‘Far From the Madding Crowd’

11190928_oriLast week it was Flaubert’s Madame Bovary starring Mia Wasikowska in the the title role. This week another adaptation of a nineteenth century novel with a woman as the central character – Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.

The demise of Emma Bovary is classic tragedy (except in Sophie Barthes dull version) whereas Bathsheba Everdene’s Dorset story is a celebration of her fierce independence. And director Thomas Vinterberg’s version is certainly a handsome one, with lots of warm, late afternoon sunlight bathing proceedings.

But that, sadly, is the only warmth in the film. The 2015 version of Far From the Madding Crowd (there’s lots more, including the classic 1967 John Schlesinger adaptation starring Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch) shares a stilted disjointedness and lack of naturalism with Madame Bovary.

Carey Mulligan (An Education, Shame) and, in particular, Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone, The Drop) certainly try hard but the film’s main problem is that it’s saccharine sweet, abetted by an overlush soundtrack. Which is surprising as Vinterberg is responsible for one of the best films of 2012 – the powerful and unsettling Danish feature The Hunt.

Rating: 53%

‘Inside Out’

NEMye3g3VuXNQM_1_1Stunningly original.

Inside Out is intelligent, important, on the mark – and incredibly funny (the abstract thought corridor is extraordinary). I’ve not laughed at a film screening like this for a very long time – but also walked away impressed by the relevance, cleverness, creativity and emotional intelligence.

It has the pizzazz and colour to appeal to kids, but it’s adults who get the full benefit  – Inside Out works on so many levels. Pixar must have had a team of psychologists working with them on this.

Oscar winner for best animation, surely – but at least a nomination for best original screenplay?

Rating: 90%

‘Ruben Guthrie’

mmt842-flat-packshot-mediumIt’s brash, it’s alcohol saturated and its problem is that Ruben Guthrie falls between damning commentary and celebratory hedonism of alcohol and its impact on lives.

Successful advertising executive Ruben Guthrie is given one year to get off the sauce by his live-in model girlfriend. Can he do it with so much expectation and temptation around him from friends, colleagues and clients alike? Even his parents “want their son back.” Only the ‘meetings’ seem to support Ruben giving up. All the characters are annoying – yet Ruben Guthrie is, at times, surprisingly entertaining. And Sydney looks glorious!

Rating: 56%

‘Remains of the Day’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

220px-KazuoIshiguro_TheRemainsOfTheDayBorn in Nagasaki, Japan, Kazuo Ishiguro moved with his family to the UK in 1960 when he was just five years old. Regarded as one of the foremost novelists writing in the English language, he has been nominated on four separate occasions between 1985 and 2005 for the Man Booker Prize, winning it in 1989 for The Remains of the Day.

His third published novel, The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro’s first set away from his native Japan and is regarded as one of the most important British post-war novels. It became the author’s first to be adapted for the screen and, directed by the master of early 20th century costume dramas, James Ivory (Heat and Dust, A Room with a View, Howards End), the film starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. It was nominated for eight Oscars, but lost out primarily to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

It is 1950s England and the post war years have finally confirmed the demise of the British Empire and the ‘old ways’. Mr Stevens, butler of the aristocracy and Lord Darlington, is motoring to the West country in his new (American) employer’s vehicle, ostensibly to see former housekeeper Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn). He is hoping that he can persuade her to return to Darlington Hall, which is now being run on a skeleton staff.

As he drives through the English countryside, Butler looks back on his life and the glory years between the two world wars.

Darlington Hall may have been the centre of English society as Lord Darlington entertained socialites and politicians alike, but Stevens reminisces primarily about the art of service, dignity, loyalty and position. The fact that Darlington was at the centre of appeasement politics of the day towards Germany and that the German Ambassador,  Joachim von Ribbentrop, was a regular visitor is almost secondary to Stevens’ memories. That his employer was labelled a traitor by the British media in the post war years barely gets a mention.

Dignity, above all else, is the defining of a great butler according to Stevens. It is this that determines both the inner and outer man. Even in his own personal recollections of himself, Stevens cannot break this mould, guilty as he is of pompousness in thought as well as action.

It is Miss Kenton who comes close to breaking down the barriers. But personal feelings and emotions have become anathema to the man who is driven by professionalism and loyalty to his employer. The new housekeeper is driven to distraction by the emotional distance of the butler – even after years working together, few cracks appear in the man’s patina.

There is little doubt that Miss Kenton falls in love with Stevens – in spite of their cold, professional sparring. What is more open to question in the novel is his feelings towards her. Stevens remembers, with pride, the death of his father not interfering with a key social event at Darlington: so his true thoughts towards the housekeeper are readily kept in check (or hidden deeply in the recesses of his emotions).

As he drives closer to the appointment with the now married Mrs Benn, the memories crowd the ageing butler, resulting in Stevens musing over lost opportunities: his dignity and loyalty preventing any personal connection between the two.

In Stevens, Ishiguro has created one of the most tragic figures in modern literature, a man who tried so hard to do what he believed to be the right thing. Yet everything turned out so wrong and he finally has to admit “my heart was breaking”.

Ishiguro’s beautifully subtle novel is a meditation on loss and regret, a sad and humorous love story, an elegy for an England of old.

‘Terminator: Genisys’

terminator_genisys_poster3I’ve never been a great fan of the Terminator films but must admit I quite enjoyed this one – no excessive fight scenes (a caveat of previous films), enough character development for its genre and Terminator: Genisys succeeds in providing a context to the storyline of previous films.

It’s playful without taking itself too seriously – and whilst hardly setting alight the boundaries of film making, Terminator: Genisys hardly warrants the critical panning it received in the US.

Rating: 51%

‘The Art of the Engine Driver’ by Steven Carroll

GetPageImage.aspxThe first part of a Melbourne-set trilogy, The Art of the Engine Driver is a luminous tale of ordinary lives, of ordinary people living in an ordinary (relatively new) outer suburb in 1950s Melbourne.

Vic, Rita and their son Michael walk along their street towards the party arranged by neighbour George to celebrate his daughter’s engagement. As the three walk the short distance, so they each fall into snatches of memories of recent (and not so recent) events.

But they also walk with, alongside or on the opposite side of the road to other party guests and, slowly, a composite picture of the neighbourhood and its residents is built.

With a fine eye for detail, Carroll observes and writes of the hopes, the aspirations, the frustrations of the locals. But it is through Vic, Rita and Michael that the novel builds – Vic the alcoholic who, as a train driver, needs to keep his dependency secret from his employers; Rita the travelling sales woman who regrets ignoring her mother’s warnings about Vic and the young cricket-mad Michael, a boy who has his own secrets.

Developing alongside Vic and his family’s story is the secondary tale of the Melbourne to Sydney diesel locomotive setting off from Spencer Street Station at the time the local residents are heading towards the party. From the onset we know it is heading for disaster, but Carroll cleverly builds up the suspense to head towards a totally unexpected denouement.

The Art of the Engine Driver is a wholly engaging novel. Through wit, pathos and humour, we are drawn into the lives of the characters populating the novel – even if, on the surface, there is little depth to the characters or story evolving on the pages before us. It unquestionably grows on the reader.

Published in 2001, The Art of the Engine Driver was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award (Carroll’s first) but lost out to Tim Winton’s Dirt Music. Carroll won the Award in 2008 with The Time We Have Taken, the final book in what became known as The Glenroy Novels.

‘The Mafia Kills Only In Summer’

themafiakillsonlyinsummer.poster.ws_Crass comedy, in part an extended coming-of-age flashback (the better of the two ‘halves’), in part a squirm-inducing romcom as Arturo continues his childhood infatuation with Flora into adulthood.

The title? A throwaway line from Arturo’s father to help the boy sleep. The havoc wreaked by the Mafia during 1970s – 90s in Palermo is the background to the (unbelievable) romance evolving on screen. If that’s not enough, 42 year-old writer/director Pierfrancesco Diliberto unconvincingly plays the young-adult Arturo.

Rating: 26%

‘Madame Bovary’

madame_bovary_xlgStilted and stagey with no natural flow of rhythm or narrative realism. Emma Bovary may well have been in a stultifying marriage but it did not mean we had to sit through a stultifying film.

In spite of a powerful cast, including Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, The Kids Are Alright), Paul Giametti (Sideways, Cinderella Man) and Rhys Ifans (The Amazing Spiderman, Anonymous), Madame Bovary is a major disappointment.

Rating: 46%

‘Tangerines’

Tangerines_filmCharming albeit naive and innocent – enemies may come to understand each other in isolation but the world outside cannot be ignored.

Short-listed for the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (Estonia’s first), Tangerines is gently paced with lots of wry humour. And, at its core, is the beautifully nuanced performance by 68 year-old Lembit Ulfsak, a local legend and the voice of Manny the Mammoth in the Estonian version of Ice Age!

Rating: 64%

‘Breath’ by Tim Winton

9780143009580On the surface, Breath is a seemingly slight coming-of-age story set (as are many of Winton’s novels) in Western Australia and the world of beaches, surfers and fishing communities. But it is also an evocation of the memory of adolescence, friendship, endurance and taking risks.

Called out to deal with the death of a young teenage boy, paramedic Bruce Pike looks back 30 years to events as a 13 year-old when he and best mate Loonie fell into the thrall of guru surfing legend Sando. Making an unlikely trio, the older man introduces the two young teenagers to the extremities of the sport, pushing them to prepare for the ultimate challenge and the riding of monster waves.

Introducing an almost Spartan regime to their training, Sando encourages the two to vie against each other for accolades and affection. They look to outdo each other, pushing themselves to their own personal limits and, in looking to be extraordinary in the eyes of their teacher, take more and more risks.

For a while, it is Pikelet (Bruce) who is in the ascendancy. But, seemingly without fear, it is Loonie who claims the ultimate accolade, disappearing with Sando to the waves and challenges of Indonesia. Abandoned, with no warning, a bitter Pikelet finds solace with Sando’s (younger) wife, Eva. A strange, dope-fuelled sexual relationship develops between the two. He never sees his best friend again.

It’s a beautifully written story – as one would expect from Winton, who is nothing if not poetic. His vivid descriptions of the environment and the challenges of the surfing itself are perfectly crafted and without unnecessary detail. As a result, Breath is a relatively short novel (260 or so pages) and a must read. It was awarded the 2009 Miles Franklin Award (Winton’s fourth), beating out, among others, Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap.