‘Queen of the Desert’

qotd_posterA somewhat episodic telling of the fascinating story of Gertrude Bell, the Arabian explorer and adventurer who provided insight into the complexities of the region in the early 20th century.

Director Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu the Vampyre) has chosen to simply chronicle Bell’s story (competently played by Nicole Kidman – The Others, Moulin Rouge) resulting in a sumptuous but vapid sweep of the desert. And why focus on Bell’s relationship with men considering everything she achieved?

Rating: 35%

‘The Night Guest’ by Fiona McFarlane

9780143571339I have to be honest – I did not like this debut novel from Australian author, Fiona McFarlane.

Ruth, a 75 year-old widow living alone on the edge of an (unnamed) east coast town, wakes up early one morning convinced there’s a tiger in her house. Later that morning, Frida sent ‘from the government’ as her morning help, turns up wheeling a suitcase.

And there’s the fundamental problem. In spite of a few minor reservations, Ruth’s son Jeffrey, living in New Zealand, is relieved that his mother has a part-time carer, sent from the government. Yet Ruth, with husband Harry, a former lawyer, has retired to what was once the three-bedroomed family holiday home. There’s a Mercedes in the driveway and (we find out later), $700,000 in the bank from the sale of the Sydney home. Yet Ruth gets a carer sent by the government? We know exactly where this little story is going from about page five.

Frida certainly takes control – Ruth is undoubtedly becoming a little forgetful (she’s lived on her own for almost five years since the death of Harry). And The Night Guest balances the cusp of forgetfulness, uncertainty and suggestion (Frida admits later she lied constantly and consistently). As Ruth forgets (or seemingly forgets) more recent events, so late teenage memories of Fiji and life with her missionary parents become more prevalent.

The Night Guest does, in its writing, have a certain charm. And as the unreliable narrator, Ruth and her perceptions of events around her are not always reliable. This adds an element of suspense as the story unfolds – has Ruth simply forgotten things and is Frida acting for the good of her charge?

The Night Guest explores ageing, manipulation, dependence and trust with a dose of symbolism regarding the impact of unwanted colonialism in the name of beneficence (missionaries in Fiji, Frida in Ruth’s home). Ruth desperately wants to maintain her independence, Frida injects psychological manipulation to undermine and, ultimately, defraud her.

McFarlane writes delicately and with tenderness. She is commenting on the neglect of the elderly by absent family members and neighbours without overly apportioning blame. Yet, with the risk of being pedantic, I could not get past the ‘from the government’ lie that sets the whole thing in motion.

The Night Guest was shortlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Award – no mean feat for a debut novel considering the list featured previous winners Tim Winton and Alexis Wright as well as Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But they all lost out to Evie Wylde and All the Birds, Singing.

 

‘Snowden’

snowden-movie-posterA riveting piece of political whistleblowing that goes hand-in-hand with the 2014 documentary, Citizenfour.

Illegal covert surveillance programmes run by the NSA in collaboration with other intelligence agencies worldwide were exposed by one of their own – Edward Snowden. Played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises), the cyber expert’s backstory from military reject to the world’s most wanted man is told without the usual MTV-inspired flourishes associated with director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Wall Street). And it’s the better for it.

Rating: 73%

‘The Infiltrator’

infiltratorA focus on the relationships built in a major undercover Florida cocaine bust lifts director Brad Furman’s (The Lincoln Lawyer, Runner Runner) true-story adaptation above average.

Anchored by an empathic Bryan Cranston (Trumbo, Argo), The Infiltrator is a character-driven narrative whilst boasting plenty of action. At 127 minutes, it fairly zips along – and whilst it’s hardly challenging, The Infiltrator is an enjoyable crime drama. It’s also the perfect companion piece to 2014’s Kill the Messenger which blew the whistle on the CIA importing cocaine from Colombia.

Rating: 61%

‘Such a Long Journey’ by Rohinton Mistry

15sena3Eloquent and assured, after a slow start Such a Long Journey develops into a riveting narrative set in 1971 Bombay on the eve of the Indian-Pakistan war and the birth of an independent Bangladesh.

A gifted storyteller, Mistry focuses on ordinary people, introducing a gamut of characters centred round the Noble family and residents of the down-at-heel Khododad Building.

Patriarch Gustad, as his surname suggests, is a respected, upright, devoted father of three working at a local bank as a clerk. From a family of bankrupted wealth, educated Gustad is the man of reason amidst his neighbours and work colleagues. But he unwittingly becomes involved in fraud and dangerous political machinations when he receives a letter from an old friend.

Layers of story and symbolism, philosophy and political gossip, theology and superstition are woven together as Gustad works to keep his family out of the poverty trap and understand the potential repercussions of helping Major Jimmy ‘Billiboy’ Billimoria. But he is also dealing with the everyday politics of living in the compound, the unexplained illness of his 8 year-old daughter, Roshan, and the refusal by his eldest, Sohrab, to attend the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. As the rift between father and son widens, so Gustad’s wife Dilvanez turns to the help of old Miss Kutpitia and her remedies of lizards’ tails, toe nails and chillis.

Rich in detail, Such a Long Journey dwells momentarily on the poverty of Bombay neighbourhoods – the overcrowding, open sewers, fetid garbage, a chronic shortage of freshwater – before moving on to the corruption of the Indira Gandhi government or the cost of visiting a local GP. And always seen from the perspective of ‘everyman’ – primarily Gustad or his friend and bank colleague, Dinshawji: Such a Long Journey is a commentary, not an overtly political preach or exposition.

It’s a beautifully written amble of a journey, compelling in its telling, intricate in its composition. Like Gustad’s overnight train journey from Bombay to New Delhi, Such a Long Journey is crowded, full of energy with unexpected twists and turns which, quite simply, need to be dealt with.

There is an air of overhanging melancholia, a sense of powerlessness for the ordinary person in the street – whether it be a damning indictment of the Indira government and American foreign policy or the demolition of the wall protecting the Khododad compound by the local Municipality. But there’s also a sense of hope – the independence of Bangladesh, Miss Kutpitia finally free of her past.

Yet, ultimately, Such a Long Journey is Gustad’s journey. He loses Billimoria and Dinshawji, but he learns a great deal about himself and his family becomes stronger. And as a result, he becomes stronger.

His debut novel, Rohinton Mistry was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize but Such a Long Journey lost out to Ben Okri and The Famished Road.

‘Captain Fantastic’

timthumb-phpAn alternative upbringing living in the forests of the Pacific northwest or the suburban worldliness of New Mexico and the outside world?

Ben (a splendidly self-assured, arrogant yet warm and loving Viggo Mortensen  – The Lord of the Rings, A History of Violence) and his now deceased wife had no doubts: their six kids are home-schooled, hunt for their own food and live in splendid isolation. But Leslie’s funeral forces the family into suburban conflict.

Warm, feel good yet oddly disturbing. All the kids may be precociously intelligent but the eldest, Bo (George MacKay – Pride, How I Live Now) is a fish out of water when talking to girls of his own age: six year old Zaja may be able to (in her own words) provide a synopsis of the American Bill of Rights, but has Ben created a balanced, empathic family or has he formed a cult or is he guilty of child abuse? There’s no question where the sympathies of writer/director Matt Ross (28 Hotel Rooms) lie in this intelligent, enthralling tale.

Rating: 78%

‘Indignation’

indignation-movie-posterAdapted for the screen by Oscar-winning James Schamus (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Indignation is, like Philip Roth’s source novel, both wry and intelligent.

It’s a small, character-driven film (the directing debut of writer/producer Schamus) that addresses big themes. Logan Lerman (Fury, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is exemplary as a working-class Jewish student at a small Ohio college in 1951 confronting institutional racism. But Sarah Gadon (The Amazing Spiderman 2, Maps to the Stars) as a potential love interest adds glamour as well as highlighting changing attitudes towards sex and female sexuality.

Loved it – one of the best of the year so far.

Rating: 81%

‘Z For Zachariah’

z_for_zachariah_posterA ménage-a-trois in a post-nuclear world where civilisation has been largely destroyed.

But its dystopian setting is a stunningly beautiful mountainous valley of green pastures, where a deeply impressive Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad, The Wolf of Wall Street) has survived in rural isolation on the family farm. Her lonely idyl is interrupted by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave, The Martian): their idyl is interrupted by the arrival of Chris Pine (Star Trek, Hell Or High Waters).

Director Craig Zobel (Compliance) creates a patient, slow burn of a film in which the three characters admirably play out the evolving storyline.

Rating: 60%

‘Waterland’ by Graham Swift

waterlandA novel of contemporary England as well as a fascinating and succinct history of the vast, flat Fens of East Anglia, “a landscape which, of all landscapes, most approximated to Nothing.”

It is this primacy of concern for the importance of history that is central to Waterland.

 The narrator, Tom Crick, is Head of the History Department of a large, southeast London comprehensive school. Changing educational policies and concerns in the 1980s (when Waterland was written) sees a move towards subjects of more practical relevance than the ‘indulgence’ of history: Crick is taking enforced early retirement as the syllabus changes.

Yet Waterland is part personal history as he reflects on events as a young boy growing up in the Fens and the (fictional) town of Gildsey. It is the scepticism of one of his students of the relevance of history that results in Crick voicing his story.

But to understand the Fens in the 1940s is the need to understand 300 years of history and the challenge of the waterways on land largely below sea level. Through the backstory of Crick’s mother’s family – wealthy landowners and brewers fallen on hard times – we (and his history students) are introduced to the human settlement of the Fens and the impact of the shifting direction of its rivers and waterways.

Murder, incest, guilt, madness, the voice of God, illegitimacy and kidnapping raise their heads throughout Swift’s 1983 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel – yet, perversely, Waterland is an insidiously quietly paced narrative.

A cacophony of characters are introduced over its 300 plus pages: brewing entrepreneurs and landowners of the 18th century, bombastic politicians of the 19th century briefly make their appearance. This personal family narrative of Tom’s has wider historical significance but it is also specific to Tom growing up in a lockkeeper’s cottage aside sluice gates on the River Leem.

It is the discovery of the body of 10 year-old Freddie Parr, washed up against the sluice in 1943, which sets Waterland in motion. As American and British bombers drone overhead on their way to Hamburg or Berlin, the apparently accidental death of Tom’s school friend sets in motion a series of events, the repercussions of which haunt Tom for the rest of his life.

Freddie’s death unleashes questions, suspicions, accusations and further death as family secrets surface involving Tom’s mentally challenged older brother, Dick, their recently-deceased mother along with a long-dead grandfather.

Mixing his narration of personal family life with the prescribed syllabus subject of the French Revolution, Tom explores how the past leads to future consequences and therefore debunking the view history is bunk. He may be inappropriate for his 1980s history lessons, but Tom has nothing to lose. He’s been forced into retirement yet he’s teaching kids who are a generation fearful of nuclear warfare with its lack of a future. For Tom, history is relevant – it is a part of us and we are part of history. It shapes who we are.

Like the Fens waterways themselves, Waterland does not follow an orderly course. It’s non-linear, shifting telling of stories (an apparent family trait) provides different perspectives and vantage points of themes, families, events and landscapes. It is beautifully written. In its slightly crazed, non-chronological narrative, Swift’s novel does occasionally go off track. But that going off track can also produce some wonderful asides: the Freddie Parr schoolboy prank of throwing an eel down Mary’s knickers results in a fabulous 12 page foray into the history of the sex life of eels!

Regarded as his best, Graham Swift and Waterland was nominated for the 1983 Booker Prize, but lost out to J M Coetzee and Life and Times of Michael K. (Swift went on to win the prize with Last Orders in 1996).

 

 

‘Girl Asleep’

girl_asleep_film_poster_oct_2015As her 15th birthday approaches, Greta (Bethany Whitmore – Mental, Summer Coda) is reluctant to leave her childhood behind.

Betraying its stage origins, Girl Asleep struggles to adapt to the big screen. A mix of realism and surrealism, Where the Wild Things Are and Alice in Wonderland, the imaginative Australian indie film struggles to find cohesion. Shot in 4:3 ratio to reflect the daggy 70s setting, Girl Asleep is littered with contrived characters that fail to move the narrative forward in a convincing way.

As little as Girl Asleep did for me, it collected Best Australian Feature Film at the 2016 Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 42%