‘Killing Eve’

An unofficial fascination with presumed female assassins results in MI5 agent, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh – TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, American Crime), leading a covert MI6 team, headed by the highly irregular Fiona Shaw (Harry Potter, TV’s True Blood). A series of high profile deaths, seemingly unconnected, are believed to be linked to one operative – Villanelle (Jodie Comer – TV’s The White Princess, Doctor Foster).

Obsession leads to obsession as both Oh and Comer become inextricably linked over the three seasons as action switches from London to Moscow to Paris to Rome to Barcelona. They consume each other as deaths mount, leads fail to produce the desired results and Shaw’s loyalties are less than apparent.

It’s a gorgeously told series of narratives, visceral in appeal as the malevolent glamour and violence of Villanelle is balanced with the married ordinariness of Oh. Mordant wit abounds as the three women lock horns. Sadly, season three lost the edginess of the the first two seasons as a somewhat lost, ungrounded Eve drifts through the tracking down of the ever untouchable Villanelle.

Rating: 85% (seasons 1 & 2), 65% (season 3)

‘J’ by Howard Jacobson

A momentous catastrophe from the past shrouds an unconventional love story between two people, neither of whom ultimately knows who they actually are and where they came from. What Happened, If It Happened is of such dystopian magnitude that both Kevern and Ailinn survive in the small seaside town of Port Reuben where questions are rarely asked (and answers even rarer) and the past is just that – in the past. It’s a landscape where family histories have been erased, names changed, travel almost non-existent and undesirable art, music and books not banned – nothing was banned exactly – simply not played. Encouraged to fall into desuetude, like the word desuetude. Popular taste did what edict and proscription could never have done… Art is therefore landscape painting, books predominantly romances and cookbooks whilst jazz has almost disappeared.

Meeting and falling in love with Ailinn opens Kevern’s world to increasing scrutiny. But it also results in the pair increasingly scrutinised. In spite of being born in Port Reuben, Kevern remains an outsider where immediate histories are remembered; it’s a place where his father would never say the letter j, choosing to place two fingers to his lips; it’s a place where the two lovers find their lives more and more intolerable.

That’s essentially the linear plot of J. But J is anything but linear. Complex, non-linear, Orwellian, theoretical, philosophical interjected with Jacobson’s wit and exploration of Jewish identity slowly reveals the depth of What Happened, If It Happened. J may be the first letter of jazz. But it’s also the first letter of a word never mentioned in the novel. Yet the symbolism of What Happened, If It Happened is unavoidable.Whilst never discussed in detail and clouded in mystery, with a large number of the population doubting that it actually happened – it’s strongly implied that it was a massive pogrom, a second (or in the scope of Jacobson’s novel, first) Holocaust.

Although interspersed with humour, J is bleak and disquieting. And it’s no easy read – there’s more than a hint of Jacobson exploring the idea (perverse though it may sound) of the need for anti-Semitism: What Happened, If It Happened is a cyclical equipoise of hate. The deeply hidden sense of ‘other’ needs to be rooted out and allowed to flourish in order for it to start all over again.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize, Howard Jacobson lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

‘The Heiresses’

Involved in a relationship for more than 30 years, Chela (Ana Brun) suddenly finds herself alone as Chiquita (Margarita Irun) is imprisoned for fraud.

A slow-burn tale of love, loneliness and female sexual desire, The Heiresses is a beautifully nuanced character study as Chela comes to terms with the couple’s dwindling wealth and privilege in Paraguayan society. As crystal cut glassware and 19th century dining tables are sold, so Chela finds herself driving wealthy female neighbours to card games and funerals.

A languid, quietly-spoken Brun, barely off screen for the film’s 98 minute duration, collected the Silver Bear best actress award at the 2018 Berlinale for her debut role. The Heiresses is also the feature film debut of director Marcelo Martinessi. Both pull off their respective roles with experienced aplomb.

Rating: 64%

‘The Realm’

A thoroughly engaging Spanish political thriller as the lid is blown on the nefarious corruption of ‘The Party’ with a focus on the arrogant, regional president-in waiting, Antonio de la Tour (The Last Circus, A Twelve-Year Night).

As financial scandal after financial scandal hits the regional office, so Madrid HQ (and his local colleagues) looks to scapegoat de la Tour. But he’s not taking the rap alone, being only too aware that the corruption is far more widespread. Evidence is what he needs – and he’ll go to any lengths to uncover it – even travelling from Valencia to Andorra.

With its driving soundtrack, fast-paced incisive dialogue, strong performances and taut direction (Rodrigo Sorogoyen – Que Dios nos perdone, Stockholm), The Realm is a superior, tension-filled feature.

Rating: 73%

‘Billionaire Boys Club’

Weak scripting, a derivative telling of a ‘true’ story and a cast seemingly going through the motions results in Billionaire Boys Club (directed by James Cox – Wonderland, Straight As) missing the mark on essentially all fronts.

Privileged wealth gets behind brilliant financial analyst boy-from-the-valley schoolfriend, Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver, The Fault In Our Stars) to hustle enormous returns on investment. But the get-rich-quick Ponzi scheme scam goes pear-shaped as the boys lock horns with the more experienced financial hustler, Kevin Spacey (American Beauty, The Usual Suspects).

Rating: 36%

‘Blooms of Darkness’ by Ahron Appelfeld

At the age of eight, with the German invasion of Romania, Ahron Appelfeld was deported with his father to a work camp in the Ukraine. His mother was killed in the invasion. Separated from his father, Appelfeld escaped and survived by his wits for more than two years.

Regarded until his death in 2018 as fiction’s foremost chronicler of the Holocaust (Philip Roth), Appelfeld frequently revisited his own childhood experiences in his novels and short stories – and Blooms of Darkness is no different.

In an unnamed Ukrainian city, with Jews being randomly rounded up on a daily basis from the ghetto, 11 year-old Hugo is taken by his mother, at the dead of night, through the city sewers. Their destination is The Residence, home of childhood friend Marianna, who has agreed to hide the boy. At their separation, mother and child are destined never to see each other again.

Hugo is to the spend the next two years essentially living in the closet in Marianna’s room, a room where by night she entertains her (mostly German military) clients. With his father and uncle having disappeared months earlier, school friends sent in hiding to the mountains and the random violence towards Jews by both Germans and Ukrainians, Hugo has already learned not to ask but to listen instead to the silence between the words. And so it is with his early days in The Residence, where Marianna keeps to her promise, feeding him and sheltering the boy from harm.

Hidden away, Hugo invents a world filled with people of his past – his mother and friends Anna and Otto in particular. But Marianna’s daytime world slowly replaces this memory and, over time, the boy is seduced by the, to him, sensual world of perfumes, brandy and sexuality.

The Russian victory in the east over the fleeing German army after nearly two years of hiding brings with it unexpected concerns – Marianna (and all the other women in the brothel) is labelled a collaborator. As they flee the city into the mountains, roles are reversed and Hugo finds himself the protector.

Blooms of Darkness is a deeply moving novel, a deeply individual perspective of the Holocaust through the eyes of a child, a perspective away from the death camps. Loss and loneliness remains writ large as events beyond the boy’s understanding unfold around him. Returning to his home at the end of the novel, Hugo discovers that much is familiar and little has changed. Except the haunting absence of its pre-war residents. His parents’ pharmacy is a grocery, their home occupied.

The house stands where it always was. On the pleasant, broad balcony that looked onto the city hangs blue laundry. The windows on the side are bare, and people can be seen inside. The big chandelier in the living room still hangs from the ceiling. For a long time Hugo stands there and looks, and what he had felt upon arriving at the city centre now hits him with full force: the soul has fled from this precious place.

Published in 2006 in Hebrew, Blooms of Darkness was translated by Jeffrey M. Green and was awarded the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012.

‘All Is True’

After his Globe Theatre burns to the ground (1613), William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh – Dunkirk, Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit) returns to his Stratford home and to a family he has barely seen in 20 years.

A strained relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench – Skyfall, Shakespeare In Love), and two daughters eventually eases as the three women come to terms with Shakespeare’s return and a few home truths bubble to the surface.

Written by Ben Elton and solid direction by Branagh himself (Hamlet, Murder on the Orient Express), All Is True is a somewhat syrupy telling of the playwright’s last act, lensed through (symbolic) autumnal hues and littered with quotes from the Baird’s own writings (but then if you have Branagh, Dench and Ian McKellen at hand, hardly surprising!). It’s engaging in a small way – a period-piece family drama with some much needed zing provided by the sharp-tongued elder daughter, Judith (Kathryn Wilder – Murder on the Orient Express, Ready Player One).

Rating: 53%

‘Storyland’ by Catherine McKinnon

A series of five stories connected by place but with a separation of almost one thousand years, Storyland is the ambitious tale of a country, a continent, a history, a prophecy.

In 1796, young cabin-boy Will Martin finds himself on a proposed short journey of discovery – to find a fresh-water river believed to be a few miles down the coast from Port Jackson (modern-day Sydney). Travelling with (the non-fictional adventurers) Lieutenant Matthew Flinders and Mr George Bass, the two men and a boy find themselves on uncharted waters full of hope and adventure. A thousand years later, Nada is questioned of her survival from Frank, the gargantuan storm that has left most of Australia permanently underwater.

A woven tapestry of history and future, of hope, love, friendship and potential but simultaneously of violence, greed, misunderstanding and sadness. The brutality of ex-convict Hawker (1822) towards the indigenous aborigines is mirrored in Bel’s story (1998) where the (white) dealer in indigenous art is not only stealing from the artists, but is violent towards his girlfriend, Kristie, a distant relative of Mary and Lola (1900).

In telling and connecting the five stories (Storyland takes place around Lake Illawarra and modern day Wollongong), Catherine McKinnon has produced a haunting narrative of what was and what might be – a telling of the effect humankind has on the land and what might yet come with climate change. In its telling, she has chosen to focus on ordinary people – an interpretation of recorded events as seen from the perspective of Will Martin rather than Flinders himself: the half-sisters Lola and Mary, both of indigenous descent, faced with overt and covert racism in the running of their dairy farm: Nada and partner Ben’s despair in surviving the disease-ridden after-effects of the storm.

In its telling, McKinnon uses the dramatic technique of leaving the first four stories at a crucial moment before moving on to the next: she reverses the order of their conclusions, resulting in Will Martin’s adventure as both the first and last of her narrative. The result is that Storyland is a real page-turner.

Shortlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Award, Storyland lost out to Michelle de Kretser and The Life to Come.

‘The Northern Clemency’ by Philip Hensher

An epic tale of northern England in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Philip Hensher’s 700+ pages is a state-of-the-nation narrative with very little input by the very events determining that state of the nation. 

Opening in 1974 in a white-collar street in a white-collar suburb in the industrial city of Sheffield, The Northern Clemency primarily looks to the Glover family to drive its narrative, assisted by the newly arrived Sellers family, who have upped sticks from London and taken the unusual step of heading north. We follow these two families over the next 20 years.

It’s the time of massive social upheaval in Britain, the years of Thatcherism, privatisation, the yearlong miner’s strike. Yet, so little makes it to the pages of Hensher’s novel: and there’s even less analysis. Admittedly, Daniel (the eldest Glover child) eventually partners Helen, daughter of a miner: Tim (youngest Glover) is a Trotskyite activist who baits management-level Mr Glover (building society) and Mr Sellers (electricity board). But it’s all so extraordinarily superficial – even Helen’s father is a non-supporter of the strike, a very small minority of the National Union of Miners. What makes the lack of any commentary even more puzzling is the fact that the novel is set in Sheffield, one of the most politically militant anti-Thatcher cities at the time.

The result is that the disappointing The Northern Clemency reads like a script for a television soap opera made in the 1970s. There’s the occasional melodrama (Mrs Glover working part-time at a new, fancy florist that turns out to be laundering drug money and the subsequent court appearance years after she quit work: the stroke that poleaxes Mrs Sellers only a few months after her husband takes early retirement) and lots of minor, neighbourly events – births, deaths (but surprisingly no marriages) alongside friendships developed. And, as the northern industrial cities decline, so the kids mostly move out – London calls, as does Sydney for Sandra Glover. 

Adroit it may be (to keep the attention for 700+ pages, it must have something going for it) but it left me yearning for more and less at the same time. Less about fish pies, coronation chicken and mushroom vol au vents, more about the city of Sheffield, the people who lived there and the political machinations that led to the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of South Yorkshire. 

Like all good soap operas, The Northern Clemencygrabs superficial interest. But the reality is that, like soap operas, it ultimately has little value. Hensher has chosen to tell it as it is (or at least how he remembers it – he was bought up in Sheffield from the age of nine having moved there from London) but with no depth of analysis. Everything just is. The Glovers and the Sellers simply move through their lives, whether it’s the 1970s, the 80s or the 90s (Hensher chooses to place his narrative in the 70s and the 90s, with the back story of the 80s told retrospectively).

The Northern Clemencywas shortlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize but lost out to Aravind Adiga and The White Tiger.

‘Avengers: Endgame'(Marvel #21)

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (Captain America: Civil War, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), it’s a welcome sombre note to the Marvel proceedings, particularly after the wall-to-wall battles of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War.

After the defeat by Thanos (Josh Brolin) and destruction of half the world’s population, the surviving Avengers are (mostly) unsurprisingly resigned and introspective – even Iron Man himself (Robert Downey Junior) has settled into an idyllic familial rural lifestyle. But the sudden ‘spitting out’ of Ant Man (a very funny Paul Rudd) from the quantum realm changes everything.

It’s a fittingly gargantuan and fabulously grandiose conclusion of 21 Marvel films – but with its humour, pathos and not too much reliance on excessive battles, the result is Avengers: Endgame is suitably one of the best.

Nominated or 1 Oscar in 2020 (visual effects).

Rating: 62%