‘The Realm’

A thoroughly engaging Spanish political thriller as the lid is blown on the nefarious corruption of ‘The Party’ with a focus on the arrogant, regional president-in waiting, Antonio de la Tour (The Last Circus, A Twelve-Year Night).

As financial scandal after financial scandal hits the regional office, so Madrid HQ (and his local colleagues) looks to scapegoat de la Tour. But he’s not taking the rap alone, being only too aware that the corruption is far more widespread. Evidence is what he needs – and he’ll go to any lengths to undercover it.

With its driving soundtrack, fast-paced incisive dialogue, strong performances and taut direction (Rodrigo Sorogoyen – Que Dios nos perdone, Stockholm), The Realm is a superior, tension-filled feature.

Rating: 73%

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‘Billionaire Boys Club’

Weak scripting, a derivative telling of a ‘true’ story and a cast seemingly going through the motions results in Billionaire Boys Club (directed by James Cox – Wonderland, Straight As) missing the mark on essentially all fronts.

Privileged wealth gets behind brilliant financial analyst boy-from-the-valley schoolfriend, Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver, The Fault In Our Stars) to hustle enormous returns on investment. But the get-rich-quick Ponzi scheme scam goes pear-shaped as the boys lock horns with the more experienced financial hustler, Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, The Usual Suspects).

Rating: 36%

‘Blooms of Darkness’ by Aharon Appelfeld

At the age of eight, with the German invasion of Romania, Aharon Appelfeld was deported with his father to a work camp in the Ukraine. His mother was killed in the invasion. Separated from his father, Appelfeld escaped and survived by his wits for more than two years.

Regarded until his death in 2018 as ‘fiction’s foremost chronicler of the Holocaust’ (Philip Roth), Appelfeld frequently revisited his own childhood experiences in his novels and short stories – and Blooms of Darkness is no different.

In an unnamed Ukrainian city, with Jews being randomly rounded up on a daily basis from the ghetto, 11 year-old Hugo is taken by his mother, at the dead of night, through the city sewers. Their destination is The Residence, home of childhood friend Marianna, who has agreed to hide the boy. At their separation, mother and child are destined never see each other again.

Hugo is to the spend the next two years essentially living in the closet in Marianna’s room, a room where by night she entertains her (mostly German military) clients. With his father and uncle having disappeared months earlier, school friends sent in hiding to the mountains and the random violence towards Jews by both Germans and Ukrainians, Hugo has already “learned not to ask” but “to listen instead to the silence between the words.” And so it is with his early days in The Residence, where Marianna keeps to her promise, feeding him and sheltering the boy from harm.

Hidden away, Hugo invents a world filled with people of his past – his mother and friends Anna and Otto in particular. But Marianna’s daytime world slowly replaces this memory and, over time, the boy is seduced by the, to him, sensual world of perfumes, brandy and sexuality.

The Russian victory in the east over the fleeing German army after nearly two years of hiding brings with it unexpected concerns – Marianna (and all the other women in the brothel) is labelled a collaborator. As they flee the city into the mountains, roles are reversed and Hugo finds himself the protector.

Blooms of Darkness is a deeply moving novel, a deeply individual perspective of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child, a perspective away from the death camps. Loss and loneliness remains writ large as events beyond the boy’s understanding unfold around him. Returning to his home at the end of the novel, Hugo discovers that much is familiar and little has changed. Except the haunting absence of its pre-war residents. His parents’ pharmacy is a grocery, their home occupied.

“The house stands where it always was. On the pleasant, broad balcony that looked onto the city hangs blue laundry. The windows on the side are bare, and people can be seen inside. The big chandelier in the living room still hangs from the ceiling. For a long time Hugo stands there and looks, and what he had felt upon arriving at the city centre now hits him with full force: the soul has fled from this precious place.”

Published in 2006 in Hebrew, Blooms of Darkness was translated by Jeffrey M. Green and was awarded the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012.

‘All Is True’

After his Globe Theatre burns to the ground (1613), William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh – Dunkirk, Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit) returns to his Stratford home and to a family he has barely seen in 20 years.

A strained relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench – Skyfall, Shakespeare In Love), and two daughters eventually eases as the three women come to terms with Shakespeare’s return and a few home truths bubble to the surface.

Solid direction by Branagh himself (Hamlet, Murder on the Orient Express) All Is True is a somewhat syrupy telling of the playwright’s last act, lensed through (symbolic) autumnal hues and littered with quotes from the Baird’s own writings (but then if you have Branagh, Dench and Ian McKellen at hand, hardly surprising!). It’s engaging in a small way – a period-piece family drama with some much needed zing provided by the sharp-tongued elder daughter, Judith (Kathryn Wilder – Murder on the Orient Express, Ready Player One).

Rating: 53%

‘Storyland’ by Catherine McKinnon

A series of five stories connected by place but with a separation of almost one thousand years, Storyland is the ambitious tale of a country, a continent, a history, a prophecy.

In 1796, young cabin-boy Will Martin finds himself on a proposed short journey of discovery – to find a fresh-water river believed to be a few miles down the coast from Port Jackson (modern-day Sydney). Travelling with (the non-fictional adventurers) Lieutenant Matthew Flinders and Mr George Bass, the two men and a boy find themselves on uncharted waters full of hope and adventure. A thousand years later, Nada is questioned of her survival from Frank, the gargantuan storm that has left most of Australia permanently underwater.

A woven tapestry of history and future, of hope, love, friendship and potential but simultaneously of violence, greed, misunderstanding and sadness. The brutality of ex-convict Hawker (1822) towards the indigenous aborigines is mirrored in Bel’s story (1998) where the (white) dealer in indigenous art is not only stealing from the artists, but is violent towards his girlfriend, Kristie, a distant relative of Mary and Lola (1900).

In telling and connecting the five stories (Storyland takes place around Lake Illawarra and modern day Wollongong), Catherine McKinnon has produced a haunting narrative of what was and what might be – a telling of the effect humankind has on the land and what might yet come with climate change. In its telling, she has chosen to focus on ordinary people – an interpretation of recorded events as seen from the perspective of Will Martin rather than Flinders himself: the half-sisters Lola and Mary, both of indigenous descent, faced with overt and covert racism in the running of their dairy farm: Nada and partner Ben’s despair in surviving the disease-ridden after-effects of the storm.

In its telling, McKinnon uses the dramatic technique of leaving the first four stories at a crucial moment before moving on to the next: she reverses the order of their conclusions, resulting in Will Martin’s adventure as both the first and last of her narrative. The result is that Storyland is a real page-turner.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Award, Storyland lost out to Michelle de Kretser and The Life to Come.


‘The Northern Clemency’ by Philip Hensher

An epic tale of northern England in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Philip Hensher’s 700+ pages is a state-of-the-nation narrative with very little input by the very events determining that state of the nation. 

Opening in 1974 in a white-collar street in a white-collar suburb in the industrial city of Sheffield, The Northern Clemency primarily looks to the Glover family to drive its narrative, assisted by the newly arrived Sellers family, who have upped sticks from London and taken the unusual step of heading north. We follow these two families over the next 20 years.

It’s the time of massive social upheaval in Britain, the years of Thatcherism, privatisation, the yearlong miner’s strike. Yet, so little makes it to the pages of Hensher’s novel: and there’s even less analysis. Admittedly, Daniel (the eldest Glover child) eventually partners Helen, daughter of a miner: Tim (youngest Glover) is a Trotskyite activist who baits management-level Mr Glover (building society) and Mr Sellers (electricity board). But it’s all so extraordinarily superficial – even Helen’s father is a non-supporter of the strike, a very small minority of the National Union of Miners. What makes the lack of any commentary even more puzzling is the fact that the novel is set in Sheffield, one of the most politically militant anti-Thatcher cities at the time.

The result is that the disappointing The Northern Clemency reads like a script for a television soap opera made in the 1970s. There’s the occasional melodrama (Mrs Glover working part-time at a new, fancy florist that turns out to be laundering drug money and the subsequent court appearance years after she quit work: the stroke that poleaxes Mrs Sellers only a few months after her husband takes early retirement) and lots of minor, neighbourly events – births, deaths (but surprisingly no marriages) alongside friendships developed. And, as the northern industrial cities decline, so the kids mostly move out – London calls, as does Sydney for Sandra Glover. 

Adroit it may be (to keep the attention for 700+ pages, it must have something going for it) but it left me yearning for more and less at the same time. Less about fish pies, coronation chicken and mushroom vol au vents, more about the city of Sheffield, the people who lived there and the political machinations that led to the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. 

Like all good soap operas, The Northern Clemencygrabs superficial interest. But the reality is that, like soap operas, it ultimately has little value. Hensher has chosen to tell it as it is (or at least how he remembers it – he was bought up in Sheffield from the age of nine having moved there from London) but with no depth of analysis. Everything just is. The Glovers and the Sellers simply move through their lives, whether it’s the 1970s, the 80s or the 90s (Hensher chooses to place his narrative in the 70s and the 90s, with the back story of the 80s told retrospectively).

The Northern Clemencywas shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize but lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.


‘Avengers: Endgame’

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (Captain America: Civil War, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), it’s a welcome sombre note to the Marvel proceedings, particularly after the wall-to-wall battles of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War.

After the defeat by Thanos (Josh Brolin) and destruction of half the world’s population, the surviving Avengers are (mostly) unsurprisingly resigned and introspective – even Iron Man himself (Robert Downey Junior) has settled into an idyllic familial rural lifestyle. But the sudden ‘spitting out’ of Ant Man (a very funny Paul Rudd) from the quantum realm changes everything.

It’s a fittingly gargantuan and fabulously grandiose conclusion of 22 Marvel films – but with its humour, pathos and not too much reliance on excessive battles, the result is Avengers: Endgame is suitably one of the best.

Rating: 69%

‘Burning’

A riveting slow burner from Korean director Chang-dong Lee (Poetry, Secret Sunshine), Burning evolves, on the surface at least, from a romance story into a metaphysical thriller.

The dow-eyed, stoical Lee Jong-su (Ah-in Yoo – The Throne, Veteran) bumps into Haemi (newcomer Jong-seo Jun), a former school classmate, in the streets of Seoul. Spending time between the city and the impoverished family farm, Lee Jong-su becomes drawn into a menage a trois with Haemi and the wealthy Ben (Steven Yeun – Okja, TV’s The Walking Dead), an enigmatic playboy.

Adapted and expanded from a Haruki Murakami short story, Burning is a powerful psychological portrait with its distorted perceptions, building up to a shocking finale that it tragic but not wholly unexpected.

Rating; 81%

Booker Prize Shortlist: 2017

2017 represents only the third occasion whereby I have read all shortlisted novels for the Booker Prize. And, as with 2016 and 1996, the question remains – from my perspective, did the judges get it right with George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo?

Controversy had (as usual) reigned supreme when the longlist of 13 was whittled down to six. Where was Sebastian Barry and Days Without End? What – no Jon McGregor and Reservoir 13? What happened to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railway and Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones? Instead, according to many critics, what was a powerful long list became something of a diluted shortlist.

The books that did make the cut were
Paul Auster 4, 3, 2 1
Emily Fridlund History of Wolves
Mohsin Hamid Exit West
Fiona Mosley Elmet
George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo
Ali Smith Autumn

Sadly, to my mind, there were only two novels that stood out on the list, both extremely powerful and both deserved winners of the prize in this year – and in many other years. But the other four were generally forgettable.

Her fourth appearance on the Booker shortlist, Ali Smith and her Autumn is, to my mind, the least enjoyable of the six. Expansive and inventive it may be, capturing the zeitgeist of current British world of uncertainty and inwardness, this short novel is beautifully written and deeply profound, yet, too often, deliberately obscure and pretentious. (50%)

Emily Fridlund’s debut novel History of Wolves is also beautifully written with haunting prose and a vivid sense of place, but its meandering narrative failed to ultimately engage. (50%)

I loved his The Reluctant Fundamentalist – but Mohsin Hamid’s ruminations on refugees and Exit West, whilst salient, engrossing, at times quite magical, is also somewhat odd – a flight-of-fancy that actually needed a little more grounding. The teasingly well written first third sadly becomes a pedestrian, off-kilter place (as opposed to time) travel narrative. (58%)

Elmet is a powerful debut novel set in Yorkshire – a dark tale sublimely wrought, a British gothic simultaneously pastoral and fraught with a sense of foreboding. But it trails off into the land of melodrama in its narrative as Fiona Mosley tries a little too hard to tie up all loose ends. (64%)

The final two on the list are streets ahead of the other on the shortlist – and are neck and neck in the running. Paul Auster’s sprawling 4,3,2,1 is a magnificent thousand plus pages of four versions of the early life/lives of Archie Ferguson. It’s an engrossing celebration of liberal ideology and a reflection on a generation that sexually, politically and culturally defined the end of the twentieth century. (80%)

But it’s pipped to the post by George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo , an ethereal symphony in its intimacy of grief and familial love. Structurally experimental, Saunders’ novel is a polyphonic narrative interspersed with short quotes from newspaper articles and biographies of the day as President Abraham Lincoln is struck politically inert on the death of his 12 year-old son. (81%)

A very hard call – but to my mind, the judges of the 2017 Booker Prize got it right as far as the winning novel was concerned. Not convinced about the shortlist itself, though.

‘Bird Box’

A psychological horror film continuing the trend of unexplained monster/alien invasion (A Quiet Place, The Silence), Bird Box is taut and claustrophobic. Yet, in spite of a strong central performance by Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side, Miss Congeniality), it falls short of its promise.

Directed by Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, In a Better World), Bird Box follows the reluctant mother find some kind of redemption as she leads two young children to safety from a decimated Los Angeles. Journeying on a treacherous river, the trip is made more arduous by the fact it must be made blindfolded.

A Netflix original.

Rating: 61%