‘The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society’

guernsey_literary_and_potato_peel_pie_society_xlgIt may have an epic quality, so typical of British WWII period dramas, but the quirkily entitled The Guernsey & Potato Peel Pie Literary Society sadly fails to live up to expectations.

Overlong at 124 minutes, every passing moment is predictable – from the cloyingly annoying novelist Juliet Ashton (Lily James – Cinderella, Baby Driver) and her love affair with the fun but brash American, Glen Powell (Hidden Figures, The Expendables) through to her foray to Guernsey to find out more about the literary society and life under German occupation. And of course she meets her Heathcliff – the dark and broody Michiel Huisman (The Game of Thrones, The Age of Adaline).

It’s cosily well told (director Mike Newell – Four Weddings & a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) but a bit of passion and grubbiness would have been welcome (even the farm dirt looked as if it had been carefully applied).

Rating: 46%

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‘Isle of Dogs’

IsleOfDogsFirstLookA visual treat from auteur Wes Anderson (Grand Hotel Budapest, Fantastic Mr Fox) in his latest stop-motion animation.

It’s quirky, humorous and wholly imaginative as young Akiri goes on an odyssey in search of his dog. Akiri’s guardian is the corrupt mayor of the Japanese city of Nagasaki – and it is he who has banished all dogs.

Beautifully crafted – and in spite of its seeming whimsy there’s a message lurking just beneath the surface.

Rating: 81%

‘The Map of Love’ by Ahdaf Soueif

map of loveAs with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s 1975 Booker Prize winning Heat and Dust, Ahdaf Soueif’s sweeping The Map of Love is a love story, a love story of place and time and two women separated by almost a century. Only this is the story of Egypt rather than India – and Soueif (unlike Jhabvala) is eviscerating in her criticism of early twentieth century British foreign policy – and the illegal ‘Veiled Protectorate’ of Egypt in particular.

Isabel arrives in Cairo from New York with a large antique trunk stuffed with journals, letters, newspaper cuttings, photographs – mementos of a grandmother she never knew. The young widowed Lady Anna Winterbourne arrived in Egypt in 1900 – and left eleven years later, widowed for the second time. In the interim, having dared marry a local, a politicised lawyer and landowner, Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi and bore him a daughter, she had been shunned by the English ruling classes.

It is Anna’s story that unfolds in an eloquent novel of subtlety, honesty and history, simultaneously exploring a more contemporary Egypt as Isabel looks into her grandmother’s narrative. The American has discovered cousins in Cairo – and Amal in particular – she never knew existed.

As the millennium approaches, it is a secular Amal who represents Egyptian society, a country fearful of religious fundamentalists and acts of terror against foreign tourists. It is the lonely Amal who becomes obsessed with the story of her great-aunt as she reads through the detailed journals and reads of her grandmother (Sharif’s sister, Layla – Anna’s dearest friend) and her father’s childhood.

Against a background of independence, imperialism and social injustices, The Map of Love mixes the personal and political to great affect – even if it occasionally slips into political grandstanding. It’s a grand sweep of a particular time in history – of western European countries carving up the globe for their own colonial advancement and the inevitable independence movements that quickly follow. But it’s also a story of social change and, ultimately, a love story – with the main character Egypt itself.

The Map of Love was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize but lost out to JM Coetzee and Disgrace.

‘Ready Player One’

readyplayeronePredominantly CGI, what it lacks in character development it more than makes up for in its upbeat, action-packed energy.

Unexpectedly immersive, Spielberg (Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark) lets his avatars play their quest to find the egg hidden in the reality game – and stop Ben Mendelssohn (Rogue One – A Star Wars Story, Darkest Hour) from creating a gaming monopoly in the real world.

It’s a visual spectacle, with enough grunge reality to provide respite as Tye Sheridan (Mud, X-Men Apocalypse) and Olivia Cooke (Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, The Limehouse Golem) find adventure and love. True, Spielberg avoids commentary on the darker elements of a world controlled by technocracy, but as a piece of escapist entertainment, there’s little faulting Ready Player One.

Rating: 66%

‘The Party’

The_Party_(2017_film)With its savage and mordant wit, this is a celebratory dinner party that goes terribly wrong – especially as the guests do not even get to sit down for the food!

Kristin Scott-Thomas (The English Patient, Darkest Hour) is celebrating a promotion – but she is more than upstaged by news from hubby Timothy Spall (Mr Turner, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban). But there’s more to come – facilitating the splendid Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April, The Maze Runner) to indulge in deep cynicism and a wonderful turn of phrase.

Claustrophobic and smart, director Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson) instills a surprising sense of fun in this stagey chamber piece. And its short at just 70 minutes!

Rating: 68%

‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry

secret scriptureA lyrical account of centenarian Roseanne McNulty’s life in rural Ireland, The Secret Scripture is both compelling and enlightening.

Long time resident of Roscommon mental hospital, Roseanne’s testimony of life prior to incarceration is interweaved with that of psychiatrist, Dr Grene. The old, decrepit Victorian hospital is soon to be demolished. With fewer available beds in the new building, Grene is to determine which patients can be released into the community.

Grene is particularly intrigued by Roseanne’s case. Like many of the older patients under his care, the origins of her confinement are questionable, not helped by records having been destroyed by fire twenty years earlier. Sensitive to the known facts contained within remaining official reports (infanticide, nymphomania (!), adultery) and her age, Grene treads lightly with his questioning. But, unknown to the doctor, she is secretly writing her own recollections.

Ireland’s malignant history is ever present in Barry’s writing – and The Secret Scripture is no different. The young Roseanne was a great beauty but as a Presbyterian living in Catholic Ireland in the 1920s, she was confronted with militant Irish nationalism and sectarianism, incurable enmities and the loss of innocence and joy. Even her marriage to Tom McNulty was short-lived and tragic, a victim of the power of the Irish Catholic Church. Father Gaunt (later Bishop) is a symbol of the perversion and bigotry of the church at that time over the lives and the moral judgements of its flock. Morality has its own civil wars, with its own victims in their own time and place.

It’s a heart-rending story, a work of fiction exploring memory and its effect on history and truth. Barry himself throws in the question of just how much of Roseanne’s narrative is truthful. No one has the monopoly on truth… Not even myself, and that is a vexing and worrying thought. And her recollections certainly vary from those official reports. But truth (at least in part) is Grene’s responsibility: or at least a different version. The one thing that is fatal in the reading of impromptu history is a wrongful desire for accuracy. There is no such thing.

 And Grene certainly reveals an unexpected new truth at the end of The Secret Scripture.

 It’s lucid and slow-paced, even though Roseanne’s story is livid and urgent. Barry’s descriptive prose is poetic yet accessible, his commentary on this period of Irish history vivid but humane. The Secret Scripture was Sebastian Barry’s second Booker Prize shortlisting (A Long Long Way was the first in 2004), but it lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.

 

‘A Quiet Place’

quiet_place_xlgHusband and wife team John Kranski (13 Hours, TV’s The Office) and Emily Blunt (Sicario, The Devil Wears Prada) play a convincing husband and wife in this post-apocalyptic survival story.

No explanations as to why and where from (and the stronger for it) – all we know is that ‘they’ are blind but respond to the slightest sound, ending in an immediate and gory death. We start at day 95 and end at day 460-something. In the interim, Kranski and Blunt and two of their kids have constructed a life of virtual silence on their farm, surviving in hiding and in a state of constant dread.

It’s that claustrophobic quiet that creates a deep sense of foreboding and fear – but the strength of A Quiet Place is the balance of horror with a genuine family drama.

Rating: 71%

‘Red Sparrow’

red sparrowIt’s overlong (140 minutes), solid rather than thrilling but Red Sparrow is still an entertaining espionage story – particularly when Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hunger Games) is playing both the Russians and the Americans. She leaves you guessing.

As a ‘red sparrow’, operatives trained to use the art of seduction as a weapon, Lawrence is out to find the high-ranking Russian mole: the CIA player is Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Black Mass). It’s their chemistry together that keeps the film engaging if not exactly riveting.

Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games, I Am Legend) has created an elegant adaptation of the novel, but less ‘Cold-War’ dialogue and a few more hawkish moments would have been welcome.

Rating: 60%

‘The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins

keepers of truthA real page-turner, author Michael Collins combines a 1980s-set murder mystery along with a social commentary on the demise of small-town America as its life-blood, the manufacturing industries, close.

A fascinating hybrid that is both requiem and dissection, The Keepers of Truth is a grimly prophetic story of universal change and the death of the known and the secure. Rusting fire escapes lead to stairways to oblivion and darkness. There are prehistoric-looking machines dragged out into yards, cannibalised of anything of worth, carcasses of industrialism.

Bill, son of a former industrialist who committed suicide rather than witness the closure of his factories in the town, is an aspiring journalist reduced to writing editorial about charity bake-offs and college sports. What he really wants to headline in the slowly dying newspaper, The Daily Truth, is his philosophies on the (unnamed Midwest) town that was once the keepers of industrialism, but which is now a town of trainee managers. Oh happy are ye that inherit the deep-fat fryer! What we do now is eat. It has become our sole occupation… a sublimated longing for our dead machines.

The report that Old Man Lawton is missing changes all that. Locals (including the local police) immediately blame the son, Ronny. But whilst there’s motive, there’s not enough evidence. Bill, with his ageing colleagues, editor Sam and photographer Ed, in their hunt for the truth, become more and more embroiled in the bizarre investigation of few clues.

It’s a trailer-trash hunt of incest, abuse, alcoholism, suicide, emotional breakdowns and paranoia. But it’s also a time-crawling hunt during the intense July heat and drought, a physical boredom of intense severity that threatens the return of bake-off lead stories and the newspapermen surviving on whisky and tuna melts (Sam’s speciality).

The Keepers of Truth is a deeply relevant and pertinent social commentary and a morbidly dark comedy (think Coen Brothers or Collins’ countryman, Martin McDonagh). It’s the American dream turned sour told in long, cadenced sentences that create a rhythmic reading that add to that sense of slightly breathless reading.

It’s a real tour de force.

Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, The Keepers of Truth lost out to Margaret Atwood and The Blind Assassin.

‘The Death of Stalin’

the-death-of-stalin-british-movie-posterThe humour may be sporadic and a little too often writer/director Armando Ianucci’s (In the Loop, TV’s Veep) irreverent political satire falls into slapstick. But The Death of Stalin is, at times, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny.

The individual members of the Secretariat position themselves to take control of the Soviet Union at the death of their leader. Politician Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi – Fargo, Armageddon) and Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale – The Deep Blue Sea, The Legend of Tarzan), head of the secret service, emerge as favourites. No stone is left unturned as the two jockey to gain the upper hand.

Events become more and more farcical as the two become more and more desperate – and Rupert Friend (The Young Victoria, Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) as Stalin’s alcoholic son, Vasily, is a complete misfire. But the savage comedy, when it works, works very, very well. Pity it wasn’t consistent.

Rating: 58%