it work sincerely Tom Ford had to get huge performances from his actors - most of all from Colin Firth who as George is on screen virtually the whole time. Firth is quite exceptional and his Oscar nomination and other awards were well deserved. He is utterly convincing – something he achieves by understating rather than exaggerating his performance. I also enjoyed immensely Nicolas Hoult's Kenny – a difficult role to pull off because in less skilled hands in could turn into a sentimental child rather than the sensitive young adult that Isherwood wrote about and Ford clearly wants in the role.
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