‘Last Orders’ by Graham Swift

n121583The final wishes of Londoner Jack Dodds include the scattering of his ashes from the pier of the Kent seaside town of Margate. Such a request cannot be refused.

So begins a journey of a little over 70 miles as his three long-term drinking buddies (Ray ‘Lucky’ Johnson, Lenny ‘Gunner’ Tate and Vic Tucker) head for the coast, driven by Jack’s adopted son, Vince (a wonderfully stereotypical used car salesman), with urn tucked under various arms. Amy Dodds, wife for more than 50 years, refuses to travel.

Little is straightforward in Last Orders. Like the journey itself, the book is a convoluted exploration of the relationships between the men past and present. The round trip from Bermondsey in South East London to Margate could be readily achieved in three to four hours – yet numerous unplanned detours result in delay after delay to the completion of the task in hand.

Constant use of flashbacks and reminiscences gradually reveal a deeper understanding of the complexities and commonplace events that have shaped the present. Each (short) chapter is assigned to one character and it is through this multiplicity of voices we learn of the last 50 years and the friendships (occasionally strained) and alliances formed. Regret, anger, frustration, sadness inevitably fuel the recalled memories – the war years, wanted and unwanted pregnancies, marriage break-ups, struggling businesses.

It is a simple story simply told as shared memories (and a few not-so-shared) and old grudges re-surface as the four men drive through the Kent countryside. Graham Swift readily avoids the pitfalls of melodrama and, instead, we are presented with the narrative in the vernacular of an older-generation Bermondsey – short confessions or streams of consciousness that propel the storyline backwards and forwards (it’s a convoluted journey, remember).

Last Orders is a delightful read – deceptively simple, readily accessible with its underlying grim humour, wholly engaging. It won the 1996 Booker Prize, defeating, in the process, Margaret Atwood (Alias Grace), Beryl Bainbridge (Every Man For Himself), Seamus Deane (Reading in the Dark), Shena MacKay (The Orchard of Fire) and Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance) – something of a vintage shortlist.

In 2001, Fred Schepisi adapted and directed the novel for the silver screen. A dream cast provides the perfect indication of the feel and character of the story – including Michael Caine (Jack), Bob Hoskins (Ray) and Ray Winston (Vince).

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‘Past the Shallows’ by Favel Parrett

10762662In its simple clarity of language and narrative, Past the Shallows is hauntingly beautiful.

Set on the rugged Tasmanian south coast, it’s the story of a deep, almost profound brotherly love as Michael and the younger Harry, with their mother dead, learn to look out for each other.

Theirs is an unbreakable bond that helps them deal with a hard-drinking father struggling to make ends meet as an abalone fisherman and who is harbouring a secret that is eating him alive.

It is Harry who takes the brunt of Dad’s wrath, a child little more than a baby when his mother was killed in a car crash. But that was several years ago. Life for the boy is a hard one, deprived of parental love and where food in the house is linked to the number of hours his father spends in the local pub.

Yet gentle, sensitive Harry is not bitter: he knows no better. Generous to a fault, he will save the last of the milk for Michael or spend the last of his (found) money on friends. But he is fearful of his father, a fear made worse by his seasickness, thus ruling out any chances of working at sea. Harry therefore feels he is a disappointment to his surviving parent.

It is Michael who is forced to go out on the boat to work alongside the bitter old man and Jeff, his sidekick. With stiff competition in town and the bank now owning the Lady Ida and everything they have, the men are forced into more treacherous waters to illegally find decent-sized abalone.

Water is the central character of Past the Shallows, and Parrett is at her descriptive best when she talks of the unpredictable and wild nature of the Southern Ocean.

An undoubted metaphor for the boys’ father, the brooding menace of the ocean that controls all their lives is a giver and taker of life. It took away Uncle Nick, whose body has never been found: it is slowly taking away the lives of those left behind. But it has also made local townsman Mr Roberts wealthy, owning several boats and employing most of the men in the area.

A chance encounter with a puppy provides one of the few joyful moments for Harry. But Jake, the playful puppy, leads him to George Fuller. Feared by children (and many adults), George is a deformed outsider who, severely injured many years previously, now lives alone on the edge of town.

Harry overcomes his fear and befriends the lonely old man and the two, both on the edge of a seafaring society, develop a gentle, undemanding friendship.

But instinctively, we know the relationship cannot last.

“There was something coming. Miles had felt it in the water. Seen it. Swell coming in steady, the wind right on it, pushing. It was ground swell. Brand new and full of punch – days away from its peak.”

Reflecting the desolate, rugged Tasmanian south coast, Past the Shallows is hauntingly beautiful yet deeply tragic.

‘Two Days, One Night’

fid13933A superior slice of ‘everyday experience’, Two Days, One Night draws us into the debate unfolding on the screen. It’s another feather in the cap of the Belgian auteurs, the Dardenne Brothers, whose trademark exploration of social conscience results in natural and unsentimental features.

Given a weekend to save her job rather than a bonus payment to the 16-strong workforce, Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, Midnight in Paris) once again gives a powerfully convincing central performance.

Rating: 71%

‘Whiplash’

WHIPLASH+onesheetOh my. Extraordinary. Film of the year? It left me breathless, with the audience bursting into spontaneous applause at the end (and this was an ‘ordinary’ screening not a premiere). Whiplash is, quite simply, stunning. The script is razor sharp (and at times blackly funny), the music pitch-perfect (except when it’s not supposed to be) and both J.K Simmons and Miles Teller giving career-defining performances.

The film received four Independent Spirit Award nominations, including best film, best director and best supporting actor (J K Simmons). Disappointingly, it missed out on best script. But the film has a whole swag of awards already under its belt, including the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance earlier this year.

Rating: 92%

‘Pride’

pride_posterThe feel-good movie of the year.It may be, cinematically, a no risk, straightforward telling of a story, but WHAT a story.

Pride will make you laugh, cry, cheer, boo – talk about playing with the heartstrings. And for anyone that may be worried, this is NOT a gay film! It’s a film about human rights, people pulling together in the time of crisis and highlights events that changed history – gay rights, the miner’s strike, AIDS, acceptance (with a smattering of hatred) et al.

Absolutely fabulous…

Rating: 90%

‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I’

MockingjayPart1Poster3Dreadful. I could not be more concise. It’s a dull, money-grabbing, virtually storyline-free two hours.

With virtually no reference to its predecessor, we’re suddenly transported 40 floors below the surface to District 13. Here, masterminded by rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the plot to overthrow The Capital and rescue Peeta from the clutches of President Snow continues from their underground stronghold. Uniformly (literally and metaphorically) grey and dull, there’s little respite – even the magical OTT splendour of city life is minimal, Effie Trinket is wigless and, courtesy of a rebel film crew, we get to tour, repeatedly, the destroyed districts with Katniss Everdeen.

It’s painful and soporific.

Rating: 36%

‘The Drop’

The_Drop_PosterI’m a big fan of film adaptations of Dennis Lehane’s novels and short stories – Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, Mystic River. Add The Drop to the list.

A much smaller film in scope than the others, The Drop is filmed primarily in a bar and a couple of Brooklyn streets. The threat and dread of violence simmers beneath the surface of this crime drama, but it is the dialogue (and Tom Hardy’s performance) that is the highlight – the first to be adapted for the silver screen by Lehane himself.

The Drop also marks the English-language debut of award-winning Belgian director Michael R Roskam (Bullhead – nominated for 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar). It’s an auspicious debut.

Rating: 74%

‘Force Majeure’

movie-movie-review-film-film-review-force-majeure-1Sweden’s entry into the race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar – and apparently one of the favourites. Not wholly convinced.

The main problem is that the arguments within the film peter out into nothingness and feel unresolved – which is a pity as for the first two thirds of its two hours, it’s deft, provocative and uncompromising in exploring the expectations behind masculinity and parenting.

And the location – high in the French Alps – is beautiful.

Rating: 62%

‘The Restraint of Beasts’ by Magnus Mills

6a00d83451bcff69e20120a529cba2970c-800wiA slight but engrossing, odd yet original black comedy, The Restraint of Beasts was shortlisted for both the Man Booker and Whitbread Prizes in 1998 – with novelist Thomas Pynchon describing it as ‘a demented, deadpan comic wonder.’

Tam and Richie are not your normal everyday kind of heroes. But then The Restraint of Beasts is not your normal everyday kind of novel – and certainly not one expected to feature on those shortlists.

And the twentysomething Tam and Richie are not heroes in the true sense of the word either. They’re pretty brainless, rarely speak, work-shy and hardly function away from each other. Yet their tale, this tale, is captivating.

Tam and Richie build fences for a living and are sent from Scotland to England to build high-tensile fences. Untrusted, an (unnamed) English colleague is appointed foreman. It is he who is the narrator of this deadpan black comedy as plans soon go awry – and not always the fault of the three men.

Before they even depart south in the decrepit works’ caravan, “Mr McCrindle’s fence has gone slack” and the trio must make good the poor workmanship of Tam and Richie prior to the opening of the novel. Problem is there’s a bit of an accident and the three must move on pretty sharpish.

The narrator is under no illusions about the difficulties ahead – the frequent cigarette breaks, the total lack of common sense or initiative, the laissez-fare approach to the task and care of tools. What’s more, he’s English….

Tam is permanently broke and caught in a vicious circle of clearing his debts with his pay packet only to borrow the money back that same night to be able to go to the pub. And, once the caravan is parked in England and the building of the fences commenced, that is all the three can do. Sitting quietly in the corner, glass in hand, speaking virtually to no-one, it is only the narrator who communicates to the world around them, whether it be to Donald (the boss back in Scotland), the landlord of the Queen’s Head or John Hall, the local competition.

Only problem is that accidents seem to follow them.

In his debut novel, Magnus Mills is a matter-of-fact commentator, preferring dialogue and action heavily tinged with irony to description. There are no details in terms of place or time – “England” in The Restraint of Beasts is a hill, a small market town, a pub at an intersection; similarly Scotland could be city, town or village.

The result is a focus on the unfolding tale, of Tam and Richie who are, initially, infuriating but who very slowly creep up as likeable characters. Along with the (supportive) foreman, they deal with the monotony and drudgery of fence building, come rain or shine. And the tin-pot caravan with next to no facilities is a long way from being home from home.

And it is this isolation, a long way from home, the machinations of Douglas back in Scotland and the somewhat sinister Hall Brothers that add a degree of menace and black humour to The Restraints of Beasts.

It is a thoroughly enjoyable debut (published in 1998, Mills has gone on to write several more novels and collections of short stories) that certainly grows on you. And at 215 pages, it never outstays its welcome.

‘Interstellar’

interstellar3It’s bold, majestic and looks beautiful, an epic on a grand scale. Yet…

Too long (169 mins) with false endings galore, felt bombarded with too clever ‘fifth dimension’ theorising and speculation. Result is we go on a journey through the (admittedly extraordinary) imagination of the writer/director that is, at times, a little too much to take (no spoilers, so will not say more). It’s still a ‘good’ film although expectations from Christopher Nolan make Interstellar somewhat disappointing (Inception it’s not). McConaughey is terrific, though.

Rating: 64%