‘The Midwife’

the-midwife-posterA quiet study about friendship, family and shared histories, The Midwife is a subtle vehicle for two superb performances from Catherine Frot (Marguerite, The Page Turner) and Catherine Deneuve (Belle de jour, Indochina).

Frot is the midwife of the title, a lonely 50 year-old facing the closure of the clinic and her son moving out of home. And then, out-of-the-blue, she receives a phone call from the glamorous Beatrice Sobolevski, her father’s former mistress.

Nothing much happens over the next 120 minutes but we experience a rare chemistry as the uptight Frot comes to understand the motivations of the  hard-drinking, heavy-smoking older woman suddenly abandoning her father more than 30 years previously.

Rating: 61%

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‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally

268302“Schindler gave me my life, and I tried to give him immortality.” So spoke Poldek Pfefferbeg, a surviving Schindlerjuden and the man responsible for introducing Thomas Keneally to the extraordinary story of Oskar Schindler.

As a result of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film, Schindler’s List, many are already familiar with how Schindler saved some 1200 Polish Jews from the Auschwitz and Gross Rosen extermination camps in southern Poland during World War II.

A Sudeten German and industrialist, originally a member of Hitler’s National Socialist Party, Schindler was a hard-drinking womaniser who exuded charm and influence. It was opportunism and profit rather than anything significantly humanitarian that initially motivated him. With the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he acquired Emalia, the enamelware factory in Krakow that was to save the lives of so many. Using contacts and bribes, he built up the factory to include the making of armaments – a financial windfall but also key to its protection as the war dragged on.

Initially disillusioned, progressively more and more angered and disgusted with the inhumanity of Nazi policies towards the Krakow Jews, Schindler established, at great personal expense, protective factory policies for his ‘highly skilled workforce.’ He witnessed the cleansing of the Krakow ghetto and treatment of men, women and children alike. Thousands were murdered whilst those with the all-important work card were transferred to the Krakow-Plaszow work camp under the control of the monster, SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth (“When you saw Göth, you saw death.”).

Availability of land, diamonds and a great deal of luxury black market foodstuffs facilitated Schindler in the building of a camp for his inmates separate from Plaszow – with no SS guards allowed on the premises. At a time when starvation rations were doled out (Goth sold much of the camp supplies on the black market), Schindler purchased bread and chickens for his workforce.

He repeated the building of a camp at Brunnlitz, close to his birthplace of Zwittau, when, in July 1944 and with the threat of the Red Army, the Germans began to retreat west. Instead of incineration or the long death marches of the Final Solution, the Schindlerjuden found themselves in a second work camp in the Sudetenland foothills. The workforce survived, liberated by the Russians in 1945. As a member of the Nazi Party and Abwehr, Schindler risked execution but had already fled west.

Keneally’s novel, based on numerous eyewitness accounts, is a desperately moving testament to the horrors of Hitler’s attempted genocide of European and north African Jewry. The horrors of action are almost unimaginable – thousands of people killed daily, thousands others barely alive. But in telling Schindler’s story, Keneally focuses on the memories of the survivors and the fragility of that survival.

It’s a true story, a remarkable story of a remarkable man. Schindler wasn’t perfect – Schindler’s Ark is a reality of a man who was neither ”good” nor ”virtuous”. But he was humane, principled, charming and a chancer – for years he managed to make Göth believe they were friends, plying him with alcohol, cigars, foodstuffs to ensure the possible survival of a secretary or maid.

It’s a hard story to read. And not just emotionally of the mostly harrowing individual stories. In documenting the eye-witnesses accounts, there’s a great deal of detail which is important to the validity of the story but unfamiliar to German military titles, for example, can get very confusing (Oberführer, Oberstgrüppenführer, Hauptsturmführer, Standartenführer and more).

But, at its core, Schindler’s Ark, whilst diluted in impact 35 years after its writing, is an extraordinary achievement. It was awarded the 1982 Booker Prize.

‘The Snowman’

MV5BNDg1NjYyMTEyOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzY4MDMyMzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Detective Harry Hole is an iconic character in the novels of international best-selling Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, having featured in eleven of his books. This first transfer to film (starring Michael Fassbender – 12 Years A Slave, Prometheus) is unlikely to lead to a rush for more.

Sumptuous it may be, set as it is in the winter landscapes of Norway (cinematography courtesy of Oscar-winning Dion Beebe –  Memoirs of a Geisha, Collateral), but the film simply does not gel. In telling its story, whole chunks of the source material have been abandoned, with crucial plot and character development simply ignored.

Hole’s search for a serial killer should have been a dark psychological chiller of a thriller. Instead, it’s uninvolving, predictable and a waste of a seriously classy cast (J.K.Simmons, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rebecca Ferguson, Toby Jones, Val Kilmer). Not what was expected from Tomas Alfredson, director of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Let the Right One In.

Rating: 38%

‘Gaga: Five Foot Two’

 

lady-gagaA vulnerable Lady Gaga behind-the-scenes as this fly-on-the-wall documentary provides a voyeuristic insight into the preparation for her half-time Super Bowl gig.

But it’s not all music studios, dance barres and costume changes. It may well be carefully orchestrated but this is Lady Gaga unplugged, Stefani Germanotta at home with family, her insecurities, pain management of a stage injury and the release of her highly personal latest album, Joanne.

Director Chris Mourkabel (Banksy Does New York) gets up close and personal but Gaga: Five Foot Two would have benefitted from a little more judicious editing.

Rating: 60%

‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace

91uzpBVPonLA lyrical beauty of a novel, Jim Crace’s meditation on a quintessentially medieval rural England is elegiac yet powerful and politically resonant in today’s climate.

Social change is thrust upon a small isolated hamlet, two days ride from its nearest village, a place so insignificant that no church dominates its laneways. The arrival of a trio of outsiders is a catalyst to the complete breakdown within seven days of a way-of-life little changed in generations. In erecting four rough and ready walls as a shelter and lighting a fire on common ground, custom and law gives the strangers the right to stay.

Not that are particularly welcome – their arrival coincides with another fire – that of the dovecote and stables of Master Kent, the young, kindly lord of the manor.

Our narrator, Walter Thirsk, deduces who is to blame for that particular inferno. But as an outsider himself, resident only for 10 or so years, he keeps his views to himself. It’s not done apportioning blame on neighbours within such a close-knit community. The new arrivals are duly accused for the fire with the two men clapped in the stocks, the young woman shorn of hair.

Just seven days later, having celebrated the harvesting of the barley, Kent finds himself replaced as the local lord by a superior blood claim to his title by the cruel and ambitious Master Jordan; plans to replace the cropping of the land with the more economical farming of sheep are drawn up; one of the men clapped in the stocks is dead; accusations of witchcraft and murder see Jordan oversee trials by torture: superstitions and suspicion undermine community and family ties and, fearful of repercussions from Jordan and his henchmen, the population has fled, the hamlet abandoned. As the novel draws to its close, only Walter remains. Yet, in spite of having gained the trust of the new lord, he himself has no intention of staying.

Harvest is beautifully written. In spite of the level of events unfolding, this is no breathless potboiler. Crace is meticulous in his wording and phrasing – in its intimacy, his love of words and language is deeply apparent. He succeeds in transporting his reader to the hedgerows of the country lanes, the final evening celebrations of the harvest, the inhumanity of the stocks. It’s a paean to its way-of-life and the time when the sheaf is giving way to sheep, where subsistence agriculture was replaced by profitable wool production: the peasant farmers and communities were dispossessed and displaced. A contemporary resonance.

Jim Crace’s reportedly last novel was awarded the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize, but lost out to New Zealander Eleanor Catton and The Luminaries.

 

 

‘Blade Runner 2049’

915ff4b4db85b23edf4fb6396797800a--film-posters-blade-runnerWe’ve waited more than thirty years – and this visual stunner, cinematography courtesy of one of the very best in the business, Roger Deakins (Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption), makes it all so worth it.

It’s a beautifully crafted slow burn in which LAPD blade runner K (Ryan Gosling – La La Land, Drive) stumbles across a secret, the ramifications of which, for K’s boss (Robin Wright – State of Play, Forrest Gump) do not bear thinking about. It’s crucial that Deckard, missing for 30 years, be found. An older, slower Harrison Ford makes his return.

Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners) has moved the sci-fi aesthetic up a notch or two (and follows on from his Arrival) with this moody, cerebral spectacle.

Rating: 82%

‘Cat’s Eye’ by Margaret Atwood

catseyeFew authors can write about the everyday merged with significant life events in such an erudite, engaging manner as Canadian Margaret Atwood.

Successful painter Elaine Risley, on returning to Toronto for the first time in many years to attend a major retrospective of her work, reflects on her post-war childhood. But this is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. The fact is that I hate this city. I’ve hated it so long I can hardly remember feeling any other way about it…. I live [now] in British Columbia, which is as far away from Toronto as I could get without drowning.

Bitter memories crowd her thoughts as a peripatetic childhood travelling round Canada with her parents and brother comes to an end as the family move into a new Toronto suburb. Risley senior, an entomologist, has given up researching various bugs in their natural habitat and accepted a lecturing position.

New home, new school for the Risley kids. And Elaine suddenly discovers what’s defined as normal behaviour for a young suburban eight year-old girl. But a year of being best friends with Grace and Carol changes with the arrival of Cordelia.

The dynamics of the group shifts – in her innocence and lack of awareness of the ‘rules’, Elaine does not recognise the cruelty of the three. A psychological pattern of behaviour is established that is to profoundly affect her perceptions of relationships and her world. It is only years later that Elaine is able to come to terms with a level of understanding – and much of this understanding is achieved through her art. But even now, on her return to Toronto, Elaine still hopes (and partially needs) to see Cordelia and gain her approval – in spite of the fact it has been twenty/thirty or so years since the two ‘friends’ last met. “She wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends… I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.” But this mourning for her past – including contact with John, her first husband – wandering the changed city streets provides a level of closure.

Interestingly, for a story that revolves around the psychological bullying and mental abuse of a young girl, the unfolding of these events takes up a remarkably short part of Atwood’s novel. But it is the long-term impact that is explored. Years later, Elaine’s mother voices recognition of the cruelty of her friends, although she identifies Carol as the main perpetrator.

Cat’s Eye is a profoundly moving, exquisite character study, tender in the ebb and flow of its memories. Moderately happy, there is an air of melancholia around Elaine, although even she herself identifies that she is not always the victim. “It disturbs me to learn I have hurt someone unintentionally. I want all my hurts to be intentional.”

Margaret Atwood’s seventh novel (it followed The Handmaid’s Tale), Cat’s Eye was shortlisted for the 1989 Booker Prize but lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day.

 

 

‘Final Portrait’

fporAn uncanny likeness of the two leads to the characters they are playing and a beautifully modulated insight into the painting process itself within the artist’s studio are the highlights of actor Stanley Tucci’s debut foray into directing.

Tucci has chosen to restrict that process to the two weeks in 1964 it takes Alberto Giacometti (a nervous, full-of-energy but profoundly annoying Geoffrey Rush – Shine,  Pirates of the Caribbean) to paint the portrait of American writer, James Lord (a suitably waspish Armie Hammer – The Social Network, Nocturnal Animals).

The result is well-made but less-than-satisfying as the material (unlike Giacometti’s paint) is spread a little too thinly.

Rating: 54%

‘I Am Not Your Negro’

9780525434696“The history of America is the history of the Negro in America. And it’s not a pretty picture.”

A powerful, deeply personal account of race relations in the US based on author James Baldwin’s book, Remember This House, unfinished at the time of his death in 1987. Filmmaker Raoul Peck (Lumumba, Sometimes In April) envisions the book from the 30 pages of the manuscript using only Baldwin’s own words, drawn from his writings and televised interviews and speeches.

It’s an examination of past and present with Baldwin’s words ringing oh so very true in 2017 as they did 40-50 years ago when three of the writer’s friends, ‘activists’ Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were all assassinated.

Baldwin’s words resonate – with Peck, judicious snatches of contemporary news footage and a voiceover from Samuel L Jackson adding to the impact of this timely film.

Rating: 79%

‘The Dancer’

The-Dancer-posterLittle remembered Loie Fuller, toast of fin de siecle Folies Bergere, finds herself dealing with a very ambitious young American dancer – Isadora Duncan.

Some of the choreography (lots of diaphanous fabric, mirrors, clever lighting and Vivaldi played loud) is showily spectacular, innovative for its time. But overall the episodic biopic is strangely unengaging with a lack of clarity of events creating a somewhat incoherent storyline.

Soko (Augustine, In the Beginning) toughs it out as Loie whilst Johnny Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp (Planetarium, Tusk) is suitably ethereal (with a streak of malicious ambition) as Isadora.

Rating: 43%