‘Never Look Away’

A rambling, occasionally insightful and thoughtful but ultimately superficial exploration of art and life, Werk Ohne Autor (Work Without Author, a much more appropriate title) follows artist Kurt Barnert (loosely based on Gerhard Richter) from his Dresden childhood at the end of World War II, the social realism of the GDR to free expression in the west via the Dusseldorf Academy.

Haunted by the loss of his beloved young aunt under the Nazis, frustrated by the artistic restrictions of the east, confused in 1960s West Germany under the tutelage of a modernist professor (a thinly veiled fictional Joseph Beuys) and a bullying, interfering father-in-law, Barnert (Tom Schilling – Oh Boy, Crazy) plods on regardless. It’s all a bit of a slog (188 minutes!) that lacks the magic of director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s superb Oscar-winning The Lives of Others. But, having said that, with its seriousness of intent, Never Look Away remains readily watchable.

Nominated for 2 Oscars in 2019 – best foreign language film & cinematography.

Rating: 59%

‘Coal Creek’ by Alex Miller

Narrated by ex-stockman Bobby Blue, Coal Creek is a rich, evocative novel on the nature of loyalty, friendship and love. Tough yet poetic, hard yet delicate, Alex Miller’s eleventh novel is a powerful, simply told tale. 

An account of events some 15 years earlier when Bobby was just twenty years old, and conveyed in an ungrammatical local vernacular, his is a convincing voice, finding himself caught between loyalty towards his childhood friend, Ben Tobin, and his new boss.

Set in early 1950s Queensland and the isolated highlands of the hinterland, Mount Hay is cattle country with a small, residential population set in its ways. The arrival from the coast of the new constable, Daniel Collins, and his family leads to a simmering tension that ultimately ends in tragedy. 

With ideas and values learnt mainly from books and a war spent in a kill-or-be-killed New Guinea, Collins is a man who notes down everything, but, to the likes of Bobby and the other Mount Hay residents, ultimately sees nothing. 

“People like the Collins knew the city and the coast and they have another way of seeing things that was not our way of seeing things. The Collins wanted to know what they had no need to know…They was not bad people, just ignorant.”

Collins’ inability to read and understand his new environment results in three dead and lives changed forever. 

Having left the cattle station on the death of his father and the only way of life he knows, a laconic Bobby decides to try his luck as the off-sider to the new police constable. But Collins is the total opposite to his laidback predecessor. Struggling to understand the ways of the town, Collins invites Bobby to stay in a hut in the police compound. But the constable is not a man to listen or take guidance – and Bobby soon falls into a habit of silence. This lack of local knowledge leads to initial misunderstandings and, along with well-meaning but misplaced interventions by his ambitious wife, Esme, mistrust. Bobby Blue’s friend, Ben Tobin, becomes the focus of this mistrust.

Living a few miles out of Mount Hay in the isolated Coal Creek with a young aboriginal woman, Ben is ‘not a big man but he was strong and quick as a snake. He had his own breed of pony that was just like him, stocky and reliable on his feet.’ The victim of gossip led to the initial crossing of paths for Tobin and Collins. Convinced that revenge is on Tobin’s mind, goaded by Esme, Collins looks to deal with the ex-stockman. But, with the revelation of Bobby’s reciprocated interest in the Collins’ elder daughter, Irie, an abrupt and ruthless change in attitude from her parents towards Bobby results. It’s at this point Miller skilfully increases the tension. We already know things will take a turn for the worse – Bobby has throughout his tale told us. But we just do not know in what way.

On migrating to Australia in the 1950s as a 16 year-old, Miller himself settled in Queensland and worked as a farmhand and stockman. It’s a country he knows well – and it’s a country he beautifully captures in Coal Creek. Bobby’s knowledge is such that he can navigate the bush in the dark – there’s a personal, learnt knowledge sitting alongside an almost spiritual connection to the land. Collins cannot come anywhere near close: the difference between him and Bobby is as much the difference, as he recognises himself, between Bobby and the local indigenous population in terms of an intimate connection to the land.

Coal Creek is a lucid, haunting, tragic tale that was awarded the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Award for Literature – but which inexplicably failed to even make the Miles Franklin Award shortlist.

‘Wild Rose’

A raw, uncompromising performance by Jessie Buckley (Beast, TV’s Taboo) as wannabe successful country singer Rose-Lynn is the reason to see Wild Rose. Her attitude sucks but her voice soars as, fresh out of prison, she looks to her career rather than her two kids housed with gran (Julie Walters – Mamma Mia, Harry Potter) in a Glasgow council house.

It’s a feel-good movie as Rose-Lynn ultimately finds herself via a few home truths, the wealthy home of Sophie Okonedo (The Secret Life of Bees, Hotel Rwanda) and Nashville – but director Tom Harper (War Book, The Scouting Book for Boys) offers a mostly contrived little story of tearful redemption.

Great soundtrack though!

Rating: 60%

‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’

A confusingly claimed final instalment of the two-decade franchise, Dark Phoenix is something of a boring, anticlimactic mess.

The end of the prequels (set in the 1990s where the original X-Men first stepped in) sees a few changes to the storylines of future and past as Jean Grey (Sophie Turner – X-Men: Apocalypse, TV’s Game of Thrones) comes to terms with her mutation and a corrupting power that turns her into a Dark Phoenix. The rest of the team need to reach her before the alien Vuk (Jessica Chastain – The Help, Zero Dark Thirty) taps into that power and brings destruction to mankind.

James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult et al are all ever present as our favourite mutants – but in writer/director Simon Kinberg’s directorial debut, all have little input as Jean goes on the rampage, angered as she is by McAvoy and his blocking of her truth of the car-accident that killed her parents.

Rating: 40%

‘Extinctions’ by Josephine Wilson

The winner of the 2017 Miles Franklin Award is, to my mind, a novel of few merits, with its central protagonist, retiree Professor Fred Lothian, deeply repellent.

Fred is a man who, a recent widower, lives in a retirement village in suburban Perth in Western Australia. Whilst not exactly a recluse, he is an antisocial misery, consciously determined to be a grump. His two children are each in their own way lost to him. But then unexpected events around him force Fred to re-evaluate his values, identify his shortcomings and find some kind of redemption when the opportunity arises.

At least that’s what the writer would like us to think. But by then, it’s all a little too late and Fred’s redemption is too little, too late – certainly for his wife, Martha. No matter how many times the self-centred retired professor now recognises he should have helped chop the capsicums (a metaphor for a total lack of involvement in family life, preferring to close the home-office door to focus on his world-expertise in cement and concrete), their marriage, in the last few years, was not a happy one. Himself the scarred product of a dysfunctional Scottish family, Fred has contributed directly or indirectly to the destruction of his immediate family. Martha, it turns out, had an affair, Callum is confined to permanent care and his daughter Caroline, herself an academic, struggles with her own identity: she is indigenous, adopted as a young, abused child. Compounding her sense of uncertainty is the fact she is researching species extinction for a planned exhibition.

Past events of Fred’s life come to the fore as he faces the initially unwanted attention from Jan, his neighbour at the retirement village. Gregarious, Jan herself is involved in a family struggle as she looks to take on the legal guardianship of her five year-old grandson. It is she who forces the damaged Fred to address his past.

But why Extinctions? On one immediate level, it is only too apparent – Caroline’s forthcoming exhibition is an overt and obvious pointer. But there are so many strands to the concept – the end of the Lothian family line, the idea of the family unit itself, cultural loss et al. “In the end, all is allegory” reads the preface as relationships, knowledge, attitudes and emotions change, with Jan the catalyst. But so what? Very disappointing.

‘Red Joan’

An old-fashioned spy tale (based on a true story) as Judi Dench (Skyfall, Notes on a Scandal) is arrested for treason – some 50 years after the passing of nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Set predominately in the 1940s (the young Dench is nicely played by Sophie Cookson – Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Huntsman: Winter’s War), solid performances and an intriguing insight into the oft-overlooked role women played in wartime fail to mask a somewhat dull, inert and dreary telling. Cambridge University was a hotbed for leftwing politics in the 19Tereza Srbova30s and 40s, but a rare foray onto the silver screen by acclaimed stage director Trevor Nunn fails to bring one iota of spark to the intrigue.

Rating: 48%


The rise of Elton John into pop superstardom is a magical, visual fantasy of a musical biopic – with a stand out performance by Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Eddie the Eagle).

Addiction (alcohol, cocaine, sex) battles are writ large in director Dexter Fletcher’s (Sunshine on Leith, Eddie the Eagle) telling of the early days of success as a shy and withdrawn Reggie Dwight evolves into the flamboyant Elton John. And whilst there’s no claim for Rocketman to be a true telling, the solid foundation to the tale is provided by the long-term friendship with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell – Billy Elliot, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool).

Inevitable comparisons with last year’s Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody aside, a slow, family-life start in the outer London suburb of Pinner kicks into life with the screen arrival of Egerton. His look and mannerisms are uncanny, his singing excellent – and whilst Rocketman generally avoids providing any real depth to the man himself, it is entertainment with a capital E.

Winner of Best Song Oscar in 2020 – I’m Gonna Love Me Again written by Elton John & Bernie Taupin.

Rating: 65%