Em-meh

I went to the cinema by mistake yesterday; out on a blustery and rather chilly afternoon I became diverted on my way to Sainsbury’s and stopped in at the Odeon to see what was playing. At first it appeared to be wall-to-wall Sonic the Hedgehog but eventually the screen changed and lo! they were about to show Emma so I got me a ticket and I went in.

And?

Hm. The settings were great, though I don’t think they made the most of the detail; still the drawing-rooms and frontages, the landscaped gardens with ha-has and classical pediments, gave a good flavour of the period. But the contrast between this and the farm where Harriet Smith is destined to end up, is rather jarringly introduced with loud folk music, and the difference between Emma’s and Jane Fairfax’s piano playing rather too pointed. In fact the production was altogether rather blunt and obvious; the narrative was a little jerky and there was quite a bit of telling-not-showing. But my main beef was with the casting.

Anya Taylor-Joy was perfect as Emma but Mr Knightley was frankly wet and weedy, not at all the blunt, forceful figure of the novel. Gemma Whelan was not bad as Mrs Weston but didn’t get enough screen time and in any case was not up to the standard of Greta Scaachi in the Gwyneth Paltrow version.

I did not like Josh o’Connor as Mr Elton and Callum Turner was not at all my idea of Frank Churchill. I did quite enjoy Bill Nighy as the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse but the subtleties of the relationship between Emma and her sister and brother-in-law were quite lost in general bickering. There were also some completely un-Austinian moments where people shouted and banged things; where Emma drops her clothes on the floor and sits on the windowsill, knees to chest; and where – horrors! grown gentlemen actually weep! Poor Jane – I hear her turning in her grave.

There were some good moments, however; I enjoyed the visual effect of the parlour-boarder girls prancing around in unison and the comedy of Mr Woodhouse being surrounded by fire screens with only the top of his head visible. I also thought Miranda Hart much closer to the original Miss Bates than Sophie Hannah’s breathy hesitancy. But Jane Austen it wasn’t; give me the Gwyneth Paltrow version any day.

To sum up, it was enjoyable but a bit – well, meh.

Kirk out

Cinema Moth: 1917

Last night I went back in time to the First World War, to watch the absolutely stupendous 1917. I’m not a huge fan of war films, though I like stories of ordinary people caught up in war, such as Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War which was made into a series starring a very young Emma Thompson and Kenneth Brannagh (before they split up.) But the guns-and-poppies type of film, I’m not so keen on. But this is a whole other kettle of fish.

You probably know this already unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last few weeks, but the film is two hours, give or take, and it’s one shot. Just take that in for a moment: one shot. One. Shot.

The effect is stupendous. From the word go we are immersed in the trenches as the camera follows two young soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and the interestingly-visaged George MacKay) as they are sent on a mission into no-man’s-land. If it all sounds a bit Blackadder, it isn’t, neither is it Wilfrid Owen exactly, but an immersive experience as we follow the two through scrolls of barbed wire and dead tanks, round craters and over banks into the ghostly corpse-strewn landscape between the two fronts. They hole up in a barn for a while to escape fighter pilots overhead but when a plane is shot down it nearly ploughs into them. I won’t give the whole plot away except to say that as far as narrative technique goes it’s just about the most immersive film of its type I’ve ever seen; I spent half of it with my hand to my mouth. The action builds slowly, relentlessly to a climax and at the end of it I was as emotionally exhausted as the hero was physically spent. There are brief cameos from Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch but this film is all about the ordinary soldiers and their journey. There’s an interesting video here about why it had to be one shot.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch.

Kirk out

A Cinema Moth

https://lizardyoga.files.wordpress.com/2020/02/5d1e8-cinnabarmoth.jpg
image removed on request

When the kids were little we used to see a lot of these in the garden. They’re beautiful as moths but the caterpillars are not so nice; they live on ragwort and can strip a plant to a ragged stalk in a matter of hours. They’re a daytime insect and so are really butterflies rather than moths, but to me they look like a butterfly in evening dress so I dubbed them cinema moths. It amused us to think of them as figures in red gowns and black evening cloaks clustered around the entrance to the cinema.

Alas, I too used to be a species of cinema moth, especially when I lived in Spain where the flicks are cheap and plentiful. I’d sometimes go two or three times a week (though if you were seeing an English language film you’ve have to be careful to choose a VO – a subtitled version – rather than the dubbed films which were impossible to follow.) As I’ve mentioned before I once saw Almodovar in one of these cinemas.

Even before that, and before cinemas here got horribly expensive, I’d go once or twice a week. The cinema was basically your only chance to see a film until it (maybe) came on the telly years later. If you missed it you’d have to wait and see if it ‘came round’ again as popular films sometimes did, otherwise you’d had your chance.

But nowadays I’m a bit of a sad sack when it comes to cinema-going. True, I’ve seen ‘Sorry We Missed You’ and a couple of others recently but that’s about it. I really wanted to go and see 1917 last night but things got in the way and when OH said ‘we could go another day,’ I said sadly, ‘Yes. But things always get in the way.’ Which they do. Anyway, the plan is for me to go alone to the 5.15 perf so that I make sure it actually happens. I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile in a less exciting version of our evening we watched Dr Who (so-so, not one of the best episodes) and I continued with my box set of the stonking ‘Last Tango in Halifax.’

Kirk out

The Horror! The Humour!

Forget everything you’ve read up to now, because my entire life with all its preoccupations, hopes and fears, pales into insignificance since I’ve watched The Death of Stalin. I ‘d been meaning to see this when it came out but as with so many things it wasn’t being screened locally, so I’m happy it’s turned up on Netflix. I studied Russian history in the 1970’s when Communism (so-called, actually totalitarianism) was still in force and Gorbachev yet to come to power – and I was deeply impressed by the suffering of the Russian people. They seem to go out of the frying pan into the fire with each change of regime: first they had the Tsars who were awful, then they had the Communists who started off well but ended up even worse, then they had Perestroika which was good for a bit but which gave way to ‘democracy’ and now they’ve got Putin, who’s even worse than Trump.

The Death of Stalin, like history repeating itself, is not so much tragedy as farce, albeit a very black farce. The politburo could be any political elite anywhere at any time after the death of a brutal dictator with everyone rushing around plotting and trying to save their own skins, all too scared to be the first to admit that their glorious leader is dead. They even have trouble finding a doctor to certify death as all the doctors have been killed or exiled, and eventually they have to haul a load of medics out of a gulag and bring them in to the Kremlin to examine the ‘patient’. The purges are ever-present in the background of this story, as is the monstrous figure of Beria played utterly stunningly by Simon Russell Beale (he has a huge reputation on stage but I’ve always found him a bit blah on film: no longer.) The casting is an incredible mix of the serious and the comic: serious actors like Beale stand alongside comedians Paul Whitehouse and Michael Palin. It hits home all the more because the accents are mostly British and Northern with a couple of American voices thrown in.

The action begins at a concert being broadcast live on radio. The moment it’s finished the producer gets a call from Comrade Stalin himself asking for a recording. Well, not so much asking as ordering. Problem is, the concert wasn’t recorded – and so the farce begins, with people being rounded up from the street to replace audience members who’ve already left, and a conductor being woken from his bed to substitute the original. But the pianist refuses to play on the not unreasonable grounds that Comrade Stalin murdered her entire family. When the recording is made she pushes a note into the sleeve expressing her wish that Comrade Stalin would die: he reads it and obligingly expires. End of act one.

The panic surrounding his demise is like Brian Rix on a total downer; the blackest of black comedies. The intrigue, the terror, the purges it all strikes an incredible balance between horror and humour, and the death of Beria is terrifying. I was utterly purged by watching it – which is quite appropriate really…

If you haven’t seen it, watch it now.

Kirk out

There May be Some Great TV Drama Around – I Couldn’t Possibly Comment

It’s got to the stage now where saying ‘there’s some great TV drama around at the moment’ is completely superfluous. It’s like saying ‘the weather’s warm for the time of year’ – it’s always warm! It’s called climate change! – and in the same way since we are obviously in a golden age of TV drama, there’s always some good stuff around. Part of the reason I guess is the multiplicity of platforms; here at home we only have terrestrial plus Netflix, but there’s Sky and other digital platforms plus whatever HBO is (I’m guessing it’s not a bank.) But I suspect there are other reasons too; for a start, drama is a better way than comedy of dealing with the horrendous problems facing us. Part-escapism, part gritty-realism, good drama leads to catharsis; by immersing ourselves in the problems of other people and seeing those problems work themselves through, we are better able to deal with our own. It’s more than a distraction and less than reality.

So, having said that, which good dramas have I been watching this week? First is the BBC’s excellent ‘Trial of Christine Keeler.’ I’m not quite old enough to remember the original story but its ramifications continued well into the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies; in fact you could say that, like the Chatterley trial it was a seminal event in the unravelling of the status quo. Chatterley unravelled the era of sexual repression; Keeler, the age of deference.

It’s brilliantly done, this; Keeler is no dumb victim (though she is a victim too) but a knowing, wisecracking, cynical yet personable young woman. Yet she is also the victim of predatory, privileged older men who pass her around for sex and of younger boyfriends who beat her up when she ends their relationship (since her boyfriends are black, they suffer too at the hands of a racist police force.) The sexual hypocrisy of the time hits home during the scene where Keeler, having induced an abortion, lies on the floor of her mother’s house crying and bleeding. Her mother enters, takes in the situation at a glance and gives her an almighty slap. Yep, that’s what it was like – I remember it well (not that my mother would have behaved in that way, but it would still have been a great scandal.)

There’s a terrific cast: Ben Miles as Profumo is almost, though not quite, the equal of Hugh Grant as Jeremy Thorpe (another scandal which toppled a major public figure) and Sophie Cookson is pitch-perfect as Keeler. It’s not over yet, there are another two episodes to go, so make sure you catch up while you can: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/m000ct7b/the-trial-of-christine-keeler

This series of Dr Who has been excellent so far – though last night’s episode was a bit vanilla, harking back to the day’s of gravel pits and low budgets – but the other thing I caught up with was a film on Netflix about Lowry.

One of the encouraging things about biopics of famous people is seeing how little their work was originally valued. This was particularly true in Lowry’s case as he was completely dominated by his mother who, if Vanessa Redgrave’s ice-dagger performance is anything to go by, was a grade-A, cold-hearted, self-centred, manipulative b*tch. Lowrie reminds me of some ground-down Alan Bennett character (except that he wasn’t gay – at least as far as we know) collecting rent during the day and painting at night whilst looking after his mother. But adversity is often a spur to the dedicated artist and so it proved in this case. Nothing could stop Lowrie painting and today he is admired and loved throughout the world – and perhaps most of all by those who don’t generally ‘do’ art. There’s a centre in his native Salford dedicated to him, a recent undiscovered painting of his sold for £1m – and one of the most surreal moments of the film was seeing Timothy Spall finishing this picture and looking up from the screen to see it on our wall.

That about sums it all up I think.

So yep, there’s some good stuff around. Let’s make the most of it while it’s here – and make the most of me too. Tomorrow I’m off to Doncaster and thence to Scotland for a few days, so I shall not be posting.

Toodle pip.

Kirk out

What Utter Twaddle!

I’ve been writing utter twaddle all day because sometimes that is the only way to go. The hope is that you write yourself into some sort of coherence if you just keep going; sometimes it works, and it sort of worked today though I’m not terribly happy with most of what I did. Still it’s better than the other day when I was forced to resort to writing obscenities for several paragraphs like George VI trying to overcome a stammer (come to think of it, the principle is probably the same: The King’s Writing, anyone?)

But basically the only way to get through these days is not to let yourself care. Don’t care about quality, don’t care about inspiration, don’t care about structure, don’t even care if you’re making any sense or conforming to any of the rules of grammar throughout the known galaxy – just write. To paraphrase a character in Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise, Write, write, effing write! Write, write, effing write! If you’re interested the relevant clip’s at about 13.40. And here’s Richard E Grant commenting on my work:

Indeed, Richard, I have written twaddle today. But it’s my twaddle.

Kirk out

Sorry We Missed You, Ma’am

Yesterday I finally caught up with Ken Loach’s latest film, ‘Sorry We Missed You,’ the story of the grinding down of a family by a heartless system. Ricky Turner is fully signed-up to the work ethic, has never claimed the dole and has done a variety of manual jobs; he is clearly prepared to work hard so he and his family can have a home of their own rather than living in scrappy rented accommodation. At first the job sounds great; being your own boss, working when you want, delivering parcels with the opportunity to earn upwards of a thousand pounds a week. But the down-side doesn’t take long to emerge – and it keeps emerging. Theoretically self-employed, the drivers have to either supply their own vans or hire one from the company at an exorbitant daily cost. Not only that but if they take a day off (for no matter what reason) they are responsible for finding a relief driver. That’s just day one – and it keeps ramping up from there.

At first Ricky sucks it up and works hard, tramping up and down the stairwells of flats with broken lifts, braving dogs to deposit parcels in sheds and having to fight customers to present the ID they are legally obliged to show before handing over valuable items. At the bottom of all this is the fear that if anything goes wrong, the driver is held responsible. If the parcel is not delivered, if it’s lost, if it’s broken, if they can’t find anyone to take it – they’re responsible. Not only that but they are tracked every second of their day and have no time for breaks; before Ricky sets off for his first journey a colleague tosses him a plastic bottle. ‘No thanks,’ he says, ‘I’ve got me own.’

It’s not fer drinkin’, says the other, ‘it’s fer pissin’ in. Yer don’t have time ter stop.’

The remorseless wheels continue to grind Ricky and his family into the dust. His son is arrested for shoplifting and he has to take time off to go down to the police station; his wife spends so much time rushing between care jobs that she has no time to look after her own children and the family almost implodes under the pressure but their love for each other stands in stark contrast to the inhumanity of the system. But life just keeps grinding them down and one day, having a pee in his bottle, Ricky gets beaten up and his digital pad smashed. While waiting to be seen at the hospital he learns that he will be fined £1000 for the ‘loss’ of his gadget. Next day, still not having been seen by a doctor (there was a 3-hour wait) he drives off to another day at work, nearly crashes the van, keeps driving. Tears run down his face. King Lear was not more tragic. This miserable abuse is happening now and it needs to stop.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is ‘The Crown,’ (or if you want to pronounce it prawperly, the Crine) an excellent new series starring Olivia Coleman as her maj. If you haven’t heard about this I can only assume you’ve been living at the bottom of the sea for the last month or so because it’s been trailed and reviewed to within an inch of its life.

First there’s the terrific casting: apart from the excellent Coleman Helena Bonham-Carter plays Princess Margaret wonderfully, Jason Watkins is Harold Wilson to the life, Tobias Menzies is terrific as Prince Philip, there’s a surprise appearance by Jane Lapotaire as Philip’s eccentric Greek mother and you’d swear Erin Doherty actually was Princess Anne. Then there’s the pace: some people have complained that The Crown is too slow but I find it perfect. Modern drama is like fast food, gone before you know it and digested so quickly that before you’ve gone to bed you’ve already forgotten what it was you ate, but The Crown stays with you like a long, slow meal; you dine on it and then sit back with a smile to digest.

And then there’s the nostalgia; I remember just about everything from this series, from Wilson’s premiership (and most of his cabinet) to the Aberfan disaster and, this week, the groundbreaking royal documentary which failed to convince the British public and press that the Royals were good value for money and should, as Philip suggested, be given a pay rise.

So I’d recommend both. Watch them in any order and see what an unequal society we live in.

Kirk out