‘Last Flag Flying’

Last_Flag_FlyingA road trip with a difference, Richard Linklater’s (Boyhood, Before Sunset) sincere latest is off by a beat throughout – its humour, its drama, its warmth, its camaraderie.

Thirty years after Vietnam, Doc (a quietly dignified Steve Carell – Foxcatcher, The 40 Year-Old Virgin) reunites with Bryan Cranston (Trumbo, Argo) and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Man of Steel) to bury his son, killed in action in Iraq.

As they accompany the body across country, the men they were is slowly revealed through the patina of who they are now. But the connection between the three does not ring true and, as a result, the chamber-piece drama fails to ignite.

Rating: 54%

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‘The Great Fire’ by Shirley Hazzard

hazzardMuch lauded on its release, Shirley Hazzard’s dull The Great Fire is set immediately post-World War II.

It is ostensibly the story of Aldred Leith, a physically scarred British war hero who is sent to Japan (Nagasaki in particular) to research the impact of defeat on local and traditional culture. But, having spent considerable time in China, he’s also there to witness (for the British government) a China that is about to fall into the hands of Mao, when archaic iniquity was about to be swept away by the new juggernaut of the doctrinaire.

Whilst in Japan, Leith meets 17 year-old Helen, daughter of the crass and abrasive (Australian) camp commander and sister to Benedict, a youth dying from Friedreich’s ataxia. The three become close and, in spite of social barriers, Helen and Leith, 15 years her senior, fall in love.

Literary to the point of soporific, Hazzard’s writing is grave, old-fashioned and overly pretentious – Before dawn, as he slept, there had gushed out this emanation of an extreme (seppuku or Japanese ritual suicide). There is also the problem of the lack of any obvious storyline until the halfway point in the book. Up until then, The Great Fire is a series of vignettes as Leith travels backwards and forwards between Japan, China and Hong Kong. But colonialist through and through, The Great Fire introduces not local characters and experiences. Instead, the main talking point seems to be the standard of food served up at Government House in Hong Kong.

Twenty years in the writing, published in 2004, the pompous novel is littered with Aldreds, Bertrams, Benedicts with its language and sensibilities firmly entrenched in British mores of the 1940s. Hazzard herself was born in Sydney in 1931 into a diplomatic family and essentially left Australia by the time she was 16. Yet The Great Fire was awarded the 2004 Miles Franklin Award.

 

‘The Comfort of Strangers’ by Ian McEwan

comfortSpare, detached prose adds to the tension in McEwan’s enigmatic narrative. The question remains – just why did Colin and Mary return to the apartment they knew was fraught with danger?

In the unnamed Venice, the beautiful couple holiday. But this is no carefree period of desperate sightseeing and gastronomic pleasures.

For the two, together for seven years, it is an insular experience: sleeping late, talking, arguing, making love, spending only short periods away from the security of the hotel room. It is on one such occasion, leaving the hotel late, lost in the myriad of the city’s side streets, discovering restaurants closed, that they stumble across the charismatic Robert. It is a meeting that alters their futures and their destinies.

From the outset, there is a sense of foreboding. Colin and Mary knew each other as much as themselves, and their intimacy, rather like too many suitcases, was a matter of personal concern. They appear bored. And along comes Robert. No matter how threatening, no matter how much they do not want to see him (and, later, his overtly submissive wife, Caroline), opposites somehow attract. Mary and Colin are hooked and are drawn into his power and obsessions.

The Comfort of Strangers is a beautifully written (second) novel. But it is also a disturbing and chilling one. Sensibly, it is short (120 pages), stripped of description, emotive in unnerving suggestion.

Shortlisted for the 1981 Booker Prize, it lost out to Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children.

 

‘The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society’

guernsey_literary_and_potato_peel_pie_society_xlgIt may have an epic quality, so typical of British WWII period dramas, but the quirkily entitled The Guernsey & Potato Peel Pie Literary Society sadly fails to live up to expectations.

Overlong at 124 minutes, every passing moment is predictable – from the cloyingly annoying novelist Juliet Ashton (Lily James – Cinderella, Baby Driver) and her love affair with the fun but brash American, Glen Powell (Hidden Figures, The Expendables) through to her foray to Guernsey to find out more about the literary society and life under German occupation. And of course she meets her Heathcliff – the dark and broody Michiel Huisman (The Game of Thrones, The Age of Adaline).

It’s cosily well told (director Mike Newell – Four Weddings & a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) but a bit of passion and grubbiness would have been welcome (even the farm dirt looked as if it had been carefully applied).

Rating: 46%

‘Isle of Dogs’

IsleOfDogsFirstLookA visual treat from auteur Wes Anderson (Grand Hotel Budapest, Fantastic Mr Fox) in his latest stop-motion animation.

It’s quirky, humorous and wholly imaginative as young Akiri goes on an odyssey in search of his dog. Akiri’s guardian is the corrupt mayor of the Japanese city of Nagasaki – and it is he who has banished all dogs.

Beautifully crafted – and in spite of its seeming whimsy there’s a message lurking just beneath the surface.

Rating: 81%

‘The Map of Love’ by Ahdaf Soueif

map of loveAs with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s 1975 Booker Prize winning Heat and Dust, Ahdaf Soueif’s sweeping The Map of Love is a love story, a love story of place and time and two women separated by almost a century. Only this is the story of Egypt rather than India – and Soueif (unlike Jhabvala) is eviscerating in her criticism of early twentieth century British foreign policy – and the illegal ‘Veiled Protectorate’ of Egypt in particular.

Isabel arrives in Cairo from New York with a large antique trunk stuffed with journals, letters, newspaper cuttings, photographs – mementos of a grandmother she never knew. The young widowed Lady Anna Winterbourne arrived in Egypt in 1900 – and left eleven years later, widowed for the second time. In the interim, having dared marry a local, a politicised lawyer and landowner, Sharif Pasha al-Baroudi and bore him a daughter, she had been shunned by the English ruling classes.

It is Anna’s story that unfolds in an eloquent novel of subtlety, honesty and history, simultaneously exploring a more contemporary Egypt as Isabel looks into her grandmother’s narrative. The American has discovered cousins in Cairo – and Amal in particular – she never knew existed.

As the millennium approaches, it is a secular Amal who represents Egyptian society, a country fearful of religious fundamentalists and acts of terror against foreign tourists. It is the lonely Amal who becomes obsessed with the story of her great-aunt as she reads through the detailed journals and reads of her grandmother (Sharif’s sister, Layla – Anna’s dearest friend) and her father’s childhood.

Against a background of independence, imperialism and social injustices, The Map of Love mixes the personal and political to great affect – even if it occasionally slips into political grandstanding. It’s a grand sweep of a particular time in history – of western European countries carving up the globe for their own colonial advancement and the inevitable independence movements that quickly follow. But it’s also a story of social change and, ultimately, a love story – with the main character Egypt itself.

The Map of Love was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize but lost out to JM Coetzee and Disgrace.

‘Ready Player One’

readyplayeronePredominantly CGI, what it lacks in character development it more than makes up for in its upbeat, action-packed energy.

Unexpectedly immersive, Spielberg (Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark) lets his avatars play their quest to find the egg hidden in the reality game – and stop Ben Mendelssohn (Rogue One – A Star Wars Story, Darkest Hour) from creating a gaming monopoly in the real world.

It’s a visual spectacle, with enough grunge reality to provide respite as Tye Sheridan (Mud, X-Men Apocalypse) and Olivia Cooke (Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, The Limehouse Golem) find adventure and love. True, Spielberg avoids commentary on the darker elements of a world controlled by technocracy, but as a piece of escapist entertainment, there’s little faulting Ready Player One.

Rating: 66%

‘The Party’

The_Party_(2017_film)With its savage and mordant wit, this is a celebratory dinner party that goes terribly wrong – especially as the guests do not even get to sit down for the food!

Kristin Scott-Thomas (The English Patient, Darkest Hour) is celebrating a promotion – but she is more than upstaged by news from hubby Timothy Spall (Mr Turner, Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban). But there’s more to come – facilitating the splendid Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April, The Maze Runner) to indulge in deep cynicism and a wonderful turn of phrase.

Claustrophobic and smart, director Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson) instills a surprising sense of fun in this stagey chamber piece. And its short at just 70 minutes!

Rating: 68%

‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry

secret scriptureA lyrical account of centenarian Roseanne McNulty’s life in rural Ireland, The Secret Scripture is both compelling and enlightening.

Long time resident of Roscommon mental hospital, Roseanne’s testimony of life prior to incarceration is interweaved with that of psychiatrist, Dr Grene. The old, decrepit Victorian hospital is soon to be demolished. With fewer available beds in the new building, Grene is to determine which patients can be released into the community.

Grene is particularly intrigued by Roseanne’s case. Like many of the older patients under his care, the origins of her confinement are questionable, not helped by records having been destroyed by fire twenty years earlier. Sensitive to the known facts contained within remaining official reports (infanticide, nymphomania (!), adultery) and her age, Grene treads lightly with his questioning. But, unknown to the doctor, she is secretly writing her own recollections.

Ireland’s malignant history is ever present in Barry’s writing – and The Secret Scripture is no different. The young Roseanne was a great beauty but as a Presbyterian living in Catholic Ireland in the 1920s, she was confronted with militant Irish nationalism and sectarianism, incurable enmities and the loss of innocence and joy. Even her marriage to Tom McNulty was short-lived and tragic, a victim of the power of the Irish Catholic Church. Father Gaunt (later Bishop) is a symbol of the perversion and bigotry of the church at that time over the lives and the moral judgements of its flock. Morality has its own civil wars, with its own victims in their own time and place.

It’s a heart-rending story, a work of fiction exploring memory and its effect on history and truth. Barry himself throws in the question of just how much of Roseanne’s narrative is truthful. No one has the monopoly on truth… Not even myself, and that is a vexing and worrying thought. And her recollections certainly vary from those official reports. But truth (at least in part) is Grene’s responsibility: or at least a different version. The one thing that is fatal in the reading of impromptu history is a wrongful desire for accuracy. There is no such thing.

 And Grene certainly reveals an unexpected new truth at the end of The Secret Scripture.

 It’s lucid and slow-paced, even though Roseanne’s story is livid and urgent. Barry’s descriptive prose is poetic yet accessible, his commentary on this period of Irish history vivid but humane. The Secret Scripture was Sebastian Barry’s second Booker Prize shortlisting (A Long Long Way was the first in 2004), but it lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.

 

‘A Quiet Place’

quiet_place_xlgHusband and wife team John Kranski (13 Hours, TV’s The Office) and Emily Blunt (Sicario, The Devil Wears Prada) play a convincing husband and wife in this post-apocalyptic survival story.

No explanations as to why and where from (and the stronger for it) – all we know is that ‘they’ are blind but respond to the slightest sound, ending in an immediate and gory death. We start at day 95 and end at day 460-something. In the interim, Kranski and Blunt and two of their kids have constructed a life of virtual silence on their farm, surviving in hiding and in a state of constant dread.

It’s that claustrophobic quiet that creates a deep sense of foreboding and fear – but the strength of A Quiet Place is the balance of horror with a genuine family drama.

Rating: 71%