‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ by Madeleine Thien

605302408Magisterial in its telling, Madeleine Thien’s novel is a mesmerising but tragic evocation of seven decades of contemporary Chinese history.

An accessible yet challenging narrative, Do Not Say We Have Nothing deftly weaves between generations and place as Li-ling, based in Canada, looks to understand events that led to her father’s tragic suicide at the age of 39. Having left his family, including the 10 year-old Li-ling, in Vancouver, Jiang Kai is found dead only a few days later in Hong Kong.

As Li-ling looks for answers many years after her father’s death, a sprawling narrative unfolds of China under Chairman Mao and the struggle for power after his death. The impact of revolution and counter-revolution on ordinary citizens – and Jiang Kai and his circle of friends and peers at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in particular – is lyrically and movingly portrayed.

Incorporating ancient Chinese mythology, folk tales, everyday events and unfolding politics emanating out of Beijing, a litany of memorable characters populate the novel – Sparrow, Wen the Dreamer and his wife, Swirl, Big Mother, Zhuli, Ai-Ming, Yiwan, Kai himself – as their stories and histories interweave.

Central to the novel is Sparrow, a young and brilliant composer, teacher to Kai at the Conservatory. It is through his family that we travel through the decades and witness the destruction of family, dreams and idealism as revolutionaries become accused of counter-revolutionary views, as music becomes marginalised and censored, as political criticism results in denouncement and death.

Yet in spite of the terrible hardships and separations, humanity shines through as the ties that bind overcome the grief and suffering inflicted upon generations of Chinese. Sparrow and his family continue to eke out a living, even after the music they love becomes cause for persecution (at one stage every piano in China is destroyed) and family members are reassigned across the country according to the demands of labour.

Fiction and history blur in this epic story that is at once enchanting and informative, delicate and profound, tragic but uplifting. One to savour – I spent more than three weeks reading this powerful 460 page opus.

Shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize, Do Not Say We Have Nothing lost out to Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

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‘Happy End’

Happy End PosterA French haute-bourgeois family, Calais-based, live their lives, a microcosm of the minutiae of everyday events.

Octogenarian Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant – Amour, My Night With Maud) heads the family but he has passed the trucking business onto his daughter – Isabelle Huppert (Elle, The Piano Teacher). Into a family of adults living in the large rambling house enters 12 year-old Eve, daughter of Huppert’s brother from his first marriage.

Detached and icily controlled, director Michael Haneke’s (Amour, The White Ribbon) latest is a bourgeois, insidious soap opera as each quietly look for their own ‘happy end’.

Rating: 59%

‘The Post’

the-post-0547279001515497618Interesting story solidly told and performed (you’d expect nothing else from Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and director Spielberg) yet somewhat dramatically inert.

As secret documents of clandestine American involvement in Vietnamese politics from the 1940s onwards come to light, The Washington Post owner (Streep) and editor (Hanks) must decide whether to play safe or risk contempt of court and publish.

Pre-empting Watergate and All the President’s Men, arguably the best of the investigative political journalism genre, The Post comes across as a feature where Streep, Hanks and Spielberg, whilst engaging in lots of freedom of the press and women’s position in society conversations, hardly overstretched themselves.

Rating: 61%

‘Phantom Thread’

Phantom_Thread_PosterLike the clothes produced at the House of Woodcock, Paul Thomas Anderson’s (There Will Be Blood, The Master) latest is distinguished, stylish and classy.

Set in 1950s London, Daniel Day Lewis (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood) is designer to European royalty and the aristocracy. A lover of women but a confirmed bachelor set in his ways, his head is turned by Alma (Vicky Krieps – Das Zimmermaedchen Lynn, Hanna), a waitress working in a hotel in Yorkshire. Elevating Alma to a stylish beauty, the London home ruled over by sister Cyril (Lesley Manville – Another Year, Mr Turner), is soon challenged by a young woman determined to be more than merely decoration.

A gorgeous period drama that slips and slides into obscurity as intent is not always clear, Phantom Thread remains a beguiling character study of three determined personalities, as controlled and clipped as post-war English manners.

Rating: 74%

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’

3bb_KEY_1SHEET_101_F3_smA profane delight – a black comedy dark yet compassionate, violent yet profound, a  blistering yet deeply humane commentary on small town America.

Frances McDormand (Fargo, Burn After Reading) and her wry, foul-mouthed performance anchors writer/director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) superb script. Mildred wants answers from the police for the rape and murder of her daughter more than 12 months earlier.

Head of the local police, Woody Harrelson (Natural Born Killers, Seven Psychopaths) and dumb, racist cop, Sam Rockwell (MoonSeven Psychopaths), are firmly in her sights as the darkly comic narrative unfolds. A real crowd pleaser.

Rating: 88%

‘I, Tonya’

i_tonya_xlgIt may be overlong – and ‘the incident’ forms only a small part of the whole – but director Craig Gillespie (Lars & the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) highlights the eccentricities in the life story of US competitive ice-skater, Tonya Harding.  Importantly, he choses to laugh more with the characters than at them.

From the wrong side of the tracks, Harding (a confident, Oscar-nominated Margot Robbie – The Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street) was abused by her mother (a magnificent out-of-character Alison Janney – Spy, The Girl on the Train) and husband (an almost unrecognisable Sebastian Stan, the Captain America trilogy). Yet she rose to number one in the world and represented the US at two winter Olympics. But Harding is best remembered for her involvement in the attack on fellow ice-skater, Nancy Kerrigan.

It’s a tragic story and this black comedy tells it well. How much Harding knew is left in the air as Gillespie explores the issues of class and the nature of truth in this entertaining sports movie.

Rating: 65%

‘Quarantine’ by Jim Crace

quarantineThe story of Christ in the wilderness for forty days is hardly an obvious subject for a known atheist. But that’s exactly what Quarantine is – award-winning Jim Crace’s fifth novel.

Only Christ is one of a handful of characters who have travelled to live, temporarily, on the edge, looking for guidance and to secure resolution and transcendence in what Crace is presenting as a godless universe. But they have the misfortune of stumbling across Musa. A successful nomadic merchant left for dead by his companions, with only his young pregnant wife to care for him until his last breath, Musa survives (much to the chagrin of Miri).

Ever the entrepreneur, the odious Musa convinces the travellers that they are on his land – and must therefore pay rent for the caves they look to fast and find some kind of spiritual guidance. And food, water, home comforts are all available – at a price.

The metaphoric satanic Musa is very much centre stage of Crace’s short novel. Jesus is an enigmatic, almost ethereal character – in choosing the most inaccessible and distant cave, he is as remote as the landscape they have all chosen to meditate and commune with God. Unlike the others, who meet as the sun sets to break their fast, Jesus stoically continues, plagued by hallucinations and teetering towards madness, devoid of water and food for forty days.

A retelling of a familiar story – or at least its humanising: the unendurable suffering of a fast in such inhospitable environs; the need by Marta, looking to become fertile, for some home comforts in her cave; the ever-opportunistic Musa turning everything to his advantage. And, hardly surprising for an atheist, a Jesus who seems to have no divine origin but is simply a craftsman who takes religious instruction a great deal more seriously than his contemporaries.

Quarantine is a beautifully told, spellbinding narrative, its hallucinatory realism interlaced with humour and menace. The wilderness rendered in almost obsessive poetic detail: the beguiling master of words, Musa, a lecherous bully who, we know, will always land on his feet: a secular telling of a biblical story.

Shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize, Quarantine was reportedly the runner-up to the winner, Arundhati Roy and The God of Small Things.

 

‘Darkest Hour’

darkest-hour-australian-movie-posterA provocative historical drama as Winston Churchill, in the early days of his prime ministership, is confronted with a possible invasion of Britain from Nazi forces. Virtually the entire British army is stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Unpopular within his own Conservative party, a war-mongering Churchill (a career-defining performance from Gary Oldman – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban) is at odds with his appeasement-seeking colleagues. War in the corridors of power and on the Continent forces Churchill to decide whether to sue for peace or fight on against incredible odds.

Director Joe Wright (Atonement, Anna Karenina) focuses on the claustrophobic machinations of parliament and underground war rooms. The result is the fiery determination and irascible wit of Churchill at the forefront of a wordy, manipulative  narrative that has no intention of being subtle in the telling of its stirring story.

Rating: 71%

(A perfect complement to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk)

‘The Shape of Water’

the-shape-of-water-posterMagical, whimsical adult fairytale that is deeply romantic and touchingly moving.

A mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine, Maudie), a night-time cleaner at a 1950s top secret US research facility, falls for a mysterious, recently captured Amazonian amphibian. With Russian secret agents closing in and American military prepared to kill off the creature rather than allow it to fall in their hands, Elisa needs to take drastic action.

A love story of those on the margins – Elisa, a mute orphan: gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins – The Visitor, Let Me In): best friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer – The Help, Hidden Figures): the creature itself.

Deeply humane, director Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) takes you on a flight of fancy, a beautifully crafted meditative journey celebrating life itself, supported by a stunning ensemble cast and behind-the-scenes creatives.

13 Oscar nominations – no surprise there!

Rating: 87%

‘Call Me By Your Name’

CallMeByYourName2017Languid telling, during a 1980s Tuscan summer, of first love where 17 year-old Elio (a gentle,  nuanced performance by Timothée Chalamet – Interstellar, Ladybird) falls for his father’s archealogical assistant, the over-confident Oliver (Armie Hammer – The Social Network, The Lone Ranger).

It’s a bumpy ride for Elio – and for the audience. At times beautiful, at times stretching credulity as the all-American bumptious Jock purportedly falls for the skinny, bookish waif. Chalamet is pitch-perfect as Elio but a towering Hammer is less convincing.

Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) perfectly captures the nervousness of first love and its associated heartbreak but Elio’s relationship with his father, Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, The Shape of Water) and peers highlights the shortcomings of the love affair.

Rating: 68%