‘Lady MacBeth’

lady_macbeth-431569675-largeSold into a stifling marriage by her parents, Katherine (a superbly scheming Florence Pugh – The Falling) is confronted with oppression and prejudice by husband and father-in-law alike. But a passionate encounter with the new hounds man sees a steely change in the newly wed.

A Victorian melodrama with a very definite contemporary twist as the female empowerment early in the narrative turns into something much darker. Renowned theatre and opera director William Oldroyd makes his film debut with this spare, expertly told narrative – and in less than 90 minutes!

Rating: 72%

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‘Bitter Fruit’ by Achmat Dangor

Bitter_Fruit_(Dangor_novel)Set in 1998 South Africa, just a few years after the end of apartheid and majority rule came into force, Bitter Fruit is a dense, harrowing drama of a disintegrating middle-class ‘coloured’ family. A chance sighting of former security policeman, Lieutenant Du Boise, stirs bitter memories of 20 years prior that have a devastating impact on the Ali family.

A cynical, embittered Silas Ali, approaching 50, a former ANC activist, now liaises between the Minister of Justice and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His wife, Lydia, ten years younger, is a nurse who, during the course of the novel, establishes her independence by becoming a significant player in the research of HIV transmission. Their highly intelligent, strikingly beautiful but increasingly troubled son, Mikey/Michael, loses his way, drops out of university and becomes involved with Muslim activists.

The marriage between Silas and Lydia is increasingly built on false premise – and the sighting of Du Boise brings it to a head: Lydia’s violent rape at the hands of the security forces, Silas’ inability to acknowledge or address events of that night. But there’s more, so much more, all of which goes unsaid and it is this bitter fruit that becomes so unbearable, open wounds so deep that the two have been in a state of limbo for 20 years.

Rape, incest, murder, alcoholism, divorce – the fruits of apartheid – past and present all feature in Bitter Fruit.

Through a series of incredibly well-drawn characters (the Ali family, Lydia’s extended family, friends and colleagues), we are provided with a powerful insight into the new South Africa and the “grey, shadowy morality” of an ANC government “bargaining, until there was nothing left to barter with, neither principle nor compromise”. And the political, cultural and religious conflicts that inevitably impact.

Yet it is the evolving family drama that remains centre stage throughout Bitter Fruit in spite of the political context – and it is the stronger for it. Mikey/Michael is a child of the new South Africa and he reflects on the failings of his parents’ generation. Silas has to come to terms with the new order – a place where elevated involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle has been replaced by a sense of ordinariness. And Lydia must face her past in order to move forward.

But in the same way family friend Julian accepts his wife Val leaving him and embraces his homosexuality (no bitter fruit there), the Alis need to look to change as Mandela looks to hand over the responsibility of power – in with the new, out with the old. Silas is soon likely to be out of a job – as are his colleagues Kate and Alec. Mikey/Michael leaves behind the sexual conquests of older, white women and looks to finding a personal resolution at the Griffith Street Mosque and the Sufis.

Bitter Fruit is a challenging read. But it is also an incredibly rewarding one. Nadine Gordimer, Andre Brink etc have provided the voices of white South African dissension, but Dangor’s novel helps provide a different perspective. The characters in Bitter Fruit ensure no one singular voice is presented, that a multifaceted account is provided, reflecting a modern day South Africa.

And, growing up in one of the ‘coloured’ townships of Johannesburg, witnessing first hand the violence, despair and injustice of an apartheid state before rising, via ANC activism, to head the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Achmat Dangor’s voice can be assumed to be genuine and authentic.

Bitter Fruit was shortlisted for the 2004 Booker Prize but lost out to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

‘Dunkirk’

dunkirk-posterOh, oh, oh. It’s visceral magnificence on screen. Grand gestures aplenty but the minutiae of wartime claustrophobia, fear and defeat balance this superb, emotional sweep of a film.

Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight) tells the true story of the rescue of 300,000 British, Belgian and French soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, surrounded by an advancing German army. It’s the flotilla of weekend sailors and fishermen (and women) who save the day as the navy destroyers are picked off by the German air force.

A true ensemble piece – Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy along with newcomers Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are just a few – that is a jigsaw of narratives of few words and which makes up the whole,  building to a rousing crescendo. Exhausting!

Rating: 89%

‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel

lifeofpiA young teenager afloat the Pacific Ocean in a 26-foot long boat with only a Bengal tiger for company: Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel, late of Pondicherry in Southern India, the only human survivor of the shipwreck of a cargo boat travelling to Canada.

Having sold the family zoo, the Patels are fleeing the corruption of India for a better life in the frozen wastes of North America. Aboard are a few of the animals bound for American institutions. Only they do not make it. A storm two days out of Manila sees the boat sink – and Pi along with an injured zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and Richard Parker, the tiger, survive.

But not for long. Hyena soon dispatches the zebra, quickly followed by the orang-utan. But Richard Parker dispenses with the hyena. Now tiger and boy establish an uneasy routine for survival.

Life of Pi is told in three sections (and precisely 100 ‘chapters’) with the middle section by far the longest and which details the extraordinary journey of 227 days aboard the lifeboat. It’s rich in explanation of Pi’s survival techniques and his gradual training of the tiger to enable the two to reach an uneasy truce.

Such a story inevitably pushes the boundaries of believability. But then Life of Pi is full of metaphor and symbolism. Born into a Hindu family, the intelligent and curious Pi adds Catholicism and Islam to his beliefs, seeking out answers to his questions of faith in Pondicherry prior to the family’s departure.

“A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me and left to germinate. It has never stopped growing since that day.”

Through him, Yann Martel finds harmonious common ground in the three religions. Through his fantasy adventure novel, Martel looks to encourage belief in the unbelievable – one of the major hurdles to faith and believing in God.

But an alternative is provided by Pi in the third and final section of the novel – the ‘human answer’ he gives to officials from the Japanese shipping agents, owners of the cargo boat. Pi’s mother becomes the orang-utan, an injured seaman the zebra, the crazed cook from the boat the hyena. Pi himself is Richard Parker.

The ‘truth’ of Pi’s story is of little concern – the issue is the reader’s preference. Interpretation is, of course, subjective and its intention here is theological reflection. Do you need concrete proof or can you take things on faith?

‘Everything was normal and then…?’

‘Normal sank.’

Life of Pi is unquestionably overwritten at times – the first section in particular left me frequently impatient with its descriptions and long-windedness. But, theological symbolism aside, life aboard the lifeboat is fascinating and engaging reading. And, oddly, verging on believable. There are a couple of significant exceptions – the floating island of acidic algae populated by millions of meerkats and meeting the alter ego, also adrift. But by then Pi had been alone for some 200 days so an element of madness is excusable (although these incidents did feel like excuses for Pi to descend into paroxysms of theological wonder and divinity. From the outset we are told that this is a story that will make you believe in God).

That particular objective failed to materialise in me personally but as a yarn set on the high seas, with the exception of that tendency to overwrite and slip into philosophical and theological musings, Life of Pi is an engaging read.

Yann Martel’s second published novel was awarded the 2002 Booker Prize.

‘Spiderman: Homecoming’

Spider-Man-Homecoming-poster-2-largeAn adolescent superhero within an adolescent storyline. The cheeky charm of Tom Holland (The Impossible, How I Live Now), introduced as Peter Parker in a cameo in last year’s Captain America: Civil War wears thin over the length of Jon Watts’ (Cop Car, Clown) first foray into the Marvel canon.

A predictable storyline (youth ignored by adults who therefore relies on his own wits to save the day) with a flat, uninvolving telling with little real excitement and only the occasional flashes of humour. That’s Spiderman: Homecoming.

Rating: 32%

‘Baby Driver’

baby-driver-posterPure unadulterated entertainment. It’s slick, fun, engaging with a fabulous soundtrack and an ubercool lead in Ansel Elgort as Baby (Insurgent, The Fault in Our Stars).

Nearly a decade as the getaway driver for crime boss Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, Horrible Bosses) closes in – but just because he’s paid his debt does not mean Baby can simply drive off into the sunset with new beau, Lily James (Cinderella, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). It’s a heist bound to fail – especially with pyscho Jamie Foxx and trigger happy husband and wife team, Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez in the vehicle.

Director Edgar Wright’s (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) narrative may not be original, but a surfeit of ideas, fun and sheer class make Baby Driver one of the best films of the year.

Rating: 83%

‘The Beguiled’

timthumb.phpA languid, Southern Gothic psychosexual potboiler as a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell – In Bruges, Miami Vice) turns up at a Virginia girls school at the height of the American civil war.

His arrival awakens sexual longing for the adult teachers left at the school (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) as well as kindles burgeoning sexuality among the girls (particularly Elle Fanning). Erotic, poetic, tense – the southern humidity is palpable in the enclosed, claustrophobic space of the girls’ privileged environment.

The Beguiled, seemingly more expertly teased than directed by Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation, Marie Antoinette), is a beautifully nuanced ensemble piece that, whilst at times a little slow, tells its visceral story with aplomb.

Rating: 73% 

‘A Quiet Passion’

a-quiet-passion-2016-posterA series of related tableau (some short and extremely witty) unfold the life of American poet Emily Dickinson.

The dialogue is quick fire passionate, the scenes stifling, claustrophobic and painterly with soft autumnal lighting, the performances arch with Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City‘s Miranda Hobbs) masterly as the poet, ably supported by Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty, TV’s Pride & Prejudice) as her sister.

But by its nature and subject (Dickinson rarely left the family home or, in later years, her rooms) A Quiet Passion is somewhat static. The glorious humour in the early part of the narrative peters out as an embittered Dickinson ages and her recognition as a poet fails to materialise. Writer/director Terence Davies (Sunset Song, The Deep Blue Sea) focuses on her inner demons, resulting in an austere, repressed telling of the poet and her family life.

Rating: 68%

‘Monsieur Chocolat’

MonChoc_A4posterWith an immense physicality and a most extraordinary smile, Omar Sy (The Intouchables, Jurassic World)  is one of the most expressive of actors. So he’s the perfect fit for Rafaela Padilla, the first black circus performer to conquer Belle Epoque Paris.

The rise and fall of Padilla as Monsieur Chocolat is told in a somewhat episodic, traditional biopic manner by director Roschdy Zem (Bad Faith, Omar Killed Me). Racism of the day along with gambling and drug abuse saw to his downfall but, along with Sy’s performance, the story itself is engaging.

 

Rating: 59%

‘The Clothes On Their Backs’ by Linda Grant

3992216There’s a simplicity and fluidity to Linda Grant’s fourth novel that imbues a slightly odd voyeurism – that as the reader, we are sitting watching events unfold rather reading about them, such is the power of her imagery and storytelling. But there’s nothing simple about her themes, that of identity and sense of belonging as Vivien Kovacs, daughter of post-war Hungarian Jewish refugees, tries to find her way in 1970s London.

Viven’s parents fled Budapest immediately before the war: so grateful to be taken in they barely disturb the air they breathe. They avoid contact with the outside world wherever possible and refuse to look back on their history – even with their only daughter, who is not made aware of the family religion until her teenage years.

It’s a lonely life for Vivien and much of the young girl’s discovery of the real world outside the Marylebone apartment is through the (mostly) ageing tenants of Benson Court – including the losing of her virginity at 17 to an artist living immediately below her parents.

But there is a family secret – Sandor Kovacs, the father’s older brother. He’s a persona non grata to Ervin and Berta, who go to great lengths to deny any contact or even mention his name: it’s not until her late teens that Vivien knows for certain she has an uncle and that he’s in London.

But there again, much of The Clothes On Their Backs is constructed on secrets, lies and altered truths. It’s through her uncle that Vivien finds out about her family history and the secrets her own father has kept from both his wife and his daughter. And it is this that fans the feud between the two brothers who are like chalk and cheese. But Vivien herself has taken on a different persona to secure this knowledge.

With the rise of the racist National Front movement unfolding in the background (potentially mirroring the political change in Europe in 1939/40 that so deeply impacted on the Kovacs brothers), Vivien comes to understand a little more about herself.

Sandor was imprisoned for 14 years as a slum landlord responsible for extortion and violence towards his tenants living in squalid living conditions – part of the reason why Ervin refuses to have any dealings with the only surviving member of his family. But it is counterbalanced by Sandor’s incarceration in the ‘Labour Army’ during the war, presenting a different side of Vivien’s uncle.

The Clothes On Their Backs is a complex novel, elegant and insightful, quietly and perceptively exploring loss, love, family ties and family feuds.

Shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize, Grant lost out to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger.