‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry

61yx2cz9dml-_sl1231_-1In my mind, one of the finest novels ever written – a sensitive, humane yet deeply political commentary on the India of the 1970s during the government-declared State of Emergency along with the accompanying levels of corruption and abuses of power. Sobering, devastating yet deeply haunting, A Fine Balance may be a fiction, but it’s not made up.

Central to Mistry’s narrative are four individuals whose lives become deeply entwined, all poor and surviving (just) on the edges. It is through Dina, Maneck Ishvar and his nephew, Om, in both their current connected lives and separate backstories that the panoramic sweep of the decade moves forward.

Their histories are all tragic yet seemingly commonplace in a desperately poor country of close on half a billion people.

Having escaped her overbearing and expectant brother and married for love, Dina finds herself widowed after just three years. Only the common sense of retaining the tiny, dingy, rent-controlled apartment in central Bombay prevents her from returning to a life of benevolent slavery to Nawaz, his wife and two young sons.

Struggling financially over the years, she takes to renting out her bedroom to Maneck, a student and son of a former school friend. His family has fallen on hard times. Living in the Himalayan foothills, owning extensive lands, the stroke of a British colonial pen placed the family holdings on the wrong side of a border. Only the General Store remains. The advent of tarmacked new roads, tourism and multinationals are the death-knell for small family-run businesses: his father pushes Maneck into looking beyond the shop for his future.

But the saddest histories belong to Ishvar and Om, victims of a caste system deeply rooted in social inequity and injustice. Untouchables in their village, the two are forced into a life of destitution following the public murder of their extended family at the hands of the local head honcho.

The four become unlikely companions and friends as they eventually find themselves living in the Bombay flat.

Initially, Dina employs Ishvar and Om as tailors. But their frequent unexplained absences make her suspicious of their commitment and motivation: it’s only a quiet word here and there from Maneck that balances her sentiment and prejudice. Yet it is in these moments of ‘absence’ that the true horrors of the State of Emergency are revealed – the rounding up of beggars and enforced slave labour schemes, the demolition of shantytowns through the Beautification Scheme, the rampant corruption at all levels. And it is those at that bottom that suffer every time.

Ishvar and Om are constant victims – they lose their mud and corrugated iron shantytown home: they’re forced to attend a prime ministerial rally with hundreds of thousands of others on the edge of town: they find themselves enslaved in a quarry for ‘food’ and lodging. They have no choices – the two are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re two of the millions born poor and therefore voiceless.

Yet, at times, in spite of the trials and travails, the four also manage to find some happiness. It takes a while in coming – similar in age, Maneck and Om become firm friends: Ishvar is a benevolent, indulgent uncle. A panicked Dina, desperate to avoid turning to her brother, is the thorn in the side. But her loneliness and exposure to others’ sufferings soften Dina’s attitude towards her employees.

But the horrors of injustice are never far away and A Fine Balance is full of apprehension – nothing good lasts forever (or, here, for very long). The narrative continues unabated.

Names may not be named (even Bombay is only ever referred to as the City by the Sea) but the corruption of Indira Gandhi’s power-hungry regime and the inexplicable actions carried out in her name are captured in Mistry’s second novel. It’s 600 plus pages of the ugliness of human behaviour when power is presented or provided. But it’s also 600 pages of a deeply humane story of enduring and surviving, living or dying, of human endurance. A fine balance. And one of the finest novels ever written.

Inexplicably, whilst shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, it lost out to Graham Swift’s good but not as memorable Last Orders.  

‘Berlin Syndrome’

5qBg9GxoCA8qu48iWp1obK5pBHsA sinister story of obsession, Australian director Cate Shortland’s (Somersault, Lore) latest is a tense thriller where backpacker Clare’s (Teresa Palmer – Hackshaw Ridge, Warm Bodies) one night stand sees her locked in the Berlin apartment of school teacher Andi (Max Riemelt – Free Fall, Before the Fall).

But Berlin Syndrome is no schlock bad guy/good guy shocker. Shortland’s skill, in building tension, is to create an element of sympathy for both characters. Andi’s grief at the death of his father is genuine, as is the continued terror felt by Clare as her imprisonment extends by weeks.

Shortland oozes confidence in (sadly) only her third feature film in 12 years in this stylish thriller/drama.

Rating: 66% 

‘Personal Shopper’

personal-shopper-posterAs a spiritual medium, Maureen (Kristen Stewart – Twilight, Clouds of Sils Maria) refuses to leave Paris until her recently deceased twin brother gives her a sign. To help pay the rent, she takes on the role of personal shopper for high-profile super model, Kyra. Maureen finds herself embroiled in a little more than trips to Chanel and Cartier.

The latest from Olvier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, Something in the Air) is measured yet something of a mess, unsure of where to position itself. Ghost story? Kitchen-sink drama (albeit in the fashion houses of Paris)? Rites of passage? Thriller? All take precedence at certain stages of the proceedings – ensuring Personal Shopper never gets boring but is far from satisfying.

Rating: 54%  

‘Ghost in the Shell’

ghostinshellposterThe Hollywood whitewashing controversy casts a huge shadow on Rupert Sanders’ (Snow White and the Huntsman) adaptation of Shirow Masamune’s classic Japanese Manga. And understandably so. Casting Scarlett Johansson (The Avengers, Lost in Translation) as lead in a story and setting so overtly futuristically Asian (an amalgam of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai) makes absolutely no sense.

Advanced cyber enhancement in a world of technology has made Johansson the perfect killing machine: she’s there to rid the world of criminals and terrorists. But glitches and flashbacks are causing problems.

Ghost in the Shell looks stunning – effects, music, design. But content is sadly hit-and-miss, overly reliant on the heavy computer-generated imagery telling a heard-it-all-before storyline.

Rating: 35%

 

‘Denial’

denial_movie_poster_p_2016Solid performances from Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener, The Mummy) and Timothy Spall (Turner, Harry Potter) and a script by pre-eminent British playwright David Hare make Denial a worthy but wordy treatment of a true court case.

Historian and renowned denier David Irving sues American academic Deborah E Lipstadt for libel – and by doing so forces her to prove that the Holocaust took place.

Director Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard, Volcano), with somewhat pedestrian treatment, deflates what was incendiary headlines in the UK (and the rest of the world) back in 1996.

 Rating: 55%

‘A Man Called Ove’

A_Man_Called_Ove.pngSome 85 films were submitted for consideration for the 2017 best foreign language Oscar. Sweden’s entry, A Man Called Ove, made the final shortlist of five before losing out to Iran’s The Salesman. The other 80 must have been appalling if the Hannes Holm-helmed dramedy was seen as one of the best of the year (Julieta, Elle, Neruda, My Life as a Zucchini are just a few that failed to make that final five).

Lonely, grumpy widower Rolf Lassgard (After the Wedding, The Hunters) learns to smile again after a new family moves into the neighbourhood. Off-kilter humour early on gives way to crowd pleasing tosh, resulting in disjointed comedic sentimentality. Deeply unimpressed.

Rating: 31%

 

‘On Beauty’ by Zadie Smith

OnBeautybookcoverOn second reading, Zadie Smith’s acerbic third novel, On Beauty, fails to make any real emotional impact.

Essentially the story of two feuding families in the rarefied atmosphere of academia and a (fictional) New England university just outside Boston, On Beauty is contrived and predictable, populated with a host of generally unlikeable characters.

Set in London, Smith’s first book, White Teeth, was full of life – street-wise sass, larger-than-life characters, snappy dialogue. To some extent she has attempted to replicate the sass and savvy with the Belsey family – and in 52 year-old Kiki (wife and mother), an African-American woman from Florida and “a solid two hundred and fifty pounds [with a] beautiful tough girl face”, Smith has succeeded.

But sadly Kiki operates in a vacuum. Husband Howard is an untenured lecturer and art historian at Wellington College, a stereotypical liberal, shambolic academic. He may love his wife and three teenage kids (in his own way), but he is out of touch with the world around him and unable to communicate effectively with family, colleagues or students. A recently revealed (albeit short-lived) affair has certainly strained the usually rambling and boisterous Belsey family home.

The news that Monty Kipps, a black conservative professor and Howard’s nemesis as both art historian and humanitarian, has been offered a secondment at Wellington sends the Belseys into a tailspin. Howard, due to a lack of focus and commitment, has repeatedly failed to deliver his book on Rembrandt. An arrogant and foppish Monty has recently had published his own book on Rembrandt to critical acclaim.

Characters come and go throughout On Beauty. Howard fails to prevent Monty moving to Wellington – and to cap it all, the Kipps family move into a house not so far from the Belseys. Against the grain, Kiki becomes friends with Carlene Kipps – although this relationship is more than a little strained. Lonely and rarely in the company of her husband, Carlene is something of an ‘academia widow’ as far as Kiki is concerned. But Carlene has her own secret she choses not to share with family or friends. Her oddness and vagueness is later revealed when the secret proves to be a terminal cancer.

So much for the adults (throw into the mix various academic peers – the beatnik female poet, Claire; Erskine – Head of Black Studies and Howard’s best friend; the tiresome and longwinded Dean).

On the teenage front, Zora Belsey is precociously and arrogantly academic, an opinionated activist admired rather than liked by her peers and teachers at Wellington. She is very much ‘her father’s daughter.’ Jerome, the eldest Belsey child, is sensitive and intelligent, choosing to study at Brown University rather than stay at home. Much to the dismay of his parents, Jerome has recently found God and the Church. Levi is the odd child out – the youngest with an aversion to study but an interest in Rap, Hip-Hop and ‘street’. A chance encounter results in him becoming involved in the Haitian cause.

In the Kipps family home remains only 18 year-old Victoria (her brother Michael choses to stay in London). She is sexually active and uses her beauty to her advantage, especially as a new student at Wellington.

All characters meet and clash – Zora’s relationship with Victoria mirrors that of their fathers; Monty is suspicious of Kiki’s motives towards Carlene. Both Howard and Jerome have encounters with Victoria.

But there’s just too much ‘chance’ or ‘serendipity’ in On Beauty. The Kipps and the Belseys both ‘happen’ to be in London at the same time to enable them all to attend a funeral: Levi ‘happens’ to become interested in the Haitian cause just as the Kippses arrive in Wellington – both Monty and Carlene are from Haiti. External student Chantelle, intern to Monty, ‘happens’ to work part-time at the same record megastore as Levi. It’s all a little too convenient, structured to enable the episodic narrative to progress.

Yet, in spite of the negativity towards On Beauty, there were a number of high points – and the last few pages, the culmination of all that had gone before them, were as good as anything Smith has written (at least in the other books of hers I have read). The title ‘On Beauty’ comes from a poem – Smith comments, throughout, on different perceptions of beauty. Skin deep comes to mind as, throughout, the hypocrisy of opinion and action becomes more and more prevalent. The two patriarchs are (predictably) proven to be the biggest hypocrites. But they are certainly not the only ones.

All the characters are struggling beneath the weight of personal expectations placed upon them. Added to which Smith explores the dynamics of race and gender in contemporary America through what is essentially a domestic drama against the backdrop of academia. But On Beauty feels as if Smith is also struggling under that weight – the critical disappointment to her sophomore novel, The Autograph Man, after the raves bestowed on White Teeth.

Interestingly, On Beauty was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize (it lost out to the execrable The Sea by John Banville) – an achievement that outstripped the multi-award winning White Teeth in 2000.

 

 

‘Land of Mine’

under_sandetOscar-nominated Danish film, Land of Mine is the riveting story of a group of young German POWs forced to clear a beach of thousands of buried landmines.

Based on true events where thousands of (mostly teenage) German POWs lost their lives in the immediate months following the end of World War II clearing landmines, director Martin Zandvliet (Applause, Teddy Bear) focuses on a small group under the watch of an angry Danish sergeant (Roland Moller – A Hijacking, Northwest).

Avoiding excess melodrama or grandstanding, the stark economy of dialogue and action result in concern for each of the boys whilst understanding the anger of the Danes towards what they represent. Beautifully photographed with understated performances, Land of Mine is a deeply moving anti-war film full of chilling suspense.

Rating: 82%

‘T2: Trainspotting’

Trainspotting2_TSR_A4posterImmensely entertaining sequel – 20 years in the waiting – to the iconic Trainspotting.

Renton (Ewan McGregor – Star Wars, Moulin Rouge) is back having nicked £16,000 drugs money from his best mates at the end of the original. Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller – TV’s Elementary) and Ewen Bremner (Snowpiercer, Exodus) are angry – but get over it. But not Begbie (Robert Carlyle – The Full Monty, 28 Weeks Later). Unfortunately for Renton, the psychotic killer has a long memory – and just happens to have escaped from prison.

Stylish, thrilling, funny, sad, with director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) returning to the highs and lows of the first, injecting an inevitable maturity but without, sensibly, trying to compete or emulate that earlier achievement.

Rating: 75%