‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme

A novel of extraordinary vitality, of beauty and cruelty, of passion and provocation, Keri Hulme’s debut is set in the harsh, isolated landscape of New Zealand’s South Island. Combining Maori myth and contemporary social attitudes, The Bone Peopleis a soaring yet relentless narrative of three unique characters and their relationship with each other.

A fiercely independent Kerewin, reclusive and virtually self-sufficient in her isolated tower, is an artist running away from her past. Joe is isolated in his recent grief with the sudden death of his wife and young son. And then there is Simon, an autistic child locked into his mute world, unofficially adopted by Joe, having been washed ashore during a terrible storm. Intelligent to the point of precociousness, Simon is a child who tries the patience of a saint: a petty thief with a fierce and almost uncontrollable anger that has landed him in trouble throughout his young life.

A reluctant bond forms between the tough-talking Kerewin and a feral Simon, leading to a gradual breakdown of the barriers she has erected to protect herself from her memories. A reliance evolves, a reliance that eventually encompasses Joe. But there are secrets of violence so shocking and distressing that a wedge pushes this alternative family unit apart.

Complex in its simplicity, The Bone People is, on the one hand, a sincere narrative of a country, a landscape, a culture, of love, death, friendship, abuse, relationships within its everyday. But it’s also a story of myth and fable, a metaphor of change as a European Simon clashes with the traditions of Maori Joe. Part Maori, part ‘Pakeha’ (a white New Zealander), it is Kerewin who represents the future, a hybrid unity of the two cultures.

For all its ambition, heightened sense of grandeur, poetic beauty and visceral, unrelenting violence, The Bone People sadly unravels towards the end as Hulme is seemingly driven by the sense of a utopian ending, a catharsis for all that has come before it and all that will follow. It all becomes a little too laboured and absurd. Which is a pity, as the first two thirds, whilst at times difficult to read, is a haunting narrative with its evocative language and deft storytelling.

Having been rejected by virtually every New Zealand publishing house, Keri Hulme was finally accepted by Spiral, the small feminist publishing house. The Bone People quickly sold its initial 2,000 print run, a pattern that continued and which led to exposure to the UK publishing world and, eventually, the Booker Prize panel. The Bone People was awarded the 1985 Booker Prize, beating such as luminaries as Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Peter Carey.

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‘Shoplifters’

An alternative family unit eking out a living in contemporary Japan through poorly paid contract work, shoplifting and bucking the system. Yet their compassion is such they take in a young girl found outside in the cold of winter.

The Palme d’Or winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Shoplifters is a deft, emotionally delicate feature from socially conscious filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father Like Son, I Wish).

A faultless cast (four adults, two children), a beautifully modulated script and unobtrusive direction allows the narrative to unfold to its devastating conclusion. Shoplifters is a charming gut-wrencher of a film – and one of the year’s best.

Rating: 88%

‘Peterloo’

Award-winning director Mike Leigh (Mr Turner, Happy-Go-Lucky) makes a rare foray into period drama, choosing to focus on the 1819 Peterloo Massacre.

It begins in rhetoric, shifts from a drawn-out history lesson and ends in violence as the government of the day uses the troops against the people, a peaceful 100,000 strong pro-democracy rally in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. The result is the death of 18 demonstrators and hundreds more injured.

It’s an austere canvas, with talk the order of the day, both in the parlours and inns of the reformers and the offices of the ruling classes. But then, on the big day itself, Leigh releases the tight reins of dialogue and produces an immersive panic, claustrophobic in content as the yeomanry and cavalry run amok in the confinements of the rally.

A superb ensemble piece (with Maxine Peake – Funny Cow, The Theory of Everythinga standout ‘everywoman’) that is as current today as 1819 when austere taxation measures and policies were in place to keep power in the hands of the few.

Rating: 67%

‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot’

Left as a quadriplegic following a car accident, alcoholic John Callahan discovers an unknown talent in the art of satirical cartoons.

Raw yet charismatic, Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, The Master) is the perfect fit for the complexities of an angry, cynical, addictive personality shot through with wry humour.

It’s a meandering biopic from director Gus Van Sant (Milk, My Own Private Idaho) from Callanan’s early, heavy drinking days through to finding some kind of personal redemption via support from his AA sponsor, wealthy gay Christian, Jonah Hill (War Dogs, Moneyball). 

Rating: 62%

‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’

Unassuming yet committed, Vivienne Westwood is an icon of rebellion over the last 40 years – and her fashion designs reflect her political leanings.

The face (along with former husband, Malcom McLaren) of 70s London punk, Westwood, at 77, continues to work, collaborating with her husband, Andreas Kronthaler. Along with her activism – climate change, civil rights, environment  – the main concern for Westwood is the integrity of brand: her label has become too big for her to control.

It’s a hotchpotch documentary – strong on the early history of punk and a fascinating insight into contemporary Westwood working closely with Kronthaler and the globally successful business. Sadly, the ‘activist’ aspect receives short shrift in Lorna Tucker’s film – to the point where Vivienne Westwood herself dismissed the film as ‘mediocre’. It’s more than that – but at a run time of only 80 minutes, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, there could have been a great deal more said.

Rating: 60%

‘Time’s Arrow’ by Martin Amis

What is the sequence of the journey I am on? What are its rules? Just a couple of questions asked early in Amis’ narrative by narrator Tod Friendly. The answer soon becomes apparent for the comfortable medical retiree living in the north-east of the US. 

That sequence is a life heading backwards. The narrative opens with Friendly surrounded by doctors at the moment of his death. This is the beginning of Time’s Arrowand the relatively short novel takes its reader through a disorienting reverse chronology. It’s Friendly’s consciousness or hindsight that tells the tale – unable to change the past but simply observe or occasionally comment.

That reversed version of reality sees people become younger (to the point where they return to the womb and cease to exist); relationships start with huge arguments, end with passion and are followed by a period of nothingness or cool distance; meals at restaurants begin with a payment; doctors create harm; taxi drivers are paid at the outset and provide such a service that time is spent at the end of the journey waving farewell. 

The telling of the story of Tod Friendly in such a manner is disconcerting – particularly as it soon becomes apparent that this is not his name and there’s a secret to his past to be kept just that – secret. But with its reverse chronology, Time’s Arrowsoon reveals Dr Odilo Unverdorben and his odious past in the Nazi death camps of the Third Reich.

The main problem with Time’s Arrowis that as a conceit, it simply becomes repetitive. A good-looking German doctor, having fled the concentration camps to escape to the US via Lisbon where he becomes a relatively successful medic but something of a failure in any long-term relationships with women. That’s the essential storyline. It’s surprisingly slight. But, told in reverse chronology, the cleverness, well told, the knowledge that street cleaners drop rubbish before good citizens collect it, becomes a gimmick and a clever writing exercise. And then there’s the experiments on Jews in the concentration camps that result in improvement in health prior to being sent home. Uncomfortable reading…

Time’s Arrowis Martin Amis’ only Booker Prize shortlisted novel and lost out to the 1991 winner, Ben Okri, and The Famished Road.

‘Widows’

WidowsWhat it lacks in tension, Widows more than makes up for in its depth of characterisation (no surprise there – it’s adapted (and directed) by Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave) along with novelist Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl).

A cerebral heist movie as four women, led by the indomitable Viola Davis (Fences, The Help), look to pay off the debt incurred by their dead husbands, killed in a shoot-out with the Chicago police. It’s tough, serious-minded – and feisty, with Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale) as a single-mom driver the stand out.

It’s slick, it’s current – and it’s unexpected.

Rating: 71%

‘The Seagull’

The_SeagullLively, enjoyable adaptation of Chekhov’s late 19th-century classic play with director Michael Mayer (A Home at the End of the World, Flicka) instilling a sense of urgency and energy into his terrific ensemble cast.

Failed hopes aplenty as vainglorious actress Arkadina (a splendidly stagey Annette Bening – American Beauty, Being Julia) dominates the country dacha of brother Sorin. An intimate portrayal of loves, losses and desires as Arkadina sees her lover Trigorin (Corey Stoll) become besotted by the much younger Nina (Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird, On Chesil Beach) whilst Elisabeth Moss (High Rise, TV’s The Handmaid’s Tale) and her desires for Konstantin (Irina’s son) go unrequited.

Purists may feel shortchanged as Chekhov’s tale is reduced to 99 minutes running time, but with its sense of dramatic intimacy, this particular The Seagull is pacey and accessible.

Rating; 66%

‘Wildlife’

Wildlife_film_posterBeautifully written and performed with a lot to admire, Paul Dano’s first attempt behind the camera is sadly somewhat dull.

It’s all text book stuff – the disintegration of a marriage as seen from the perspective of their young teenage son. Jake Gyllenhaal (Brokeback Mountain, Nightcrawler) is something of a dreamer, with long-suffering Carey Mulligan (An Education, Suffragette) trying to make the best of things as they move from house to house, state to state. Ed Oxenbould (The Visit, Paper Planes) looks on, bemused.

Static camerawork with an emphasis on 1960s mundane, the nuanced performances (particularly Mulligan) add weight to a minor drama that needed a little more emotional gravitas to help make a connection with its audience.

Rating: 54%

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Bohemian_Rhapsody_poster copyDirector Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects) has chosen to rush through the early days of the introduction of Freddie Mercury to the pub band Smile and their subsequent mega-success as the renamed Queen.

The result is engaging but strangely emotionally uninvolving, an episodic telling of Mercury’s distance from his family, love for Mary Austin and the clashes with band members, record company and management.

But, by slowly drawing the audience in and as Rami Malek (The Master, TV’s Mr Robot) grows into the role of the troubled star, there’s a moving finale of 30 minutes or so. A lonely Mercury finally recognises and accepts just who he is. And then Singer throws in a re-enactment of 10 minutes of one of the greatest live gigs in recorded history – Queen’s Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium in front of 100,000 people. Breathtaking.

Rating: 66%