‘The Line of Beauty’ by Alan Hollinghurst

hollinghurstDivided into three sections, The Line of Beauty, winner of the 2004 Booker Prize, is a beautifully written but pompous novel of privilege, hypocrisy, loneliness and belonging.

Having recently graduated from Oxford, the good looking, middle class gay Nick Guest moves into the large, rambling Notting Hill home of the Feddens. Having befriended (and idolised) Toby Fedden at Oxford, Nick finds himself as a post-graduate at University College London and a lodger in the home of the new, highly ambitious MP, Gerald Fedden and his wife, Rachel, a wealthy heiress.

It’s 1983, the Tories under Margaret Thatcher have been returned to power with an increased majority and a new breed of politician sits in Parliament – ruthless and driven with the financial acumen of a banker or investor. Thrilling to Nick, Gerald Fedden epitomises this new approach.

But in spite of having the freedom of their home, Nick never really belongs. Toby is rarely there and when he is, somewhat distant. Nick finds himself drawn more and more to the troubled younger sister, Catherine (Cat), who is bipolar. It is to her he talks of his (fictional) Oxford sexual proclivities. It is to her he talks of his (factual) adventures with Leo, a man he meets through a Lonely Hearts advert. But Nick never feels confident or secure enough to introduce Leo (who is a few years older and black) to the Feddens and their home.

Part two of The Line of Beauty moves us forward three smug years. Nick remains in the Notting Hill home, but Leo is now history. Instead, he has taken up with the incredibly wealthy Wani Ouradi, an Oxford contemporary and the son of a rich Lebanese businessman. Ostensibly employed by Wani as consulting editor and artistic advisor to his company, 1986 is one of closeted excess – drugs, sex, alcohol: hedonistic indulgence taken to its limits.

The bubble bursts in part three. Just a year later and Wani is dying from AIDS. Nick has also discovered Leo died a few months earlier. A media scandal caused by the discovery of an affair between Gerald and Penny, his parliamentary secretary, and the link between him and Wani results in Nick being forced to move out of the Notting Hill house.

It’s a masterful book – one of many from Hollinghurst. His prose is beautiful. But it is also annoying – a florid, overtly descriptive style that can, at times, take forever to get to the point. The result is an overlong commentary of the indulgences and materialism of 1980s Thatcherite Britain.

But The Line of Beauty is no agit-prop novel or deep political analysis. That’s not Hollinghurst’s style. Instead, through surface glamour and an aura of Brideshead Revisited revisited, The Line of Beauty is the patina that covers the self-serving hypocrisy of privilege and Thatcherism.

Whether it be a line of cocaine, the double ‘S’ of the ogee curve or the curve of a man’s lower back, The Line of Beauty captures a time and place. From a naïve, relatively privileged Oxford graduate, Nick becomes someone who is at least aware of his surrounds. The stark reality for him, gay and poor amidst the materialistic and generally homophobic upper echelons of London society, is not promising. And punctuated throughout is the emerging threat of AIDS.

‘Eddie the Eagle’

eddie-the-eagle-movie-posterEntertaining if lightweight biopic of Michael ‘Eddie’ Edwards, a tenacious underdog and outsider who represented Britain at the 1998 Calgary Winter Olympics.

Edwards (Taron Egerton – Kingsman: The Secret Service, Legend) may have been placed last in both the 70 and 90 metre ski jump competition, but he charmed the world, epitomising  the ‘taking part rather than winning’ of the Olympic movement.

Rating: 53%


ramsA remote, windswept valley is the setting as two brothers, estranged for 40 years in spite of their farms sharing common boundaries, must come together to save their livelihoods – the sheep that graze the barren landscape.

It’s a quiet, quirky drama, the unfolding winter-set tragedy imbued with a dark humour. Director Grimur Hakonarson (Summerland, A Pure Heart) draws us into the brothers’ world – and their connection to the land and, importantly, with the sheep. Like the film itself, lead Sigurour Sigurjonsson, the elder of the two brothers, is an understated, nuanced presence that stays with you.

Rating: 64% 


Sherpa-347357340-largeIt’s a heartfelt tribute to those frequently forgotten – the Sherpas who do all the dangerous behind-the-scenes work to facilitate the wealthy mountaineers fulfil their dream of conquering the world’s tallest mountain.

Inevitably, Sherpa is awe-inspiring. How could it not be in one of the most dramatically beautiful places on earth? But it also has a story to tell and the daily dangers confronted by the guides. They traverse potentially lethal ice fields 20-30 times in one trip as they move supplies up and down the mountain (the ‘clients’ do it twice). But Sherpa was being filmed in April 2014 – on 18 April, a 14,000 ton ice block sheared away from the mountain, killing 16 Sherpas.

Australian director Jennifer Peedom (Miracle on Everest) revisits the Himalayas to see what is now a mass industry from the Sherpa perspective. It pulls no punches and firmly wears its heart on its sleeve. But, in doing so, Sherpa adopts a strangely singular mesmeric pace. The result is a moving story that becomes blandly told.

Rating: 51%

‘The Huntsman – Winter’s War’

The-Huntsman-Winters-War-Movie-Poster-Chris-HemsworthMore of a muddy thaw than a frozen wasteland, the prequel to Snow White & the Huntsman fills in the backstory of Eric (Chris Hemsworth – Rush, Thor) rather than the maiden herself.

A reported $10 million each was paid to Hemsworth and Charlize Theron (Monster, Mad Max: Fury Road) to revive their roles. As usual for this type of film, it’s pity the producers didn’t spend more on the script.

Covered in gold paint, Theron looks fantastic – pity that we took so long to get there via a boring, nondescript narrative of boy-to-man Eric in the court of the ice-queen Freya (a wasted Emily Blunt – Sicario, Edge of Tomorrow).

Debut feature director Cedric Nicholas-Trojan is way out of his league with this one.

Rating: 45%

‘The Colour of Blood’ by Brian Moore

28576Cardinal Stephan Bem’s task is a thankless one. In an unnamed eastern bloc country, the primate of its Catholic Church strives for a moral cohesion that will prevent the country being plunged into civil strife and possible invasion from its more powerful neighbours.

To the anti-communists, Bem has sold out to a repressive regime and its atheism: to the state police, the Cardinal is “a sworn enemy of socialism.” Neither side trusts him – and the rise of anti-State pamphleteering with more than a hint of Church involvement puts Bem, the Church and the country at risk. An attempt on his life swiftly followed by his kidnapping brings matters to a head and places the Catholic Church in direct opposition to president General Urban and his authoritarianism.

In its deceptively simplistic narrative and language, The Colour of Blood is a political thriller as well as a meditation on faith in the face of social adversity. Written at the time of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the role of the Church is questioned by Moore through the conservative musings of Bem. He has achieved a degree of compromise and self-determination for the Church – but to others, he should be fomenting open-rebellion.

Likely to have been more topical and moot at its 1987 publication – hence its shortlisting for the Booker Prize but losing out to Penelope Lively and Moon Tiger – Brian Moore’s short (187 pages) novel is something of a diversion. An entertaining and thoughtful diversion, but a diversion nevertheless.

‘The Lady in the Van’

v1.bTsxMTI3NjM0MTtqOzE3MDIxOzIwNDg7Mjc2NDs0MDk2An irascible, deadpan performance by Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) fails to save this dull whimsy of a film.

Based on a true story and playwright Alan Bennett’s ‘tenant’ of 15 years parked in his Camden driveway, such a rich source of material should have produced something so much more.

The imperious Smith is at her hauteur best – in spite of being reduced to the fundamentals of personal hygiene. But, in being introduced to a timid Bennett (convincingly played by Alex Jennings – The Queen, Belle) and several incredibly annoying, politically-correct neighbours, The Lady in the Van is a flat, glib, self-satisfied feature that simply meanders through its telling.

Rating: 35% 

‘Labyrinth of Lies’

v1.bTsxMTE5MjE3NjtqOzE3MDA1OzIwNDg7MjAyNTszMDAwIt’s an arresting storyline – set in the late 1950s, the (West) German denial of its immediate past and lack of any significant deNazification programme has kept a whole generation ignorant of war crimes and the Holocaust.

Aspiring (fictional) prosecutor Johann Radmann (well played by Alexander Fehling – Inglourious Basterds, Young Goethe in Love) stumbles across the lies, setting in motion the first wartime criminal murder trials (as opposed to war crimes) in West Germany of members of the German military by German authorities.

Sadly, whilst this important story needs to be told, Labyrinth of Lies, directed by Giulio Ricciarelli in his feature film debut, is a somewhat shallow, overly ‘clean’ telling that loses itself in the myriad of truths and half-truths of the investigations.

Rating: 48%

‘Eye in the Sky’

eits_digital_one_sheetIntelligent, informative, ice-cold thriller from director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Ender’s Game) as the moral imperative is questioned by politicians and the military alike.

An innocent child stands between a drone strike on a terrorist cell in Nairobi planning a series of suicide bombings. How much collateral damage is acceptable?

A superb ensemble of Brits and Americans play out the tension as the arguments for and against go backwards and forwards between governments. The late Alan Rickman (Harry Potter, Love Actually) is superb as the general having to discuss the point with liberal politicians, Helen Mirren (The Queen, Woman in Gold) as the frustrated colonel watching the satellite image clock tick and the opportunity fade.

Rating: 72%

‘The Eye of the Sheep’ by Sofie Laguna

9781743319598Winner of the 2015 Miles Franklin Award, Sofie Laguna’s bittersweet novel is imbued with a magical sense of ‘other’ but which is also firmly grounded in the daily lives of a working-class Melbourne family.

Six year-old Jimmy Flick is certainly different. And not everyone knows how to take him – including his dad. Yet the boy and his voice are exceptional and unique, a larrikin character somewhere on the (unspecified) autism/Asperger scale. His precocious insight and intelligence is beyond his years (and most of the adult characters around him).

It’s only his mother who understands Jimmy and connects with the boy whose excess energy seems out of control. School has given up on him, resulting in more and more indulged time with his mother and her love for cake. Ma is certainly struggling – overweight and asthmatic, she is surviving an abusive and violent marriage and finds solace in Agatha Christie murder mysteries and eating. A victim of an abusive father himself, Gav blames Jimmy for driving him to drink.

The Flick family world spirals even more out of control when Gav is laid off from the refinery and Robby, Jimmy’s elder brother, takes off for work on the fishing boats off the West Australian coast. Jimmy must now come to terms with change.

In Jimmy Flick, author Sofie Laguna has created a memorable, loveable yet incredibly astute child. The Eye of the Sheep is narrated through his voice and observations and comments are peppered with humour, pathos and child logic. But there is also an unexpected steely-edged determination to Jimmy as he is forced into a different world to the (ironically) safe haven of home and its known sense of order.

Considering its subject matter, The Eye of the Sheep is a surprisingly uplifting novel, in spite of the horrors Jimmy has to survive. In reality, the ending is a little too upbeat – whilst welcoming redemption, at the end of the day it comes across as a little too pat and contrived. Which is a pity as it undoes, to some extent, the impact of everything that had come before it.